Tea, giggles and teaching my daughter the feminine genius

I was 20 years old when I began using oral contraception.  About to be married and unsure of how pregnancy and children ought to fit with Holy Matrimony, I did what most women my age did: I went to the university health clinic, saw a doctor who spoke nary a word about the ensuing side-effects or possible long-term health complications, and procured a prescription for the birth control pill.

Unfortunate as my story is, it’s also anything but uncommon.  Countless women in my generation have spent some amount of time utilizing hormonal contraception, and a fair number of us have suffered for it, too.  I wasn’t Catholic back then but I am now, and I’m determined to pave a better way for my daughter.

At eleven years old, she’s slipping ever so slowly out of little-girlhood, and moving closer and closer to young womanhood.  And like any Catholic mother, I want her to grow to fully embrace her beauty and dignity as a woman, to feel empowered and comfortable with her body, and to have an overwhelmingly positive self-image.  She’s made in the image of God, after all.  I want her to marvel at the work of God in her life, and to understand her identity and preciousness in Christ.

So on Saturday, my daughter and I snuck away to a Mother Daughter Tea hosted at Holy Name Catholic Parish, in Sheridan, Colorado.  The event was organized by Carrie Keating, Certified FertilityCare Practitioner of the Creighton Model of NFP, who described the event as a way “for young girls to learn about health, beauty and virtue as they become women. Moms need more spiritual, medical and practical resources to help them.”

We arrived to find tables set with fresh flowers and white linens, and a rosary waited at each girl’s seat.  Music played in the background, and each of the participants received a folder containing relevant, thoughtful information.  Later there would be scones and jam, tea sandwiches, and the opportunity for the girls to make a craft while the moms listened to a presentation on the facts about contraception, delivered by a local Catholic doctor.

By the time Maye Agama and Cara Rhyne, consecrated laywomen with the Marian Community of Reconciliation, had opened the day with their talk about Our Blessed Mother, the tables were overflowing with thirty young girls and their mothers.  When I asked Carrie later why she felt it was important to include both mothers and daughters in the day’s activities, she responded that “at the ages of 10-12 there is an openness to hearing this information, and an opportunity for mothers to gather together to mentor their daughters.”  I couldn’t agree more.  As mothers we want to supply our daughters with the truth about themselves and about the world, but it’s an admittedly daunting task.  In a day and age where there is so much confusion and ambiguity surrounding gender identity–and womanhood in particular–we need the support of our faith community.  We need to encourage our daughters to embrace the strength of their femininity.  And every single one of Saturday’s thoughtful details served to do just that.

During the course of the tea we also heard from an enthusiastic Kim Perez about Blessed Pope John Paul II and the feminine genius, and Carrie Keating explained cycles and charting in a way that was accessible to young girls.  Then I confess that I had to keep myself from clapping and cheering, as Catholic physician Michelle Stanford asked us to have an open mind before detailing the significant medical problems and risks associated with oral contraception, not least of which is its abortifacient effect.  This was information I wish I’d had all those years ago, and which I believe is essential for all mothers to know—according to Dr. Stanford, by the time our daughters and their peers reach the age of 24, 82% of them will be using some type of hormonal contraception.  And not only that, but 25% of adolescent girls currently have a prescription!

There was room for giggling (lots and lots of giggling) during Lynn Grandon’s candid and ebullient presentation on the physical changes these girls will experience during their transition into womanhood.  If my daughter hadn’t been feeling confident and empowered about puberty before, she certainly is now.  To see this information presented within the context of who God created my daughter to be, with both humor and straightforward honesty, was unbelievably refreshing.  Best of all, it has begun a delightfully open and constructive conversation between my daughter and I, to be enjoyed for many years to come.

Back when I was a new bride coming from a non-Catholic background, I hadn’t yet connected the dots between how God created my body, and who God intended for me to be as a woman.  I speak from experience when I say that my marriage and my life are both so much better for having rejected the birth control pill, and since embracing an openness to life through Natural Family Planning.  It’s exciting to consider that, with the help of Jesus and Our Blessed Mother, I can now pass these incredibly beautiful truths on to my own children.  And I can say without reservation that we need more events like this, with faith communities coming alongside mothers and fathers to support them in this mission.

Armed with her new rosary, fresh and inspiring knowledge, and a pretty bag she’d been gifted with that morning (containing things like candy, and girly hand sanitizer), my daughter stepped out into the sunshine.  There was a confident, happy smile on her face.  She was beyond delighted to be a girl, and a beloved daughter of God.

Speaking as a Catholic mother to a Catholic daughter on the precipice of womanhood, I can’t imagine hoping for anything more than that.

Carrie Keating wanted me to tell you that this event  “was generously hosted by Holy Name Catholic Parish. Of the 21 moms who filled out the evaluation at the September 12 event, 20 of them would definitely recommend the Mother Daughter Tea to a friend. For those interested in hosting a Mother Daughter Tea, please go to www.mdtea.us.”

Brianna Heldt is a Catholic writer, speaker, and podcaster.  Her work has appeared in various print and online publications, and she has been a featured guest on BBC radio.  Adult converts to the Catholic Church, Brianna and her husband are parents to eight children–four by birth, and four by adoption.  They make their home in Denver, Colorado.  You can keep up with Brianna’s adventures on her personal blog, found at www.briannaheldt.com

COMING UP: Strong temptations? Defeat them like the Desert Fathers

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The fact that we don’t do what we want but instead do what we hate is a problem as old as our first parents. Yet, we can interpret temptation either as that which is always keeping us away from God or as the very vehicle to grow closer to him.

The Desert Fathers believed it to be a necessary vehicle: “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven,” St. Anthony of the Desert used to say. They saw the fight against these evil enticements as a step to love God in a deeper way.

Here’s how these radical followers of Christ – who fled to the Egyptian desert during the 3rd to 5th centuries to live a form of daily martyrdom in a land where being a Christian was no longer a risk – survived the strongest enticements of the flesh and the devil, as they sought to live out the Gospel and grow in perfection.

The sayings, teachings, maxims and stories they left behind, compiled and known as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, show that a combination of three things: self-awareness, prayer and practicality, are key to battling the strongest disordered passions.

Alertness and action

“The early monks understood that temptations often come in the form of thoughts. We become attracted and have fantasies, whether that be in petty things, bodily appetites or social interactions,” explained Father Columba Stewart, O.S.B., expert on early monasticism, scholar and director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

The first disposition they considered to be key, was self-awareness, “knowing what happens in our minds and hearts… how to recognize [bad thoughts] before we actually do a sinful action,” he said.

After this base, which requires continuous self-examination and attention to the inner impulses of the heart, the importance of prayer and practicality follow.

A hermit of the desert said to a young monk suffering from strong temptations, “This is the way to be strong: when temptations start to speak in your mind do not answer them but get up, pray, do penance, and say, ‘Son of God, have mercy upon me.’”

Prayer is not isolated from action. The hermit tells him to “get up,” “do penance” and “pray.”

Practicality can take on different forms, such as going in the opposite direction of the temptation or seeking help from another, Father Stewart pointed out.

“For example, when you’re angry with someone… thoughts of anger start emerging, and you replay in your imagination what made you angry. Then that turns into a mental video of how you’re going to get revenge. This is when self-awareness comes in and you realize that the thoughts you’re having are inappropriate,” Father Stewart said.

A first practical action would be to step away instead of going to find that person, he continued. “Then to use your mind and imagination to instead remember the times when your relationship [with that person] was better or think about the future and how great it will be when this passes.”

Light overcomes darkness

Also, this “get up” practicality consists in bringing to light one’s sins or temptations to someone else and not fighting alone.

“A common exhortation, attributed to many different monks, was that the Enemy, the devil, rejoices in nothing so much as unmanifested thoughts… A sin which is hidden begins to multiply,” Father Stewart wrote in an article.

He then explained that “If the devil was delighted by a monk’s self-imposed isolation, surely this was because the opposite of isolation, encounter with another, was the way to salvation.”

According to Father Stewart, this understanding led the Fathers to break from “the illusion of self-sufficiency, a pose which encourages self-absorption,” and find spiritual fathers.

“The desert tradition is universally insistent upon the young monk’s need for a discerning elder,” he explained. “The basic insight of the desert… was that one cannot grow towards perfection through isolated, solitary effort: grace is mediated through one’s neighbor, especially one’s abba [spiritual father].”

The way these early hermits fought temptations is one of many treasures that Father Stewart says they left behind. In fact, he encourages readers to look at the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as a source that is still “amazingly relevant.”

“[The Sayings of the Desert Fathers] have been very popular sources of wisdom and inspiration throughout history,” he said. “What sets [them] apart… is that they speak from and to experience rather than text or theory.”

“The tradition of Christian wisdom is great,” he concluded. “People only need to know where to find it.”