When the experts talk about parents and children, they talk a lot about separation, about the child’s gradual distinction of the self from the parent.
What they don’t talk about as much is the parent’s gradual distinction of the self from the child.
This is something I think and talk about a lot. I’ve always thought that the core of good parenting involves respecting one’s child as a child of God – as a brother or sister in Christ. Too often, even the most well-meaning of parents speak of the value of having children involving things like “fulfillment” or “brining me joy.”
Well, children do all of those things, but none of that is a reason to have children, because all of those reasons ultimately revolve around me and my desires and needs.
It is a huge leap – to get to the point at which you realize – and not just intellectually – that your child is not you. At all. If you find yourself resisting this, I’ve always found it helpful to consider the question, “Am I my parents? Do I want them valuing me to the extent that I reflect their identities?” Probably not. And it’s no different for my children.
It’s something that I never really got until my older children (my oldest will be 26 in September. Lord.) started leaving home and doing their own thing – which is hardly ever my thing. Having that experience of older children really changes the way you parent the younger ones, I think. It leads to an odd but perfectly understandable combination of letting go and treasuring. You let go because you know you have to, that they are not you. But you treasure because you know how fast it all goes, and sooner than you know it, the little one who won’t let go of you? Well, you’ll see him twice a year. If you’re lucky.
But even with the experience of parenting older children, the emergence of a younger child’s individuality still surprises. What I’m thinking about tonight, though, isn’t even individuality – that’s obvious from birth. No…it’s the inner life of a child. The revelation of something deeper churning in that head – the beginnings of a different sort of self-awareness.
The other night, Joseph and I were looking at a book. It was this one – a flap book about the human body. We were looking at the pages about the heart and the circulatory system and I was explaining to him how the heart works and what was going on when his heart was beating.
He lifted the flaps, looked at the pictures, and considered this. Then he said thoughtfully, “Sometimes, when I take the timed test at school,” – the “timed test” being a drill of 100 simple math problems they’re given 3 minutes to complete – “Sometimes, when I take it, my heart starts beating really fast.”
And he sighed.
And for some reason, I thought that my heart would break.
Such a little thing. A seven-year old just mentioning that he gets nervous before a practice test. But so many things ran through my head. Welcome to life. It sucks sometimes. Just wait. If you think that’s bad..
But most of all it broke my heart because once again, it reminded me of my limited reach. My helplessness.
In a way, it is not fair, this thing that God does. He gives us these little creatures, beautiful and gorgeous, who need us so badly, who need us for absolutely everything, and that is the way he calls us to love them – to give and give and give through sleepless nights and exhaustion and the eventual, shocking realization that if you were called upon to give your life, you would.
WIthout hesitation, without regret.
And then, almost as soon as you get used to thinking and living this way…they start needing you less. And less. And their inner lives, which once seemed one with yours, become, so gradually, their own private place, the place where they wonder and struggle, rejoice and hurt.
Without you there.
It is hard for a parent – perhaps particularly so for a mother. But it points, as everything seems to do, to the importance – the vital importance – of introducing our children to the faithful presence of the living, loving God.
Oh yes, there will be times, to be sure, that your heart will beat fast. So fast. And you might not even be able to breathe. There will be times that there will be no one there to tell about your heart, beating so fast and hard as you face the next thing. And the next. And the next.
Your heart will beat within your chest, you will fumble, unsure what to do next. It’s true.
And it grieves my heart that for most of it, I won’t be there.
Because I won’t. Even now, I see so clearly…I’m not.
But even so, even though I will be long gone, just know this – that you will never – and I mean never – be alone.