Parenting has taught me a lot about vulnerability and shame. When our child wanders — making decisions we don’t agree with — our natural tendency is to feel like it is a reflection on us. We feel shame about our parenting skills, vulnerable because of what others might think of us, and failure because we just aren’t measuring up. Time has helped heal my heart, but the lessons are still very real.
The Pain of Parenting
Being a parent is just plain hard. There is no other way to say it. We love these little people with whom we are entrusted with all of our hearts. We give them all that we mentally, physically, and spiritually have for the first eighteen years of their life; and then launch them into the world hoping we have not failed them in some way. Through them, we can feel the most rewarding joy and the most wretched pain.
For several years my husband and I endured the extreme pain and bitter disappointment of a broken heart. It was as if we were caught in a whirlpool – feeling totally helpless as one of our children wandered making choices with consequences we had no control over. As a parent, we often make the mistake of thinking that IF we can fix a problem, or change an outcome, everything will be all better.
The reality is that when we do sweep in to protect our children from the consequences of their mistakes we are doing them a great injustice because that kind of protection also keeps them from learning. This life is all about learning, and our role as a parent is to help our children learn – even when it breaks our heart.
Learning from Experience
Psychologist and philosopher, John Dewey said that “we do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” In that regard, hindsight is a wonderful thing when used to reflect on what life’s lessons have taught us.
Time has helped us reflect on the good that has come from our devastation. We’ve come to recognize that God loves our children even more than we do, and His complete and perfect love permits us all to experience life – the good and the bad – so that we might develop the traits and attributes we need to become more like Christ.
We learned that not only did our child have a choice, but we did too. That because Adam and Eve partook of the fruit in the Garden of Eden we all have the agency to choose how we will react when the unimaginable happens.
The details of our child’s struggle are not mine to tell, but how we chose to deal with the heartache are. We choose joy over pain. Not because we found joy in the heartache, but because we searched for the joy despite the pain.
Our first choice was to try to show unconditional love. I believe it is a natural reaction to want to return pain for pain. We quickly learned that it did not help the situation. Our need to feel justified in being right was not as important as letting our child know he was loved despite choices we might not agree with. This child was not purposefully trying to hurt us and so to add to the pain he already felt would only push him farther away. It became more important to us to show him we were unwavering in our love, and that we would always be there.
I recently read a parenting article which, in essence, stated that sometimes it is easier to give our children what we think they deserve rather than what they need. Do our children deserve for us to fix the consequences of their choices? No. Do they need to know we love them unconditionally? Yes.
The next thing we chose to do was pray. We did not pray for a solution, but for our ability to understand how to act, react and learn. Our prayers were for our troubled child, and the eyes to see him as God does and to love him in the way he needed. We prayed for our other children, for help in raising them amidst this trial. Praying with all of your heart is a very powerful tool, and is an act which can bring our desires in line with what God knows we need.
Your child does NOT define who you are
The third thing we chose to not do was allow our child’s choices define who we were as parents. This was especially hard for me to do. I’m the queen of shame and would question every parenting decision I ever made, and how it might have led to the current situation. If only I had spent more one on one time this might have been avoided. The reality is the choices our children make are theirs, not ours. Just because our child wandered, making different choices does not make us a bad parent.
Search for the Joy
Finally, we focused on things that brought us joy. A positive attitude is a real healing balm in the midst of a trial. Each day I tried each day to think of our pain a little less and the good just a little more. Slowly the weight of despair started to dissipate. Directing more of my focus on helping others rather than dwelling on myself always brought me more joy. I even found that I could help lighten another’s heartache by sharing some of my own perspective and encouragement.
Feelings of failure and self-doubt were replaced with the knowledge that God loves us all. Choosing to leave our life in His hands is the safest way to get through life. He is the perfect parent and allowing Him to guide us requires some effort on our part. It requires us to listen and to understand what He would have us do, and then do it.
Humility and Healing
Our journey was not easy by any means. Watching our teenager spiral out of control was a very humbling process. We were stretched and taught us more than we ever thought possible. While I don’t claim to be any type of expert, I do know our choices brought us to where we are today.
There is no judgment or blame when another family struggles with their child. Our unrealistic expectations of some sort of superhuman power to inspire obedience in our children went out the door. We are simply parents loving our children and wanting what is best – we have given up on trying “fix” everything.
I share our experience because maybe someone out there is feeling what I felt. None of us are alone in our struggles. There a light at the end of the tunnel. There can be joy again.