As a single and as a young husband, I stood in awe of parents. They seemed so grown up, so mature, so together. I recall the passing comment of a mentor and father of five who shared the news of his wife’s last pregnancy as “bringing an eternal soul into the world.” The spiritual sobriety of his perspective made me marvel at parenthood even more.
From a distance, parenthood can appear as the next step in human maturity — adolescent, college student, young adult, married person, parent. (For some reason, popular perception of empty-nesters doesn’t translate to the final step in maturity.) Those without children tend to view those with children as wiser, more responsible human beings.
Are we then to conclude that true maturity comes with parenthood? Hardly. We can all tell stories of the parents who let their kids get away with anything, and who at times seemed more immature than their kids. Furthermore, two kids into fatherhood, I can vouch that there is nothing magically maturing about parenthood.
However, if we are to parent well, some level of maturity is necessary. Perhaps even more important is the willingness for a parent to mature as a person with their kids, a challenge well captured by Dan Allender in his book How Children Raise Parents.Dan Allender, How Children Raise Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Family (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2003). Indeed, if we are willing to learn along with our children, parenthood may prove to be a maturing, even transforming experience. On the other hand, disengaged or duty-driven parenting can easily prove to be a paralyzing and heart-hardening experience. Regardless of how you parent, one thing is certain: Raising children will bring its fair share of fear and frustration.
The challenges of parenthood begin before the baby is born! The nine months before birth are a microcosm of the liberties and limitations of parenthood. Sonograms, name selection, baby room shopping, morning sickness, loss of time, money, and sleep all transpire in those few months — serving as an introduction to the diverse joys and pains of parenting. Fear sets in early on. Will the baby be born healthy or at all? How will we financially support another person? What about breast-feeding and diaper-changing? How will my spouse change? What if I screw up my kid? Can I do this?
Depending on how we respond to these questions, fear of failure can result in earnest preparation or personal paralysis.
After the baby is born and the novelty and sleep deprivation wear off, our fears can quickly turn into frustrations. While I trembled at the thought of guiding and providing for our second child before she was born, afterwards I found myself incredibly annoyed and frustrated with Ellie’s incessant crying. Pre-birth fears too easily turn into post-partum frustration. As a result, questions begin to cascade. Why won’t that baby just shut up? How am I supposed to work on three hours of sleep? Why won’t my child just obey me the first time? What happened to my wife/husband? Where did all my free time go? Who am I? How do I respond to that?
The various frustrations encountered in parenting can quickly turn into anger or despair in lament over the loss of past freedoms. We discover just how much pre-parenthood personal freedom we had when we lose sleep, time with our spouses, time to see movies, to have dinner out, to enjoy quiet coffee shop reading and reflection, and time with friends.
Depending on how we respond, frustration over freedoms lost can lead to personal reformation or deep-seated resentment.
How are we to redemptively engage our parental fears and frustrations? How much of our fear and frustration is valid? How much is invalid? How can frustration lead to redemption instead of resentment? In the space that remains, let’s explore some of these gut-level questions with the aim of shedding light on what it looks like to parent by faith in the midst of fear and frustration.
Fear of Failure Parenting
In the months leading up the birth of our first child, Owen, something radical happened. All of a sudden, my strolls through bookshops led me not down the usual Theology, Literature and Sociology aisles, but quickly into the Family and Parenting section. Fearful of parental failure, I was willing to learn from anyone. My reading was not limited to the subjects of children and fathers, but even extended to literature on motherhood.
I can remember an afternoon spent at Barnes & Noble, where I scoured the racks for wisdom. Consumed by the fear of failing as a father, I desperately picked up the camo-colored New Dad’s Survival Guide: Man-to-Man Advice for First-Time Fathers by Scott Mactavish. I didn’t have a clue who Scott was, but I knew I was both a first-timer and in need of survival tips.
Fear jump-started my parental preparation. I began to line my utility belt with as many survival tips as possible. I soon called a weekly meeting for expecting fathers to plow through the emotional, spiritual and practical issues of fatherhood. I frantically looked for post-graduate job placement and began to budget with a passion. Through earnest preparation I sought to stamp out my parental fear.
This is not every parent’s response. Other soon-to-be parents encounter personal paralysis when considering the thought of becoming a parent. Feelings and thoughts of failure to meet our children’s emotional, social and physical needs converge, sending an arrow of inadequacy and inability straight to the heart. Add to that shot the tremor of being spiritually responsible for an eternal soul and the wincing pain of the financial demands of caring for another family member.
Some of us respond by spending untold hours worrying instead of sleeping, hardening instead of embracing the in-breaking reality of parenthood. We fear that we will repeat our parents’ failures, and conclude that somehow we are hard-wired for second-rate parenting. What are we to do with these responses? Is preparation the strong, godly response and paralysis the weak, ungodly response? How should we engage these fears?
You Don’t Have What It Takes
John Eldredge would have us believe that, for fathers, the most important question we can ask and answer for ourselves and our sons is “Do I have what it takes?”John Eldredge, You Have What It Takes: What Every Father Needs to Hear (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004). He argues that most of us don’t realize that we are built for fatherhood and that we need to know, as our sons need to know, that we have what it takes. Although Eldredge is right in pointing out that mothers and fathers have been given the natural equipment to parent, he underestimates the bent motivations we have in parenting. To be sure, Eldredge directs the wounded parent to the healing Christ but only to get us back on track in the task of child affirmation. As a result, his model of parenting can become task-based, neglecting the sinful issues of the parental heart.
The reality is that we really don’t have what it takes to parent for the glory of God and the good of our children. Our natural equipment for instruction, discipline, care, and love is in disrepair; we can’t consistently and accurately instruct, discipline, care and love our children, even if we have received the love of God in Christ. In dark and honest moments, we will daydream of life without children. Time and again, our children push us to the limits of our love, and we cross the line of selfish anger or embittered depression. We will spank or yell out of spite, not mercy and love. We do not have what it takes to parent our children.
The godly response to our paralyzing fear is not to pat ourselves on our backs and repeat to ourselves that we have what it takes, nor is it to counter our parental limitations with earnest preparation. Instead, we need to redemptively confront our fears. If we respond to fear-motivated preparation and personal paralysis with a you-have-what-it-takes attitude, we bypass the heart, where our fears fester. Though diligent preparation and careful concern can be a godly response to the task of parenting, it is the heart that determines the righteousness of our actions. Related to this fact is the reality that our children see our hearts as well as our actions and act out of their own impure motives. More than success is at stake, our hearts, parent’s and child’s, are on the table in the privilege of parenting. If we are to parent well, then we will need more than task-based survival tips and emotional pats on the back. We need the gospel to redemptively engage our fears … and our frustrations.
Frustration and Parenting
Fear isn’t the only obstacle we encounter in parenting. Frustration over failures and freedoms lost often haunt us. Of course, we don’t always understand this dynamic when we snap at our children. Unlike our son, a sleep-through-the-night poster child, our daughter has taken a cry-through-the-night approach. For a while, this was both her day job and her night job. She was what you might ambiguously refer to as colicky. Needless to say, I have not fared well. More than once I have lost my patience with Ellie’s unpleasant, incessant crying.
Consider this scenario. It is evening, after a long day at work. Owen is in bed but Ellie is hungry, so I feed her, wrap her, and put her in the swing in hopes of some silent time to myself. Five minutes later, her blood-curdling cry severs the silence. I swiftly return to her with sucker in hand to plug up the noise. (Oh the sucker, a tease for both parent and child, which only provides temporary and fleeting relief.) Another five minutes go by and out comes the sucker along with the screams, only this time they are louder and shriller. This cycle repeats about twenty times, and I lose it. I huffily run in to the room, swiftly pick up Ellie, and with a couple shakes I angrily reason with her: “Ellie why won’t you go to sleep? You have already eaten!” Minutes, if not seconds later, I am beside myself. How could I lose my temper with my six week old baby?
In the same scenario my wife responds differently. Instead of getting angry, she patiently returns again and again, speaking sweet words into our daughter’s ear. How does she do it? In loving motherly despair. The next day, she is beside herself in despondency. I receive a call at work. She tells me she just can’t do “it” anymore. She tells me she can’t escape and asks me who she has become and if I can come home and help. She thinks to herself, “I am a terrible mother.”
As our children grow, the scenarios change but the challenges remain somewhat the same. In this challenge, what are we to do with our frustrations? Talking these things through with my wife has been enlightening. She has suggested that, perhaps part of the reason I can get so upset with our helpless six week old, is that I can not fix her crying. All my earnest preparation, my swaddling techniques, and carefully situated suckers fail in soothing my daughter’s cry. My response to the frustration is to fix things. But is the problem really that I can not fix my daughter’s colic?
The problem is deeper than mister fix-it masculinity. You see, when I am confronted with the fact that I do not have the power to fix my problems, I am forced to recognize that I do not have what it takes. Furthermore, my inability to control my daughter’s crying results in less free time, time to do what I want to do. In these moments, my inability to fix the problem and my frustration from lost freedom combine to produce a powder keg of anger.
For my wife, the problem goes deeper than feminine frailty. When she encounters the challenges of parenting, it easy to mistakenly equate lost freedom with loss of identity. Though she is no longer able to carry on all her hobbies and friendships with pre-parenthood potency, she has not lost her identity, but it is being transformed. Her loss of freedom makes her feel trapped. In turn, her trapped feelings associated with motherhood lead to guilt over passionless parenting. She doesn’t have what it takes to be a good mother.
Faith and Parenting
In these moments, we are asking another question: “Can I have my own way?”This is second of two diagnostic questions proposed by Dan Allender. His first question is: “Am I loved?” This question gives a biblical twist to Eldredge’s man-centered question: “Do I have what it takes?” In How Children Raise Parents, Allender charts the four different ways we can answer this combinations of questions, pointing out that only answers that provide a biblical path to parenting — “Yes you are loved, and no, you may not have your own way.” Our will is pitted against God’s will. In his providence, we have reached a juncture in which personal freedom must give way to parental duty, and we fight it with every fiber of our being. Why? Because there are places in our hearts over which we have hung the teenager’s sign, “My Room. Do Not Enter.” These are rooms where the dirty laundry of our hearts reeks of selfishness. We want to parent on our terms and when our terms aren’t met, we get bitter or despondent.
When our freedoms are removed, our idols are revealed. For some it may be the idolatry of time — I want to do what I want to do. For others, the idolatry of identity — I’m not just a mother! In these heart-wrenching moments, when we sense a loss of freedom, God is bringing us to himself through our children. It is when we find ourselves acting like children, defiantly insisting on our own way, that God wants to meet us. His aim is to show us our sinful rebellion against his way and lead us to repentance and renewal. With the outstretched arms of the Spirit and the Son, the Father calls us away from bitterness and despondency into the happiness of communion with the Trinity. God wants to lead us from frustration into fellowship with him by showing us that we do not have what it takes and that we can not always get our own way. Instead, through the frustrations of parenting, God seeks to magnify his sufficiency by releasing his perfect power and love in and through us to bless us and our children. In those moments of weakness, he wants to give us his strength, knowing that we become true parents when we are truly dependent on him.
How then do we become mature parents, parents who parent redemptively?
In order to avoid parent-centered parenting, parenting which idolizes our freedoms and fears, mothers and fathers must be displaced from parenting. Instead of taking charge, Christ must take center stage in our parenting. Perhaps the biggest lie we have believed is that our lives are a story about ourselves and that our families exist to serve our needs. The first step in Christ-centered parenting is to repent of parent-centered parenting, of placing ourselves first in our families and in our lives.
Second, rejoice that God has created you to parent. Genesis 1:28 informs us that we were made and blessed in order to parent: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.'” Why fill the earth with children? Genesis 1:26 informs us that Adam and Eve were made in the image of the triune God: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….” At the very least, this tells us that our parenting is a part of a grander story, a story whose plotline includes filling the earth with images of God, of his glory. As parents, we have been given the glorious task of participating in the spreading and shaping of the divine image of God’s glory on earth, through raising our children.
Third, recognize and receive God’s provision for all your parental and personal failures past, present, and future. As the story of Scripture makes plain, our ability to live and parent for God’s glory has been damaged by sin, sins of fear and of frustration, which diminish God’s glory: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3.23). Consider pausing now to repent of making much of yourself in parenting and in life, and receive the restorative forgiveness of God in Christ: “To him (Christ) all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). If we choose to believe in ourselves, that we have what it takes, then we reject our role in this story told by the prophets, a story of rescue and redemption. By relying on fix-it masculinity or wallowing in feminine frailty, we throw off God’s redemptive plan to restore his image in us and insist that we remain on center stage, no matter how strong or pathetic we may look.
Fourth, claim and display the power of God’s new creation. As forgiven parents, we are not cleaned up and left powerless to parent. The damaged image of God in us and our children can be restored and renewed to display the glory of Christ as his new creation. Those who believe in Jesus have “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:10). By experiencing this image renewal, we align ourselves with the redemptive story, participating in the grace of God for the glory of God. Thus, the Spirit of God empowers us to live and parent like God in Christ. The power of this image-renewing work, in turn, produces God-centered parents who patiently and redemptively raise their children to keep Jesus on center stage in their own lives.
This side of the new creation, fear and frustration will never entirely disappear from our hearts. Redemption is a project. In fact, fears and frustrations will undoubtedly cycle in and out, manifesting themselves differently depending on what stage of life our children are in. However, by confessing our fears and frustrations and repenting of our pride and despondency, we can live in the richness of God’s forgiveness and the power of his new creation, displaying the beauty of God’s redemptive love for us and our children. In turn, we will honor our heavenly Father and help our children learn to struggle well with their own fears and frustrations. By diverting our eyes from fears and freedoms and turning them to all that God is for us in Jesus through the Spirit, we will gain more strength and freedom, joy and peace than ten thousand babysitters could ever offer!
Copyright 2007 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.