Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fathering fears, then and now


Before I had kids, I was scared of many things. Here are the top six fears I nursed:
  1. My children will grow up to be mass murderers.
  2. Even if they aren't mass murderers, my choice to give new souls existence will lead to the world being worse in other ways, such as overpopulation.
  3. I will "screw my kids up" with my own imperfections.
  4. If Bible greats such as David, Jacob, Abraham, Adam and even Creator God Himself had such lousy records as dads (think Absalom's rebellion, Joseph's brothers selling him as a slave, Ishmael and mom having to flee, Cain killing Abel, Adam and Eve finding the only junk food in an otherwise perfect garden), then I am SOL (Surely Out of Luck).
  5. My relationship with my wife will be over once the kids come.
  6. I will no longer have a life.
A few years into parenthood, I feel a little less melodramatic about these fears, but most are still there in altered form. These days, the fears above look more like this:
  1. While my paranoia that they'll be homicidal has pretty much tapered off (and what's more, we parents beat the infanticidal temptations of those sleepless nights), I do still fear that my kids will pick up a habit of killing people with unkind words, gossip and contempt.
  2. I believe now that by grace, my children will actually make the world better than it could have been without them. I continue to fear that growing up in a materialistic society will give them a sense of attachment and entitlement to more than their share of resources, that they will be wasteful and careless.
  3. I am grateful for the ways that grace has diluted the "sins of the fathers" in my generation, and hopeful that the weaknesses I pass on to my kids will be watered down even more. Still, I abhor the thought of my girls apologizing some day to their kids for their anger, moodiness, pessimism, procrastination, criticism, messy house, etc. with the explanation, "Sorry, but it's something I learned from your grandpa."
  4. When Rachelle and I were expecting Brielle, I expressed fear #4 to my friend, Tracy Gunneman, like this. "When I look to the Bible for hope as a future father, I keep seeing that all these spiritual giants really sucked as parents." Tracy's inspired response? "And you know what, Mike? You're going to suck at it too." Beat. I giggled, checking to be sure I'd heard him right. He nodded. "But by God's grace, they're going to be OK." This prophetic utterance was the breach in the dam of my parenting perfectionism. Nothing goes perfectly, not then, not now, not ever. But God still does His thing. And it's going to be OK. (I do still fear that Ashlyn will take after Great-grandma Eve and eat poisonous fruit.)
  5. Did you ever have a friend move away, and somehow you created more quality time and intentional communication than when they lived across town? Kids have been like that move to Rachelle and me. We have to plan more carefully, but we actually have weekly date nights and quarterly overnight getaways, things that we never got around to before the kids came. The luxury cruise ship of convenient time together has gone the way of the Titanic, so we cling to these couple times as our life raft of intimacy, and it's cozier here. What's more, the common focus of our kids brings us together with a less egocentric focus than before kids. Rachelle's commitment to our couplehood as top priority has all but eliminated this old fear.
  6. I have redefined, "have a life." My old definition was pretty narrow, anyhow. I'm actually just scared of what sort of life I might have lived had I limited myself with all these fears.
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Questions I'm asking myself:
  • If "perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18), to what extent does the persistence of these fears reveal a lack of love in me? To what extent might these fears interfere with my love of my family?
  • But it seems like responsible parents must be somewhat fearful. Doesn't God fear what might become of us? To what extent should I seek to purge my heart of fears for my kids?

7 comments:

Lynne said...

I must say, this blog hits right at the heart of things for me. I can feel tears just below the surface. . .now peering out of glassy eyes. Coming from a broken home (my parents divorced when I was 9) and a nearly 100% divorce rate in both my paternal and maternal extended families, my upbringing was replete with aunts, uncles and cousins who were children of absent parents (physically or otherwise). My own latchkey existence left me sour on ever having kids because I wasn't sure I would know what to do with them. When we were surprised with the expectation of our first I was frightened, worried -- then determined to be the best mother on planet earth. I read all the parenting advice I was aware of at the time (and might not listen so closely to now) from Dobson to Kuzma and EGW and set out to be for my child everything I never had in parents (presence, friendship, involvement in school/church activities, guidance, structure, etc.). Later than I would have hoped I realized my efforts to be a loving parent were unwittingly aimed at fixing my own childhood and preventing my child from repeating my mistakes. I worried, fretted and feared for my child. Was this love? Yes, and no. I now think I see that God's way of loving us is more of an attending, leaning-in-to-us-love, tuning His heart to ours and listening carefully, anticipating surprise and elation at what we are becoming. His guidance is gentle, open-handed, sprinkled with firm, but loving discipline when needed. He is ever present, yet ever allowing us space, giving us the opportunity to talk ourselves through our angst and arrive at our own conclusions. His voice is deep, calm, comforting, nonjudgemental. . .His words spoken in due season. Most of all He is interested in giving us the desires of our hearts - He is truly interested in our unfolding through our own choices and letting us know He will love us no matter what. I am haunted by the line in the movie, "Finding Neverland," where Johnny Depp's character is expressing his regrets to the grandmother of the now motherless boys over what he did or didn't do to make their lives better. The grandmother's reply was "oh, don't give yourself so much credit." That statement is both humbling and liberating. Yep, we all suck as parents, to one degree or another, and we really can't take much credit for the wonderful people God has made our children to be -- likewise, we can relax in knowing that the mistakes our kids have or will make are largely their own. In practicing this frame of mind I can't say I'm now free of fear and regret, but I do have a growing sense of peace. I'm attempting to understand better what it means to lay my life down and let go - and keep my arms outstretched in the letting go. Lay down. Let go. Arms outstretched. Father, make us parents like You.

Stephen said...

Great insights Mike! I can definitely relate to the fears in the first half of your blog. I hope that I can come to understand the second half with time. Thanks for your honesty and candor about all of this. I look forward to your insights (with great earnestnes) as Daneen and I prepare for kids (soon - nothing to announce just yet, but we're finally talking about it. One step at a time.)

Blissful Begonia said...

I'm enjoying your blog! Thanks for letting us share in your fatherhood journey. Your questions are insightful, and your kids are lucky to have a father who is thoughtfully considering his role and impact. I added your blog to my feed and will be reading regularly. :-)

Marc said...

Today's entry was a breath of fresh air Mike. Keep writing.

Michael J. Bennie said...

Thanks, Lynne, for that beautiful sharing from your childhood and on through. I hope others reading realize that when we rely on "God's grace" we are not being laissez-faire or flippant about "letting the chips fall where they may." God forbid. But as you have found, excessive zeal for perfect parenting can be self-defeating, and is a bit idolatrous in the first place. I like Gibran's quote on parenting at http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/poems/1194.html, where he compares kids to arrows and parents to bows. May we be steady and responsive in the hand of the Archer.

Michael J. Bennie said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Marc, Blissful, Stephen, Lynn, Margie, Ed and everyone else who has read. I am humbled by your willingness to spend your precious time here.

Lynne said...

Thanks for the reference Mike. I will definitely go to the website and read. . .and thanks for spending your precious time to share with us. It is an unexpected blessing to me.