Embrace the Ordinary – Holy Week

Holy week is anything but ordinary. It is the most beautiful and powerful week of the year.



“…there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.” St. Josemaria Escriva, Passionately Loving the World

I found myself trying to explain its magnitude to my children so many times, hoping that they are understanding at least a little bit of it. I think they do. We went to the Good Friday Mass last night for the first time, which was haunting and lovely. At the point of the Mass when we kneel and stand repeatedly during prayers for various people and groups, the deacon chanted “Let us kneel” for the third or fourth time, and Sis loudly said, “He keeps doing that!” I quickly shushed her while trying not to chuckle, and found myself smiling at this shot of ordinary mothering in the midst of an extraordinary ritual.

Then my girls all took off their shoes as we went up together to reverence the cross. Touching that cross and seeing their little hands on it. . . It was impossible to hold back all of the tears in those short moments and after we returned to our seats to wait and watch the rest of the parishioners do the same.

As we waited solemnly, my girls saw some of their friends coming up to reverence the cross themselves, and they started jumping up and down and waving and trying to update them on the news that Miss’s first tooth is loose (my husband told me later that Miss was attempting to solicit a dental consult from our oral surgeon friend). Again we shushed them, but I was reminded that they are small and they cannot possibly fully comprehend the significance of the service and the day.

They get it, but they are little. Loose teeth and fairy houses are important too. Those are the things that make up the ordinary amidst the extraordinary in these mothering days.

Ordinary moments in the middle of this amazing week.


Today is Holy Saturday, the day of the Easter Vigil Mass. Naturally I am thinking back to last year, when I was baptized and confirmed, and received Holy Communion for the first time.




I’m sponsoring another woman who is entering the Church tonight. I’m so excited for her and for all those who will do the same this evening.


Today I’m focusing on waiting and on praying for all the new members of our Church.


And on enjoying all the little moments with my family.



I hope you all have a happy and blessed Easter.

Thanks to Gina for the opportunity to host this link up during Lent. This will be my last time hosting, and next week you can find the link up back on her blog.

Share your ordinary moments below!

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A Tea Party Birthday

Sis loves tea parties. So much that she requested one for her third birthday.


So, I invited a few friends, ordered some tea party accessories, procrastinated on making the food, and everything went wonderfully.

As part of the invitation, I suggested that our friends could come dressed in their finest for the party. I also ordered a few items so everyone could have some fancy additions to their outfits before we were seated for tea.

Pearl necklaces, tea-themed bracelets and purses, white gloves, and some hats they could decorate themselves created the perfect ensemble for each girl.




For the table, I didn’t want to bring out the breakable tea sets I have (one was my mom’s when she was little, and one was my husband’s grandmother’s), so I found these cute little plastic coffee cups and drew a flower on each with some sharpies.


I did use both of the tiny and fragile teapots (you can see one of them behind the cups above), because the grown-up teapot I was going to use (an antique) turned out to be not-so-nice-looking inside. I had to make extra tea in my measuring cups and keep refilling the little pots, but it worked out okay (note to self for next time, get a useable, reasonably-sized teapot!).

I found pretty flowered paper plates and napkins at Party City along with a plastic-meant-to-look-crystal sugar and creamer set. I even found sugar cubes at the grocery store, which seemed so much more fun (and less messy) than granulated sugar. I spread out a white table cloth (that really ought to have been ironed), put some fake flowers in a few cheap vases, and the table was set.


I really procrastinated getting the everything ready, so after cutting fruit and taping hats together until midnight the night before the party, I quickly baked the cupcakes the morning of, and was still making flower-shaped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when the guests arrived. Super Friend and Super Husband put together the last few hats, and then she frosted the cupcakes while I ran out of peanut butter and had to improvise with sun butter on the last few sandwiches, which were all really too small after I cut them into flower shapes.

No one starved though, and I found these adorable teacup molds for the cupcakes:





Overall, I think it was a successful party. The kids seemed to have a lot of fun. I even have photo evidence of some of our friends tea-partying at home afterwards, so I hope they enjoyed it.

This was definitely my favorite of the birthday party themes I’ve done so far. Tea parties are just magical for little girls. I will definitely do this again. Hopefully with less procrastination next time.

Embrace the Ordinary – Three

Today we celebrate a birthday. What a perfect reminder of God’s miracle of life.


“…there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.” St. Josemaria Escriva, Passionately Loving the World

At this time three years ago, I was on my way to the hospital to be induced, so that our sweet little Sis could be brought into the world (the story of her birth here).


I’m reflecting on the beautiful joy of that day. It’s making me kind of weepy, because that was the last time I held my own newborn.


And look at her now!


She is such an amazing, sweet, and funny little girl. She’s getting so big and so independent. It breaks my heart, and it makes me incredibly proud and happy.


Today I will be embracing the extraordinariness of this precious little girl. I’m sure I will look at baby pictures. I’ll probably cry a little bit. But most of all, I will celebrate all that she is and all that she has brought to our family.


Happy birthday, sweet girl.

Next week will be my last time hosting Embrace the Ordinary. Then, EASTER! and the link up will be found back at Gina’s blog.

What have you embraced this week?

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Finding My Mission

Lent is almost over.

I mentioned before that one of my Lenten penances was to not spend money. I’ve experienced an unintended benefit of this in that, instead of going to Target on Wednesdays when I have a babysitter for a couple of hours, I go to Adoration. It’s been wonderful.


This Lent I’ve also been listening to lots of lectures, in person and recorded, and reading and journaling a lot. One common theme I’ve been hearing/reading during Lent this year is, “Don’t miss out on what God is calling you to do!” and “What is God’s mission for you? Are you embracing it?” and “What is it that God wants you to do that you are resistant to?

This has all made me feel just a bit self-conscious, as though there’s some grander plan that God has for me and I’m somehow not grasping it. I’ve been wondering what it is.

I’ve always felt like I’m embracing my mission pretty well, actually. I have been pretty sure that my mission, my vocation, is to be a wife and mother and a teacher to my children. Sometimes I’m not very good at it. I yell at my kids, and I slack off on homeschooling stuff, and my house is a disaster. But I’ve still been pretty certain that this is my thing. That I’m doing just what God wants me to do.

BUT, during this Lent, I have repeatedly I felt like maybe I’m missing something. Every time I hear a priest or other speaker talk about making sure that we say “yes” to what God is calling us to do. . . I feel a bit of panic, like I’m not hearing or not heeding my call. I search my brain to try to figure out what I’m missing. “Am I following God’s plan? Am I obeying Him? Am I blocking out His call??? What if I’m missing the whole point of what He wants me to do?”

I’ve been praying a lot for God to help me know what He wants from me. Yesterday was the completion of my 33 Days to Morning Glory Marian consecration, and I’ve been asking Mary to pray for me to “get it” too. I’ve been praying to be a better wife and a better mother. I’ve resolved to not yell at my girls. I really want to do a better job of juggling homeschooling and housekeeping and preparing our house to sell (and I’m failing miserably at this, but that could probably be another whole blog post).

I’ve been praying and praying all this stuff, and though Lent has been nice, and centering, and productive in certain ways for me, it has seemed like I’ve still been waiting on. . . something.

Let’s circle back around to the first part of this post, where I mentioned that I have been going to Adoration every Wednesday. Yesterday was the Solemnity of the Annunciation and the day I completed my Marian consecration. I went to Mass in the morning. I went to Adoration in the afternoon. As I drove there I prayed the joyful mysteries of the Rosary. I thought about Mary’s “Yes” to God.

When I got there, I got down on the kneeler and began to pray as usual, and then I tried to just listen.

I got my answer – the answer to all of my prayers of “What am I missing? What do You want me to do?” In the stillness of my heart I felt/heard one word.


That might seem very anticlimactic, but I swear in that moment, a smile lit up my face and I felt like I had been given the answer to everything.

I try really hard to be a good wife and mom. I focus on getting things done and the results of my labors.

“Do my kids have good manners?”

“Are they eating good food?”

“Do they know their letters and numbers?”

“Did I get my husband’s laundry done?”

Check. Check. Check. And so on.

This is what I do. But I have been missing a huge part of my job, and that is they joy in it. I get so caught up in all the things I need to get done, that I forget to have fun with my kids. When they complain about a school lesson, I put my head down and focus on getting it done instead of trying to find a way to make it fun. I often clean dishes and fold laundry instead of playing with my kids. When they whine or misbehave in small ways, I bring the hammer down instead of calmly correcting or redirecting. Not always, but these examples are more the rule than the exception.

Yesterday I got it. God doesn’t just want me to be a good mom. He doesn’t need me to be a perfect mom. He wants me to be a joyful mom.

Smith Vows-217

As I knelt there in Adoration, my mind was filled with so many ways I can make my mothering more joyful, in chores, and homeschooling, and even (especially?) discipline of my girls. Most of this was stuff I’ve thought of in passing before, but it suddenly seemed so clear and so obvious and so necessary.

For weeks, I have wondered about what God wants me to do. All of these big, crazy ideas have crossed my mind. “Does He want me to write a book? Look into adoption? Start something at our parish?” None of these seemed quite right, and in fact when I prayed specifically about some of them, I got a definitive answer of “No.”

Yesterday, I didn’t ask God specifically, “Do you want me to have more fun?” I just listened, and He told me.

Be joyful.

Embrace the Ordinary – Feast Days

We had a late night of fun with friends last night. So I’m, um, getting a slow start this morning on posting this link up for Gina.

embrace-the-ordinarybutton“…there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.” St. Josemaria Escriva, Passionately Loving the World

I have always loved St. Patrick’s Day, and now that we’re Catholic and I understand it as the Feast of St. Patrick, I love it even more.


This week in March is especially fun, because we get to do neat things for the Feast of St. Patrick on the 17th (we actually did St. Patrick’s Day stuff all week), and also for the Feast of St. Joseph on the 19th.

I have learned that it is traditional to eat cream puffs on the feast of St. Joseph, so I whipped some up from scratch bought some at the grocery store for the girls to have a special treat Thursday. St. Joseph’s intercession is often invoked to help people who are trying to sell their houses, so we used this printable from Catholic Icing and did an hourly novena for the intention of our friends who are selling.


I set the alarm on my phone every hour, and each time it went off, the girls ran screaming into the kitchen, “MOM! Our novena!!!” It was fantastic.

I love how the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church helps me to celebrate something every day with my girls.

Some days, like St. Patrick’s Day and the Solemnity of St. Joseph and the Solemnity of the Annunciation (this coming Wednesday), are bigger than others.




But there’s always something to talk about and embrace. There are saints’ feast days, days that commemorate special events or devotions, Baptism anniversaries, and so on. Every day can be a little celebration of faith.

What are you embracing from this week? Link it up!

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Kid-Made Stations of the Cross Box

Last year I made a Stations of the Cross box for my girls, inspired by the one Bonnie made and shared in this post.

The girls really enjoyed doing Stations last year using the box. It was fun for them to have something tangible to look at and touch while we read the book and prayers.

We had been doing it every Friday during this Lent too. They seemed to like doing the Stations and talking about them, just like last year. Last Saturday however, my kids’ love for doing the Stations went through the roof, and I had nothing to do with it.

Stations box

I wasn’t even home, but my oldest daughter decided she wanted to make her own Stations of the Cross box with the babysitter. All by herself, she came up with a way to make each of the items in the box or to substitute with something else if she couldn’t get or make what we had used before.

My babysitter texted me this picture while I was at the Catholic Women’s Conference on Saturday:


At first I had no idea what it was, but I thought for sure Lass had made it, because she has been into making small figures out of paper lately. I texted, “Is that Jesus?” The babysitter texted me back that yes, it was, and that Miss had made all the items and they had been sitting around doing the Stations.

Yes. My kids did the Stations of the Cross with my babysitter on Saturday, with no prompting from me. Twice. Then they requested to do it again when I got home. And we did it again before bed.

We’ve done it at bedtime every night since then, at their request.

How do we do it? We use both boxes (the one I made last year and the one Miss made) and take all the items out. We distribute the items among the girls, and each of them also gets a small pocket Stations book to follow along with the pictures. We use this book to read the prayers and the descriptions of the Stations (and BTW, what a rip off, Amazon, the book was $2 at our local Catholic store!). As we read about each station, the girls with the items relating to it put the items in the boxes. Some of the prayers we all say out loud together. That’s it.


Sometimes they ask questions about the Stations and we talk about what it must have been like for Jesus.

Sometimes they argue about who gets to put which item in which box. Whatever. We (or they) have read through the Stations 10 times since last Friday. (!!)

Miss used craft foam (my girls’ favorite) to make most of the items in her box. I love that she got creative with a few of the things she couldn’t duplicate from the box I made. She didn’t have a rosary, which is what I used to symbolize Mary, so she cut a piece of blue foam, knowing that blue is a color often associated with Mary. She didn’t have a rock, so she made Jesus and wrapped Him in tape to show that He was in the tomb. She could have easily gone upstairs and gotten her rosary from her room or outside and gotten a rock, but she chose to make all of the items instead (except the tissue).

The cross shapes aren’t perfect. The hand (symbolizing Simon helping Jesus) is missing a thumb. But she made it all by herself. And that has made her want to pray the Stations of the Cross and look at the items symbolizing each station every day. And because she’s the oldest, her sisters want to do it too.


I had thought I might make this a how-to-type post, but then I realized I really couldn’t. In this case, the complete independence of the project, and the creativity and satisfaction that resulted from the process, made it so much better than if I had set out all the materials and had a planned way for Miss to make each item.

Obviously, I think it would be great to give your kids the idea to do this along with some suggestions on how to make it happen (I wish I had thought of it!), but I don’t really have those suggestions other than to show you another photo of Miss’s finished product and say, “Let them go for it”:


By rows, top top bottom, left to right:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death (rope)
  2. Jesus takes up his cross
  3. Jesus falls for the first time (that’s supposed to be a BandAid, it has a 1 written on it)
  4. Jesus meets his mother
  5. Simon helps Jesus
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls for the second time
  8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (they are crying, thus a tissue)
  9. Jesus falls for the third time
  10. The soldiers tear off Jesus’s clothes (that is a piece of paper folded and taped to represent a tunic)
  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross (Miss said that this is the “Jesus outside the tomb”)
  14. Jesus is placed in the tomb (Jesus wrapped in tape = “Jesus inside the tomb”)

All kept together in a nice shoebox she found in her closet.


If you try this with your kids, please let me know how it goes!

Baby Catholic Answers All the Things, Volume 9 – Purgatory and Limbo

I am working through reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. I just finished Purgatorio, and was thinking about how someone (a couple of Catholic someones, in fact) recently told me that the Catholic Church no longer believes in or teaches the doctrine of Purgatory. I was really confused by this, because we still pray for the dead during every Mass, and we still have a Mass dedicated to our departed souls every November. I wasn’t sure why this would be the case if the Church was now teaching that all those who die as believers go straight to Heaven. If that was the case, they certainly wouldn’t need our prayers, right?

Honestly, I only had a vague understanding of the idea of Purgatory before reading Purgatorio and thinking about the comments I recently heard about it. So, I decided I needed to learn more, and to write this post. Thanks goes out to Super Friend for talking to me about some of my confusion around the issue, too.



So, what is Purgatory, and what does the Catholic Church say about it?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness to enter the joy of heaven. (CCC 1030).

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect (CCC 1031).

When I was still an atheist and working in prison, I always thought it was absurd that so many inmates would come to prison, decide to accept Jesus and their personal Lord and Savior, and then feel certain that they would go straight to Heaven when they die, although they continued to obviously live their lives in a criminal way (yes, there is tons of criminal activity in prison). I think plenty of Christians would even agree with this without concern. What I was always taught as a child was that, as long as you believed in Jesus, you got to go to Heaven, no matter what you did while living on Earth. I couldn’t stomach the hypocrisy of that while I was an atheist, and even now, that just doesn’t seem right to me.

The Catholic Church has a solution to this problem I had with Christianity – Purgatory. It makes sense to me that people will need to undergo a process of purification before being allowed to be in the presence of God in Heaven. The Bible even says, “nothing unclean will enter it [Heaven]” (Revelation 22:27).

But where does the idea of Purgatory come from?

The Church formulated the doctrine on Purgatory mostly during the Councils of Florence and Trent. However, this doesn’t mean that the Church invented the idea of Purgatory at that time. There is a reference to the tradition of praying for the dead in the Bible, “Thus [Judas] made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2Maccabees 12:46). There is also evidence of Christians praying for the dead from the very earliest time of our Faith. In the catacombs where Christians gathered during the persecutions of the first three centuries A.D., prayers for the dead are graffitied on the walls. There are references to prayer for the dead in the earliest Christian writings as well. If the first Christians did not believe in Purgatory (even if they didn’t use that name for it), then why would they pray for the dead? Souls in Heaven don’t need prayers, and those in Hell are beyond the help of prayer.

What about Limbo?

“Limbo” is a theological speculation that has been taught in the history of Catholic tradition to refer to a place where the the souls of some who have died were held. This was thought to be a temporary place for those who died before Christ’s ascension into Heaven, and a permanent place for those who could not go to Heaven because of original sin but were not deserving of Hell because of no personal sin. This would include those who lived virtuous lives but were never exposed to Christian teachings and could therefore not be believers, and also babies who died before they could be baptized.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not include any reference to Limbo. The concept of Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church and in fact, never has been, even if members of the Church may have mentioned it in ordinary teaching in the past. From what I can tell it certainly isn’t actively taught by anyone (or at least hardly anyone) in the Church now.

It seems that, in reference to the question of babies and children who die without being baptized, the official stance of the Church is sort of, “We don’t know for sure, but we have hope.” At least that how it sounds to me from what the Catechism says:

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God. . . . Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children. . . allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism (CCC 1261).

I have read statements from many priests, including Saint John Paul II, that express the belief that babies who die before birth or are unable to be baptized before they die do go to Heaven. I certainly believe that to be the case.

So, contrary to what I have heard, Purgatory is still a part of the  doctrine of the Catholic Church, while Limbo is not, and never has been.

Embrace the Ordinary – One Half Hour


 “…there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.” St. Josemaria Escriva, Passionately Loving the World

One half hour in our yard last night.


After our parish’s fish fry. Before bedtime.

It kind of didn’t feel very ordinary, since one week before, our temperatures were still below freezing, and it was dark at this time of the evening. But playing in the yard with the girls really is quite an ordinary thing, of course.

And last night it was ordinary, and funny, and beautiful, and holy.


She brought me three rocks and some sticks. Then she drew me a picture.

The big girls couldn’t resist the last bit of snow,


But they were pretty quick to move on to other things. I think they’re more than ready to be done with winter too.

I could have watched them playing all day.



Miss found a ball in the yard that lit up when she threw it. She called it her “Sensor Ball” and insisted that when she threw it, it always sensed and then led her to find things in the yard that were “odd.” Like sticks. And acorns. And rocks. Odd.

She was so excited about it.


It was the same thing over and over.

The wind up and throw.




The chase.




And the excited announcement of what the “Sensor Ball” led her to.


In this case, “A bee wing!” AKA a small leaf.

It was the most lovely, magical, ordinary evening. The kind of evening where you can really sense the presence of God if you’re open to it. I did my very best to embrace it thoroughly.

We’re about halfway through Lent, so I still have a few more weeks of hosting this link up for Gina. I’d love to hear what ordinary situations you have been embracing this week. Add your post or Instagram link below!

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A Conference, Guilt About a Conference, Cleaning Out, and Second Thoughts (7QT)

It’s been a while since I did Friday quick takes, so I’m linking up with Kelly for seven of them today.


Last weekend, I went to a wonderful Catholic bloggers conference in South Bend.




I was so excited to finally meet in person the lovely Nell, and Bonnie, and Annie, and Jacqui, whom I’ve communicated with in cyberspace for some time now. I was also happy to meet many other ladies whose blogs I have read, and many new people whose blogs I now can read. You’ll notice that I updated my Blogroll in the sidebar, and I’m pretty sure I have all the new blogs I found there. Recommended reading  right there>>>>


Unfortunately for me, I cannot go away from my family without feeling guilty. I drove to South Bend on Friday evening and was planning to stay on Saturday night too. Then I discovered that dinner was planned for early on Saturday, so my guilt led me to decide to cut the weekend short and drive home Saturday evening. It was wonderful to get home, but I do wish I didn’t always feel so guilty about going away for a short time by myself (last weekend was only the second time I’ve done it). Does anyone know a cure for this??


If you know me, you’ll understand what a huge step this is for me:


My husband and an appliance salesman convinced me (finally) that it’s okay to not rinse my dishes to a gleaming shine before loading them into the dishwasher. I have requested that my husband still rinse dairy products before loading, because dairy+sitting in the open=Ew, but other than that, I’m doing pretty well with leaving the dishes sort of dirty before putting them in. This experiment has been pretty successful too. Other than having to rewash a few bowls and a couple of spoons (note to curious husbands: big globs of peanut butter don’t come off with just the efforts of the dishwasher), I have been pleasantly surprised that our dishes are coming out clean. I can honestly now call myself a recovering compulsive pre-dishwasher-rinser.


Miss had her first rehearsal with the children’s choir at church last night. It was so darned cute. Look how small she looks!


She loved it, and now wants to sing in church every week. She’ll sing at her first Mass next Sunday.


I met with a realtor about selling our house. She casually mentioned our need to “edit out” some of the stuff we have in our closets and storage. I wonder if she meant this:


I was really embarrassed to even let her look into that closet (which is why I’m showing it to all of you), but she was intrigued by how big it was and wanted to go on back in there. The part of the closet that is used (I mean not as a dumping ground for outgrown baby clothes) is also quite big, so this stuff is all out of the way and usually I just toss the stuff that is too small for anyone back there, knowing I’ll get around to going through it “someday.”

Someday is now.


On Wednesday, I went in there with trash bags and started mercilessly throwing all of it into the bags to take to St. Vincent’s. It was actually kind of hard, because I have been holding on to all of this stuff thinking I will probably need it again at some point. But I went ahead and bagged it all up.


I bagged and bagged until I ran out of time and bags (I ended up with about five grocery bags in addition to what is pictured). I kept almost nothing. A few special and personalized things, the pants I made for Miss, the Wonder Woman shirt that is my favorite, and almost nothing else. I loaded it all up in my car, where it still sits.

I don’t think I can do it!

I’m pretty sure this weekend I’ll be bringing the bags back inside and going through them a little more carefully. I’ll still be donating a ton of it, but it would make sense to keep a few things. I think.


I’m feeling a mixture of excitement and terror at the idea of going through and cleaning out other areas in our house. We have so much stuff to purge. I’m so eager to do it, but I don’t want to do it. Know what I mean?

But I must.


This is happening, whether I’m ready or not!

I hope you have a great weekend. I’m gearing up for fish fry, another in-town conference tomorrow, and lots of game time and outside play with my girls (hubby is out of town). Don’t forget to check back for Embrace the Ordinary tomorrow (and link up!)

And be sure to check out Kelly’s Quick Takes link up too.


Why Fog Reminds Me of Prison

This morning it was foggy. Fog always makes me think of when I used to work in prison. “Why?” you ask. Because every time it was foggy when I drove to the prison where I worked as a psychologist for three years, I knew my day’s schedule would be shot, since I would have to start out the morning on fog watch.

Almost a decade later, and fog still makes me think of fog watch.


During the first few years of my “time” in prison, fog watch annoyed me, because it threw off my carefully planned (though frequently derailed) schedule for the day. I had appointments to keep. Inmates to meet with. Interviews to conduct. Interns to supervise. Rounds to get done.

I didn’t get overtime, and I had a lot I was supposed to accomplish in a 40-hour week. It was stressful, and fog watch messed with my cram-packed calendar.

But after the first few years, I grew to kind of welcome fog watch. Sometimes anyway. Fog watch meant that for that morning, I didn’t have to meet with the inmate who was going to complain about his housing assignment. I didn’t have to see the inmate who was extra needy or the one who was extra angry or the one who was extra demanding. I’d probably have to find time in my over-planned day to meet with those inmates later, but for the morning, until the fog cleared, I had a reprieve.

Many, many times, I’ve been asked what it was like to be a prison psychologist. I have been asked more times than I can count what a typical day was like when I worked in prison. I never had an answer for that question, because there was no such thing as a “typical” day. When I walked onto the compound every day, regardless of what I had written down in my very detailed daily planner, I never really knew what was going to happen.

I’ll give you some examples of things that did happen, with the disclaimer that these are either composites of events or very vague descriptions, not any one specific event in any detail (so I won’t break confidentiality).

In the four different prisons where I worked, I dealt mostly with medium- and high-security inmates. Most days I spent a lot of time just checking in with mentally ill inmates. I assessed mental status and medication compliance and side effects. I handled lots of complaints and requests for changes in housing or job assignments (which I almost never intervened in). I frequently assessed risk for suicide. I did individual and group therapy. I made attempts to make life better for the inmates I worked with in the small ways that I could.

Lots of people have asked me how and where I met with inmates, assuming I always had bars or a door between myself and the offender. In some cases, I did speak to inmates either through the doors of their cells if they were in segregation (the housing unit where inmates are placed in cells alone and locked in for 23 hours per day) or, with especially high security inmates, in a special divided cell with a barred door between him and me. But the vast majority of the time, I simply scheduled an appointment with the inmate and he came to my office. There was a window in my office door and special, well-known procedures in place for me to call for help if I needed to. I never did (other than on one occasion, described below).

I did, however, fairly frequently have to respond to a fellow staff member’s call for help. Whenever another prison employee was in some sort of trouble or if there was a disturbance, all available people in the prison stopped whatever they were doing and ran to the place of the problem to help. I did this many times.

I was often called to segregation to speak to an inmate who wasn’t cooperating with the correctional staff, either by refusing to “cuff up” (place hands in front of the food-tray opening in the door and submit to being placed in handcuffs), refusing to give up some contraband item, or otherwise wreaking havoc. Sometimes the inmate was threatening to hurt himself. Sometimes he was breaking things or flooding his cell. Sometimes I was able to convince an inmate to comply. Sometimes the correctional staff had to “suit up” and go into an inmate’s cell using force (this was rare in the prison where I spent most of my years, though fairly common in some places I worked).

On more than one occasion, I was contacted and asked to come to the segregated housing unit where there was an inmate who had smeared his own feces on the wall of his cell. Sometimes the inmates who did this were mentally ill. Sometimes they weren’t. Often when they weren’t, they were trying to convince someone that they were. Sometimes I could get the inmates to clean up, or at least to come out of the cell so it could be cleaned. Sometimes I couldn’t, and then the officers had to decide whether they wanted to deal with the smell until the inmate couldn’t stand it anymore, or whether they wanted to go into the mess and pull the inmate out. Ew.

Another common question I get is about whether I was ever afraid. The answer is yes, but rarely. On a few occasions I had to speak with very mentally ill inmates or very angry inmates, without the benefit of a locked door to shield myself. Of course, most mentally ill individuals are not violent, but in a few cases I had to deal with guys I knew did have a history of violence when not taking medication. And a couple of times I came face to face with inmates who were very angry with me and ready to show it. Fortunately I was always able to extricate myself safely, in one case calling on an officer who I knew was standing right outside the door, before the inmate could get to me.

Ugh. It makes me feel a little ill just writing about it.

After the first few years, I was burned out on prison. I had been lied to, cursed at, stolen from, and nearly attacked, all by men whom I had sincerely been trying to help. A job I had initially found to be exciting and challenging was no longer the least bit enjoyable. I developed insomnia and lost a ton of weight from being stressed. I nearly wept every Sunday, knowing I had to go back “inside” the next day. After many months of planning, a fellow psychologist and I left to start a private practice, and it truly felt like we were getting out of prison!

Leaving prison work was one of the best career moves I ever made, second only to leaving work entirely to stay home with my kids. I no longer identify myself as a prison psychologist, or a forensic psychologist, or really even as any kind of psychologist anymore. But lots of people still ask me what it was like to work in prison.

I didn’t intend for my answer to the question to be a big downer! I do have some good memories of my years in the “joint.” I think I did really help some inmates, and I met some good people whom I worked with.

That job obviously wasn’t the most enjoyable one I’ve had. It wasn’t even the hardest one. My current job holds both of those distinctions.