Parenthood is impossible . . . and that is a blessed thing!
by Barry Peratt
I have a friend who once told me that, at one point in her life, she suffered from severe anxiety, indigestion, and insomnia.
“Then,” she said, “I made a single change in my life that cured all of that. What was it? I quit leading youth ministry at church.”
Whatever it was about youth ministry, it did not sit well with her disposition and gifts. I have known other professionals, with lucrative careers, who quit their jobs in order to improve their mental health by alleviating the stress associated with their careers.
In light of this, two truths have finally become clearer to me:
- parenthood is an irrevocable decision because it is an integral part of the vocation to marriage, which is an irrevocable abandonment to union with another, and
- parenthood is impossible to do well because it is a Christian vocation and, by definition, all Christian vocations are impossible to do well, humanly speaking.
A vocation that requires trust in God
Succinctly put, if you decide that parenthood is too stressful for you, if you decide that its demands are beyond what you can handle, there is no quitting. This daunting truth keeps many from ever saying yes to God in this way. Just as covenantal marriage is a complete and irrevocable yoking of one’s destiny to that of another, even without knowing ahead of time what the destiny will be, so parenthood is a decision to yoke yourself to the life of your children—in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, for richer and poorer, till death do you part. In that sense, becoming a parent requires a complete abandonment of self to Divine Providence, a desperate clinging to Christ, and a firm trust in God’s grace.
A friend of mine once mentioned that he had observed, in most couples who have chosen not to have children, a certain “kind of lingering incompleteness.” This was not meant as a slam against childless couples; it was an observation that embracing parenthood changes people in a way that no other life decision does. One cannot achieve the end of parenthood without actually being a parent. Other interactions with children, such as being a teacher or a nanny, can mimic certain elements of parenthood, but they are not parenthood.
Parenthood forces one into a type of maturity that is characterized by self-abandonment. If your child throws up at 2 a.m., you need to clean it up, even if you yourself are sick and tired and can barely move. If your children need to eat at the end of an exhausting day, you need to make their meal, because no one else is there to do it.
A friend of mine, a dear mother of a low-functioning Down’s Syndrome child, said to one of her other children, “Do you think I had the strength to get up a 5 AM every day, after an exhausting day the day before, to once again get your sister ready for school, to attend to the endless special needs she had as well as keep the house and attend to my other duties? No, I did not. I was exhausted and empty and literally did not have it in me to do one more thing. Oh, but Jesus…”
We are no longer our own
Parents soon find that their life is no longer their own. So real is this rapid transition a couple I know identify two distinct eras in their relationship: B.E. and A.E. (i.e. “before Emily” and “after Emily” (Emily is their first child).
And yet that relentless obligation as a parent, if embraced, becomes, ironically, a source of great joy and fulfillment. Emptying oneself, putting one’s own desires and “needs” in second place, is fulfilling. One begins to rejoice and weep with their children. A child’s consolation is also yours; your child’s pain is also yours. You find that your very life is bound up with that of your children in such an intimate and intricate way that you find it difficult to remember what life was like before they were with you. They have changed the very fabric of your life; they have, in fact, changed who you are. Even your name is different; it is now “Mom” or “Dad.”
You also find that living parenthood well is impossible, humanly speaking. This is the point of the Christian life—it is impossible to live well, humanly speaking. The demands of it are so ridiculously beyond the human capacity that the only way to embrace Christianity is through a firm trust in the faithfulness of God’s grace. Christ Himself was the model of this, for he gave up everything, “taking the very nature of a servant” (cf. Philippians 2:7-8a). What He did in the flesh while He walked the earth, He did through the power of the Holy Spirit; “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit” (John 3:34). He did not His own will but that of the Father: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). He abandoned Himself completely, and what He did, He commanded us to do. But, just as He did, we will do these things not in our own power but in the power of the Holy Spirit: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city [i.e. don’t begin your ministry] until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
A way of following Jesus
And so, every Christian vocation is a path toward embracing this call to do as Jesus did, in the power of the Holy Spirit as He did. If we attempt to accomplish it through our own strength, we will utterly fail, because it is impossible.
Every parent finds themselves making impossible choices. A choice between good and evil is, relatively speaking, easy to make. Most difficult and perplexing are those decisions between two things that are good or, more difficult still, between two good things that are both very important. Which battles do you choose to pursue as a parent? Which opportunities do you make available to your child? The family has limited time and energy, as do you. So, you do what you can, you do your best, fully realizing that it is never good enough. What you do, you do prayerfully. Then, you trust God to be faithful to steer you differently if that is what needs to happen, and you trust Him to attend to those things that must be done but which you cannot do yourself. If God’s grace does not come through, you fail. Period. There is no Plan B. That is called faith, and the necessity of relying on it is what moves us toward sanctification.
That is why parenthood is a vocation—it is our path to sanctity. It is impossible, and that is a blessed thing! I feel like saying to every new parent, “Welcome to the vocation that will make you feel completely incompetent and inadequate for the rest of your life. It will be the most humbling, crushing, liberating, joyful, fulfilling, maddening, sanctifying, ecstatic journey of your life. And you will never be the same as you were before. Ever.”