Friday, October 31, 2014
Living With and Growing From Imperfect Parenting Circumstances
role models for their children. The necessity of being a good role model can certainly be a mortification, an occasion to die to oneself in order to live more fully for God. But there is another related mortification experienced by parents, namely, the definite imperfection of one's situation.
Many people have come to recognize that the American model of nuclear family with no additional help puts strains on parents and is not best for the children either. It is important to recognize the structural imperfections of American family life today and strive to correct them as best we can, reaching out to parents in need of little extra help in various ways. The offer to assist with childcare for free or the act of bringing a meal to parents with a new child are two examples of this.
But even with these efforts to strengthen extra-familial bonds in place of the once strong inter-generational presence found within families, on a practical level, parents will undoubtedly find themselves stuck in less than ideal situations. There are conflicting demands, desires, and always, it seems, NOT ENOUGH TIME to get everything done and have adequate leisure for refreshment. It can become all too easy to reflect on the busy and stressful life of parenting and simply conclude that we will never be able to do it well: there is not enough money, not enough sleep, not enough energy, and not enough time to oneself.
Outsiders increase this sense of inadequacy with the seemingly endless demands placed on "good" parents. These demands include (but are in NO WAY limited to!) the following: spend lots of quality one-on-one time with your spouse take your children to all necessary medical, dental, optical, etc. appointments on schedule; expose your child to cultural events, like art museums and musical/play performances; provide the opportunity for your child to excel in sports; ensure your child's excellent academic performance; eat primarily home-cooked meals made primarily with organic and locally-grown food; ensure complete security and safety of your child; allow your child's failure so he can learn from his mistakes; be consistent with discipline in every circumstance; demonstrate good home organization and cleanliness; etc. And of course, none of the items listed above included the expectations of good Catholic parents who strive to form their children in the faith. Frankly, I'm too exhausted to list all of those right now.
Suffice it to say that with such demands on parents, and such limitations of time, money, sleep, ability, etc. that parents will inevitably be caught in a dire situation where they are doomed to fail. Everyday living as parents just entails inadequacy. Even if the outside world does not catch us in our mistakes as parents, we know them all too well within the home. We have to live constantly with our failures: inconsistent discipline, poorly planned meals, sleep deprivation that leads to impatience and angry yelling, and so on. It is so easy to become exhausted with our situation, and then to blame ourselves for our exhaustion because we are obviously doing something wrong, e.g. not taking enough time for ourselves, not keeping the house well-organized, etc.
Instead, I suggest that the first step for us parents in these imperfect circumstances is simply to accept them as they are and even thank God for them. They may not be to our likes and preferences, and that is precisely what makes an imperfect situation a wonderful involuntary mortification. Imperfect circumstances can become an opportunity to conform our will to God's, trying to trust in God and do the best in the situation we have been handed. In this we die to ourselves in order to live more fully for God.
Here I draw particularly upon Fr. Jacques Philippe, the wonderful French spiritual writer who describes this temptation that can greatly impede spiritual progress: "in the situation which is ours (personal, family, etc., we lack something essential and that because of this our progress, and the possibility of blossoming spiritually is denied us" (all quotations from Part II, Ch. 8 of Searching for and Maintaining Peace). We may say "I am not satisfied with my life, with my person, with my circumstances and I live constantly with the feeling that as long as things are such, it will be impossible for me to live truly and intensely."
Philippe suggests that wishing for circumstances to change is often an error: "It is not the exterior circumstances that must change; it is above all our hearts that must change." We must strive for certitude that God is present, providing for our needs. When people embrace this attitude, "they will see that many of he circumstances that they thought negative and damaging to their spiritual life are, in fact, in God's pedagogy, powerful means for helping them to progress and grow."
Philippe adds "Our minds are sometimes so clouded over by that which is not going well, by that which (according to our own particular criteria!) should be different in our situations, that we forget the positive." In contrast with this problematic focus on the negative, we should recognize that imperfections can help us to grow in humility and confidence in God. Philippe concludes Chapter 8 with these words:
"God may allow me to occasionally lack money, health, abilities and virtues, but He will never leave me in want of Himself, of His assistance and His mercy or of anything that would allow me to grow unceasingly ever closer to Him, to love Him more intensely, to better love my neighbor and to achieve holiness."
This is not an excuse to avoid problem-solving difficult parenting situations that you may encounter in daily life. Nor is it a reason to lack sympathy and compassion for parents that feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. But it is the summons for a change of heart for those of us who often find our circumstances complicated and trying. We must resolve to stop bemoaning the very many, many demands on parents and to stop despairing of our constant inadequacy to meet these demands in such an imperfect situation. Instead of telling ourselves that we don't have enough time, we must tell ourselves that we have just enough time. We have just enough time to love God, love our spouses, and love our kids. We have just enough time to do God's will in the present moment and with the present circumstances, no matter how imperfect those circumstances may appear to us at first glance.