I wasn’t yet tuned into the right questions when I picked up The Sane Woman’s Guide to Raising a Large Family. Knox was a baby, I was sleep-deprived, I thought maybe I could pick up a few new tips to help cope.
I don’t remember any new hints or tips. It’s not that they weren’t there. I’m sure if I went back to it now I might be able to add a few things to my repertoire. At the time, I was too dazed really to think straight. What I picked up from that reading, though, was that I no longer had a sense of humor with my children. I was in “get through the day” mode, and I was seeing them as little packages of responsibilities and duties rather than little individuals. I was not having fun. I didn’t mind not having fun. That’s part of life. But the notion got in my head that perhaps I should mind. Perhaps I was so duty-focused that all my joy and humor was sapped and squashed.
I shared via email a few of my musings and struggles with a friend. At the end of her reply, she just tossed in a question about finding and focusing on doing what I enjoy doing with the children. It brought me up short. What did I enjoy doing with the children? Could I really say I enjoyed them if there wasn’t really anything I enjoyed doing with them? If I mostly just wanted them to leave me in peace by myself? Conviction. Things were not right.
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Then an older (than me) mom came to visit and see our new house and new baby. She had just launched two children, two children I had taught in high school, two children I was certain counted as “well done.” I was excited for her visit, hoping to pick her mind for tips and advice on turning out successful children. She was in a reflective, reminiscent mood, and I gladly listened. I even took notes (though I waited until after she was gone). I did not hear at all what I was expecting to hear, what I wanted to hear. She had no advice to give. She was grateful. She took zero credit. She wasn’t sure she’d done anything right, but she was grateful God was with her children. As she reminisced, it was clear she had no formulas and never had; she felt vaguely bad for not doing things “right.” No. She had no advice. She was advice. She enjoyed her children as individuals. Her children fascinated her. She was so grateful God had given her the children He did — the ones that lived and the ones that hadn’t. She had a good time watching her kids have a good time. She was faithful. She loved. She failed and she sought forgiveness and she moved on.
I mulled over her demeanor and her stories for weeks. I knew I did not enjoy my children like that. I liked them. I loved them. But when it came right down to it, I usually wanted to shoo them away so I could do my own things. I wanted them to do their thing so I could do my thing. So, when they needed me, or came to me, they were inconvenient interruptions. That’s what my responses to them communicated, but wasn’t terribly inconsistent with what I said I believed.
I had wanted answers, a formula, a guarantee. Do this. That works. This will guarantee results. Again I thought it was a dichotomy. Either what I do as a parent will guarantee certain results or how I parent doesn’t matter, is inconsequential. It was either find the Right Answers or give up.
The answer I got instead was, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto thee.” But what does this mean? What does it look like? It means God’s providence in our stories — ours and our children’s — doesn’t always (usually doesn’t?) end up neat and tidy. It means He doesn’t guarantee things like early marriage, good kids, or good jobs. But He does guarantee sanctification. He guarantees His faithfulness and love and mercy and forgiveness. He promises to use means, to use us, to bless others, including our children. We should parent in reliance and in faithfulness to God’s call on our lives, being as consistent as we can with His model of Fatherhood, praying to be a blessing to our children, who are individuals under God’s care in their own right and not through us. God will use our children to sanctify us, and God will use us in the sanctification of our children. But it is God’s work and not our own.
It’s more complicated. It’s more messy. But it’s more freeing. The pressure is off. You are responsible for your own faithfulness, for your own obedience, but you’re not responsible for how or when someone else’s faithfulness resolves.
I love Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism. What is your only comfort in life and in death? It begins, “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” I realized that the answer also means, “That my children are not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to their faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” It is Jesus who is faithful, even when we are not and even when our children are not. That is faith. That is trust. That is dependence.
We can be free to enjoy our children and our life when our trust is placed in God’s faithfulness rather than our own.
And what is our purpose here on earth, our purpose for our life? Is it to turn out “good” children who get “good” jobs? If that is our purpose, our identity, then what happens when tragedy hits, or even simple disappointment? Is that failure? Will it mean a loss of identity? The Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches us that the answer to the question “What is the chief end of man?” is “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We glorify God when we obey Him and when we seek forgiveness when we don’t. We enjoy Him when we are grateful in all circumstances, knowing all things come to us not by chance, but from His fatherly hand (Heidelberg LD 10). We enjoy Him when we know He loves turning the first into the last, the last into the first, the proud to the lowly and the lowly to the glorified; when we remember, as Doug Wilson likes to say, that God draws straight with crooked lines; when we trust that His hand is directing the seeming chaos, and rest in faith that it will turn to our good.