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Recently, a young woman came to Mass pushing a huge double baby carriage. In it were three children, all very young. The twin girls were in the two seats, one in the front and one in the back. They looked to be perhaps eighteen months old. A slightly older child, another girl, rode in the carriage’s little bin in the back of the stroller. The woman’s fourth child, an older girl of about six, walked beside her.
The whole lot found a seat at the back of the church, in a pew that was behind the main row of pews.
These separate pews against the wall are often populated by what we might call “marginalized” people. A fellow with Tourette syndrome always sits back there, and it is where we usually sit, every week — set apart from the rest of the rows of churchgoers — because our son Tommy, who has autism, can become anxious when he feels crowded by too many people.
As the Mass proceeded, I peeked over and examined the family, and was impressed. The four children were exceptionally well behaved. They sat quietly in the stroller, or in the pew, and seemed to understand the sacredness of the occasion.
Then, I noticed that the little one in the front seat of the stroller wasn’t wearing shoes. It was the middle of October! My eyebrows went up, and I began to judge the woman. Bad mother; no shoes on the kids.
I couldn’t stop myself from staring. When Tommy was little, I had always gone out of my way to make a good impression: his shoes were polished; he was appropriately dressed, with hair trimmed and face washed.
As I continued to pay more attention to this mother’s negligence than the Mass, I remembered being in a store, once, with Tommy. He was about ten months old and had a very bad cold. His nose was running. Heavily. I didn’t have any tissue. A clerk in the store gave me the dirtiest look, and I felt like I could read her thoughts: How could I let the mucus drip down my child’s face like that? Why didn’t I go into the public restroom and procure some toilet paper to solve the problem? Bad mother; not wiping that kid’s messy nose.
It’s so easy to judge. But when we are judging, we are forgetting how hard life is, sometimes, and how none of us can have it together every second of every day.
Around communion, I saw the mother putting pink tennis shoes on the girl in the front of the stroller. I realized the child had wanted them off, and now this attentive mother was putting them back on.
So I learned my lesson that week. Don’t judge.
The next week I saw the woman again. This time, the three little children were clad in bright plaid, pink bunny pajamas complete with feet. Instead of looking down on the whole group, I smiled and admitted to myself that this woman had moxie. She didn’t care what the precious churchgoing folk thought about her and her kids; she just wanted to get to Mass.
In my head, I became a champion for this lady, deciding that I really liked her. Even if kids had messy hair, not one of those babies made a peep.
She was, I now judged, a great mother.
And then I saw her. The older lady in the mainstream pew in front of us. She was well-dressed, with her makeup carefully applied, and she would not stop staring at the lady with the kids, and the huge stroller. Staring and shaking her head and sneering in judgment.
So, of course, I began to judge her! Had this lady forgotten how hard it is to raise kids, let along four of them under the age of six? Had she even been a mother in the dark ages of her past?
I started shaking my head too, because it was driving me crazy. She wouldn’t stop staring at, and judging, that young family. And I couldn’t stop staring at, and judging, her.
And then it hit me: being judgmental is an awful cycle.
For all I knew, someone in another pew could have been judging me — and noticing how I couldn’t stop staring at the older woman, as she stared at the younger one.
I had to soften my heart. I had no right to judge the lady who was staring. She had her issues, and I had mine. And neither of us was focusing on what mattered.
After Mass, I saw the lady with the stroller and said to her, “I am so impressed that you bring your children to church.”
“Thank you,” she said. “They’re very well-behaved. I figure why not.”
And then she was off. She obviously didn’t need my approval.
The lesson learned? At times we are confronted in life with individuals or groups of people who are a little different than the norm.
God tells us to love them like ourselves. Even when we can see that some of the people we have to love, are not loving others, at all.
We’re all in this together.
I thank God for his revelations. They get me through the day.
Laura Yeager’s spiritual essays have appeared at Liguorian magazine, Canticle magazine, empowher.com and writersweekly.com. She has an essay coming out at Busted Halo, and in March 2016, one of her religious stories will be appearing at Guideposts magazine. Laura teaches online creative writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and composition at Kent State University. PsychCentral.com hired her as a mental health blogger in December 2015.