American author Robert Fulgham once said “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”
Those are ominous words—whether you have small children of your own, are thinking about having kids or plan on a “someday” family in the far distant future.
I sometimes wonder about the mental notes my children are making from the front row spectator sport of my parenting. I think about how they’ll answer their therapists as adults when asked, “Tell me about your father.” That question used to scare the crap out of me. At least I’ve given them some good material to work with.
I feel the same way many folks do about the journey of parenting: I had no idea what I’d signed up for. But whether you have kids or want kids someday, here’s a few things I’ve learned after decades into the journey.
1. Parenthood is mostly about showing up.
I can still remember watching my wife during the delivery of our first child. Though she’d never given birth, she stepped into this sacred, mysterious process with such purpose and courage. It was as if she’d read some manual, but accidentally forgot to pass it on to me. I was a rather clumsy obvserver waiting to be prompted by the nurses. The only thing that came natural to me was my awkwardness and questions.
Should I stand here? How do we breathe now? Is the contraction over?Honey, what do you need from me?
Little did I know that delivery would be the first of many times I’d feel uncertain, awkward or incompetent in parenting. The moments of uncertainty have created beautiful reminders of how desperately I need God—to parent, to love my wife, to care for my family and to just show up.
I couldn’t take away the pain of childbirth from my wife, but I could be with her in it. I can’t take away the heartache my children experience living in a fallen world, but I can be with them in it. There are times where my participation involves action, but mostly it’s just being present.
2. Parenthood is designed to help you grow up.
I stepped into this journey operating under the assumption that I had been given the opportunity to shape and mold a life. There’s some truth to that assumption. But I never fully considered what parenting would do to shape and mold me. And I’m still wrapping my mind around that one.
As I reread the Genesis narrative, there is some important insight into the purpose of parenting. As we trace back through the creation story, we understand God created man and woman in His image, charged them to multiply and be fruitful, and then blessed the first birth.
Chapter four, I realized, is all about parenting. It begins with Adam and Eve giving birth to a son, Cain, then another son, Abel. Then one son kills the other, and Adam and Eve give birth to a third son, Seth. The story of parenting evolves into the next generation as Seth and his wife give birth to a boy themselves.
The fourth chapter of Genesis closes with these words. “At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.” (Genesis 4:26).
Parenting will take us to the end of ourselves. It will drive us to a place of dependence, of crying out for help, of leaning into God. We aren’t designed to do this on our own.
3. Parenthood will expose the worst and the best of who you are.
Think back to—or imagine—the first time you saw the face of your son or daughter? Maybe that introduction took place in a hospital room as a nurse placed this new life into your arms. Or perhaps your were thousands of miles away from home, in an orphanage, and caretakers entered a room carrying a child you had only seen in photographs up to that moment. Do you remember how something shifted in you?
You entered the room one person and you left a different one. A deeper place was carved out in you—the capacity for something more.
Nothing can fully prepare any of us for the transforming, disruptive, redemptive journey of parenting. Parenting will motivate you to willingly and lovingly sacrifice in a way you never have before. At the same time, it will expose just how selfish you really are. Parenting stretches our limits—and so ignites our capacity to become the best and worst versions of ourselves.
Every day of my work as a family therapist, I have the opportunity to speak with parents who are coming to the end of themselves in their parenting. They are hitting up against trying moments filled with overwhelming emotion, desperation and fear.
Years ago, I counseled a father who played for the NFL. This beast of a man, paid to bulldoze over linemen week after week on national television, sat on my office couch in tears over his seven-year-old son. He talked about his fears and concerns for this boy he loved, and moments he felt utterly helpless as a father. He looked at me, all two hundred and something pounds of him, shaking and weeping, and said of his son, “No other person in the world has this effect on me!”
I understand this man’s words, because I have lived them myself. This enormous love that exists in me on behalf of my children has nearly wrecked me at times. But that same love is changing me—slowly, gradually, making me into something different. And hopefully, with God’s grace, something better.