The Pope's emphasis on family has got me thinking. It seemed, at first, like his message was mainly things I already know: the family is the seat of earthly love, it was through the family that God brought His Son into the world, the strength of society depends on the strength of families, and so on. 

But he is the  pope, so I listened carefully anyway, and I realized that he's telling us more than what families in general are supposed to be like. He's telling us about our specific families. He's reminding us to focus on the actual people in front of us. This is why he's always urging us to do simple things like to say "please," "thank you," and "I'm sorry," and to try to make peace before going to bed at night. Family issues are always personal and specific; and we run into trouble when we forget that. 

It's surprisingly easy to lose sight of this need to keep your family relations personal. One especially subtle trap that ensares 21st century parents, especially moms? Making our families into our brands -- whether we actually have anything to sell or not. Social media and various user-friendly digital tools make it very easy for us to create a version of our family which is  . . . well, whatever we want it to be. Choose a font and a background, make an album, come up with a catchy title, and there's your family in a nutshell.

But even a family that is nuts doesn't fit into a nutshell. Families are too complicated for that.

Now, this is not one of those "show us your warts!" essays.  There is nothing wrong with putting out best faces forward. It's normal to preserve memories of our happiest times -- when we're on vacation, when we're all dressed nicely, when we're celebrating or enjoying each other's company. There's something to be said for keeping dirty laundry private. 

But what I've noticed is that moms, especially, tend to want to define exactly what kind of family they are, and it goes beyond simple prioritizing -- beyond simply deciding that we value healthy eating, homeschooling or public schooling, feminism, geekiness, wackniness, homesteading, edginess, bookishness, or whatever is what our family is all about.

After a certain point, we may find that we're not just doing what we enjoy doing, or what we're especially good at: after a certain point, we may find ourselves actually promoting our families, making ourselves into a brand. (Even "keeping it real" can become a "brand" after a while, if we're relentless about presenting ourselves to the world as the realest real family around!)

What's so bad about this? Once we are in the habit of branding and promoting ourselves, it's very hard not to feel like we have to do whatever it takes to keep that brand consistent and interesting; and this is often the opposite of what the real, specific, changeable, needy people we're actually living with actually need from us. 

Do you ever find yourself posting a photo of your family which is technically accurate, because it is a photograph, but which tells a story about your family which is almost never true in real life?  Or do you find yourself deciding not to post a photo, even though there's nothing wrong with it, because it doesn't fit into the overall image you've been trying to assemble? Do you notice yourself quoting or photographing some of your kids much more often than others, because that one kid represents the particular kind of awesomeness that you want to be associated with, and the other kids . . . not so much?

Do you want or need to make some change in your family life, but you feel like you'll be betraying your community of like-minded families? Do you ever find yourself thinking that you can't ask for help -- even that you can't confess some sin to your well-known parish priest -- because everyone thinks you're such-and-such kind of family, and if they knew the truth, they'd lose hope in humanity?

These are signs that you're turning your family into a brand.  To counteract this tendency, we should deliberately take breaks from documenting our families, and simply be with them. Have some fun without taking pictures. Watch a movie and don't review it. Make a recipe and don't share it with anyone besides the people who are actually eating it. Laugh at a joke together, and leave it at that.

It's possible I've written this entire post only for my own benefit; but I don't think I'm the only one who needs the reminder. Raising a family shouldn't be a matter of putting together a certain type of package. It should be more like reaching out to each other in our journey toward Christ, and being too busy holding on to each other to consider what we look like while we're holding on.