Next month marks 20 years since I brought my first baby home from the hospital. He was round and beautiful with rosebud lips and an oversized bobble head. That head gave me struggles during the delivery. Long, hard, painful struggles.
And yet, delivery was a cakewalk compared with the days and years to follow. God is so merciful to not show us the path we must walk before we must walk it.
Because that same big head was later used for banging when he was angry. Or bashing against my chest when he wasn’t pleased about sitting through church. My adorable little boy, with the big eyes and playful smile, had an inner beast I was no match for.
And then a succession of siblings came on the scene. My special talent was making beast babies, of that much I was certain.
Many nights I cried over my failures of the day. And many mornings I rose determined to get it right at last.
The wrong focus
My intentions were good. My motives were pure. I wanted to raise happy, healthy, obedient children. Nothing wrong with that, right? Because of course there wasn’t. The problem, however, arose when I embarked on my journey with my focus on being a good mother. I plunged headlong into a study of exactly what comprised such a woman. I wanted to know how she dressed, what she ate, the way she disciplined her children, how she cared for them when they were sick, and exactly the best strategy for learning all that while keeping the spotless house any woman worth her salt knows how to keep.
Now I tend to be pretty hard on myself so excuse me for just a moment while I admit I got pretty good at polishing up my list. I carefully dressed the part while feeding my children wholesome foods, tending well to their illnesses and managing to raise a small army of well-behaved little people who brought me much praise and honor.
People lavished me with accolades and endorsements. I was living the dream. Sort of. But in reality, not at all.
Because it was all outward. I’d mastered the art of disguise. I had learned all the “reforms” and honed the craft of keeping up appearances. Internally my children were a mess. Let me share an example.
One fall when we had three children ranging in age from almost 4 to not quite 1, we decided to go to a weekend of meetings meant to be spiritually refreshing. We secured a cabin that we planned to share with another family we’d known for years and we packed up and headed off.
The car ride there was a nightmare. We endured fussing and fighting and responded by snapping and nagging. Yet when we arrived, we plastered on our best “outside” faces and went forth to wow the world with how in-control we were. The first meeting was the same evening we arrived and the boys were tired and wound tight with un-expended energy from traveling. Not willing to showcase the poor behavior we knew would accompany us to the meeting if we should attend, we opted to put the boys to bed. A sensible decision, to be fair.
But the next morning things got serious. Because they now were rested but for some reason they just wouldn’t be still or quiet in the meeting. I’d worked very, very hard to teach them to sit and I just couldn’t understand what was happening. I left the auditorium and took them back to the cabin, but I was not pleased.
I remember the scene which followed so clearly it still makes me cringe. I put my oldest child, still only 3, on his bed with far too much force and screamed at him for embarrassing me. When he started to cry, I screamed again that he had no business crying because he was the one who caused all the trouble. And I wasn’t much nicer to my 2 year old. The baby got off with just having to survive the stress and noise in the cabin, which had him adding his own piercing wails to the mix.
But even in my fury I was calculated. Nobody must know I had come unhinged. Things must be patched up and glossed over before the meeting let out. And so I went to work instructing my little boys exactly what they must do to avoid further encounters with my wrath. By the time people could be seen milling around the grounds, all our tears had been carefully scrubbed away and smiles were back in place.
Ughhhhhh. I hate the memory and worse yet is the fact that it isn’t the only one. Their lapse in public obedience was a bruise to my ego that I’d come to love to have stroked.
But the truth is, I wasn’t raising God-fearing children. I was raising outwardly obedient children who had been conditioned to obey as a survival tactic. Because I could be gentle as a dove, and I was much of the time. I’ve painted myself as a complete monster but the reality was I only unleashed my temper on them like that occasionally. Once a day or a few times a week. Or when they really “deserved” it or I just didn’t have the patience. They just never knew when it would come and so they had to sit on guard.
What an absolutely, horrifically terrible picture I had painted for them of God.
I trained them that God was harsh and exacting. I convinced them He was all about appearances. I betrayed His trust in me and I bought the devil’s lie that my job should be easy, when really, parenting is anything but.
This went on for too long. Sweet one moment and lashing out the next. Always wanting to be better but never knowing how. Until I began to truly glimpse Jesus. Until I began to hear His quiet whisperings to my heart. And here is where I began to learn the single most important parenting strategy ever and it proved as simple as it was critical.
Get to know God.
Because a form of godliness without the power thereof is more deadly than no profession of God, at all. It many ways it’s like being a false prophet…you point to and speak of God at the same time as you slander His character. It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. (Luke 17:2)
Truly, God was merciful that He didn’t toss me into the sea. I’ve done a lot of damage in my years of mothering.
But the beautiful thing about God is that He redeems us even when we’ve made an absolute mess of things. Even when our mess has spilled over onto our husbands or our children or our neighbors. Even when we feel un-redeemeable.
It took me over 1100 words to get to the point but I wanted you to see how I’ve been where you maybe are. I wanted you to know I’ve messed my kids up, too. I wanted you to hear how desperate a case I was just in case that’s how bad a case you feel you are.
I want you to know there’s hope because Jesus.
If you’re a lists person, let me give you a 3 part list of my very best parenting advice from 20 years in and nowhere near done. (My kids range in age from 19 down to 3)
- Nurture your relationship with God. Without a doubt, this has to come first. And while relationships grow over time, God responds to our attention immediately. His Spirit comes willingly and eagerly when invited. Make time to meet Him in the morning, without fail. No matter how busy you are, no matter how early you must rise, no matter what is on the schedule for the day…this has to be non-negotiable. If your life is such that an early morning, in-depth study session can’t happen, don’t use that as an excuse to brush past Him until later when you have more time. By then you’ll be in emergency mode. Seek Him in prayer. Get up even 15 minutes earlier and go talk with Him. Confess yourself so you can stand pure before Him and invite the Holy Spirit to guide you through the day. HE will teach you to be a good parent. HE will save you from yourself. Your job is to get to know Him. To study His character. But you have to make the time for it. If you can’t study in the morning for some reason, do it at naptime or during quiet time. Even in the evening once the children are in bed. Find a time, make a time and then guard the time!
- Get your children’s hearts. This is the most important thing you can do aside from getting to know the heart of God. Seriously. If your children, big or small, are struggling with obedience or are defying you or are rejecting your God, it’s a matter of the heart. Go after them. Be interested in what’s important to them. Listen to what they are, and often even more importantly what they aren’t, saying. Be available to them. Invest in them even when it’s inconvenient. Encourage them in every good choice they make, even when good choices are few and far between. Pray for them, specifically and consistently. If you get their hearts, you’ll also get the behaviors you’ve been after. And when you have their hearts, they’ll want your God.
- Speak silently. Because what we do and how we behave is infinitely more powerful than what we say. The best way to lead them to Christ is to be a reflection of His goodness in how we live. If they see us live one way and preach another, they’ll detect hypocrisy and discard our sermons. The way we love, forgive, assist, and surrender is the only real message they’ll hear anyway. Share the gospel with them…and if necessary, use words.
What would you add? How can we pray for you?