A lot of things change when you have your first baby, including your experience of going to church.
For the most part babies are easy to soothe and you will be able to pray during Mass. Then one day your sweet, easy to soothe baby at church turns into a toddler.
The toddler prefers to be moving continually throughout all of Mass, and she does not quite grasp the concept of a whisper. Sometimes she throws herself across the pew and announces loudly, “I AM A FISH!” Other times she repeats, “Donuts? Donuts?” for the entire hour. All the time you are either pacing in back, struggling in the pew, or resigned to sitting in the cry room. And you ask yourself, what happened to praying at church?
Well, have no fear! Here are a few ideas to help you learn how to pray while tending to toddlers at Mass:
[See also: 18 Signs You Might Have A LOT of Kids]
1) Don’t stress about the quality of your prayer
Prayer is different now that you have a toddler to take care of. You are not going to be able to kneel with your eyes closed focusing on every word.
But you can be mindful of what is happening in the liturgy, and work on being calm. If you were called to contemplative prayer at every Mass, then you would not be taking care of a toddler.
2) Practice putting yourself in the presence of God throughout your day
St. Francis de Sales in The Introduction to the Devout Life gives very practical tips for prayer. One of the things he recommends, which is particularly adaptable to the lay life, is to recall your mind to the presence of God throughout the day. He says to frequently “retire into the solitude of your heart, even whilst you are externally occupied in business or society,” and that “this mental solitude need not be hindered though many persons are around you, for they do but surround your body, not your heart, which should remain alone in the presence of God.”
When you are stressed, internally place yourself in God’s presence. When you are washing dishes or cooking dinner, place yourself in God’s presence. When you are stuck in traffic and running late, place yourself in God’s presence.
Learning to put yourself in the presence of God, even while surrounded by screaming children, will greatly increase your ability to pray at Mass with a toddler.
3) Take time for quiet prayer outside of Mass
Finding time for prayer while parenting a toddler is difficult, but fortunately they need more sleep than we do. Taking even 10 minutes a day to focus on quiet, mental prayer, will bring you closer to God and make it easier to pray when you are not in quiet solitude. Prayer books like St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life or Fr. Michael Gaitley’s Consoling the Heart of Jesus are a good way to learn how to develop a simple and focused life of prayer.
The more you pray outside of your weekly obligation of church, the better, and less frustrating, praying at Mass will be.
4) Participation does not mean the same thing for everybody
As a parent of a toddler, you quickly realize that the way you are to participate in Mass is much different than the way people with no or grown kids are to participate. You may not always get to stand when everyone else stands, you may be standing and pacing when everyone else is sitting or kneeling, or you may spend huge chunks of Mass outside the church doors, in the bathroom, or in the basement keeping your child from disrupting all of Mass.
What matters is that you are still there. The Lord knows that you are there and that you are trying. He also knows why you are not always in the pew in deep, contemplative prayer. He gave you this toddler, and He knows.
5) The Mass will go on
The best thing we can learn from taking a toddler to Mass is that the liturgy does not require us to pray as best we can every week. The liturgy needs to the priest to say the prayers and a server to aid the priest and say responses, but if some of the Body of Christ needs to live their vocation to parenthood, even at Mass, it does not keep the liturgy or the Sacrifice from happening.
So, just do your best, dear parents of toddlers. One day the toddlers will be quiet and grown, but for now, don’t sweat it. Your part of the Body of Christ is to be there with your child.