I don’t think, however, that my perspective is valueless because of my age or experience. My wife and I strive to live out our Catholic faith every day. And while secular society may think kids hold us back from being happy, we are learning to embrace the vocation that God gave us as parents.
I can’t say that parenting is exactly what I expected. It is crazy at times but also extremely enriching and enjoyable. It is incredibly demanding but also more fulfilling than anything I’ve done. The challenge of laying down our lives for our children has taught us that parenting can be a sanctifying experience. It can help shape our character to be more like Christ- if we allow it.
It’s a Big Deal
Raising a family in the modern age is an important job. As my wife and I always remind each other when we are feeling weary and distracted, we are raising the next generation of humans who will take charge of our churches, governments, schools, businesses, and culture. Not to mention the fact that we are responsible for helping get these kids to heaven. We are literally nurturing the future right under our roof.
Whenever I start reminiscing about how easy life was in college or wondering what my single friends are doing this weekend, I look at my wife and my two little boys smiling at me and I think, “What could possibly be more important or more fulfilling than this?” I have the power to change the future by how I lead and love my family. So when I get caught up thinking I am missing out on doing “big things”, I remind myself in the midst of all the diapers, food throwing, and screaming, that being a parent is a BIG DEAL.
Parents- Don’t Disappear!
I have noticed families with young children seem to”disappear” from society for a few years. Parents understandably get overwhelmed when their children are under 5-years-old; so they withdraw from engaging with society and remain at home – surviving. Once the kids are old enough to play sports, have friends, or be more self-reliant, parents re-emerge and try to immerse themselves in culture again. Most often it is a difficult transition since they have been absent from the social scene for 5+ years; they have to re-learn how to communicate and have normal relationships with non-family members again. Young families seem to miss out on life experiences.
It’s not easy to be the family with screaming kids in the grocery store. I only have two little kids and I’m just beginning to understand. I know it’s exponentially more difficult when there are more than two. It’s not easy to dedicate your entire life to raising the next generation only to undergo snide remarks and dirty looks whenever you leave the house.
However, I don’t think disappearing is the solution. Children are God’s greatest gifts to us; hiding them away when they are young because we are afraid or embarrassed deprives society of the joy only a child can bring. Literally every morning at mass we have someone come up to us and mention how happy and grateful they are to see young kids at church. It’s not hard to spot the joy on their faces when a little baby smiles at them. I was at an event the other day when my one-year-old reached for a stranger, who then held him while telling me he has three grand-babies he has never met. This man’s joy was unmistakable.
Just because children complicate things doesn’t mean parents should simply survive instead of thriving. My wife and I drove nine hours to the Oregon coast last year with a three-year-old and a six-month-old. Overall, the first half of the trip was miserable. Screaming kids, irritable parents, rainy, windy conditions on the beach, and expensive coffee are not fun. But as we settled in and began to enjoy our family adventure, we realized how important it was to continue living regardless of how difficult kids make it. We could have disappeared that weekend and stayed home to watch cartoons all day, but none of us would have experienced the beauty and power of the Pacific coast and the closeness we felt as a family during that difficult but fulfilling trip.
I’m gradually beginning to understand that even if it’s hard or embarrassing, young families should not disappear! The world needs us.
There have been times in my 4+ years of parenting where I observe a behavior in one my kids and ask myself, “Where in the world did they get that?” After some introspection, I realize I probably share their character flaws. This can be a useful tool for self-improvement. For instance, my four-year-old tends to be a bit socially awkward; he picks up on social cues from others and looks for validation. This annoyed me for awhile until I finally realized how similar this is to my own personality. Similarly, my one-year-old will laugh at a joke with us when he obviously has no idea what it means just so he can fit in. Again, a tendency of mine revealed through my children.
On our Oregon coast trip, my oldest boy kept asking, “What are we doing? Where are we going? What are we doing after that?” It was exasperating until I finally understood that his need to constantly know the plan is tantamount to my relationship with God. I ask the same questions when I am unsure of the path laid before me or when life makes demands of me and I want to know why or for how long.
God, director of the theo-drama we are a part of, has laid out my role from the beginning of time and yet I still have the audacity to ask Him, “Where am I going? Why am I going there? What’s the plan after that?” I know He has my best interests in mind but when things get hard I have the tendency to question the divine plan and my place in it (just like my son’s reluctance to trust our plan when everything was miserable). And just like my son did in Oregon, when I find myself in an unfamiliar place I say, “I want to go back home!” I want to return to what I am used to, what is easy, instead of stepping out of the boat and trusting that God will guide my steps.
The Sanctifying Vocation
If someone truly desires to be all in with the Christian faith and follow the call of Christ to lay down their lives and serve those around them then they should get married and have kids. There will never be a shortage of opportunities to deny yourself and take up your cross as a parent. Marriage itself is rooted in the idea that the “two become one flesh”. Wives submit to their husbands, who in turn lay down their lives for their spouse. Adding kids to the mix only enhances these vows of self-sacrifice and service. Parents are required to literally deny their own needs for those of their children. My wife always jokes about how she feels like the octopus mother– the epic parent who protects and provides for its eggs until it dies from exhaustion and hunger.
I understand how dads can be such deadbeats sometimes. It can be extremely exhausting to come home from work and help my wife with the kids when all I want is to lay down and drink a beer. Yet, by setting aside our own needs and desires, we bring ourselves closer to the life of Christ.
If you think about it, parents live out the spiritual and corporal acts of mercy every day. In taking care of their kids, parents spiritually counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, comfort the sorrowful, forgive injuries, bear wrongs patiently, and pray for the living and the dead. In addition, they physically feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, take care of the sick, give alms to the poor, and, in some terrible circumstances, bury the dead.
Where else in the world will you find such opportunity to serve humanity and become more like Christ every day?
Resilience and Discipline
Something I definitely did not realize at first is how much I would have to use my athletic training to help me excel as a father and a husband. I have written on this topic before (here and here) but I want to specifically touch on the idea of mental toughness and discipline. In my experience as an athlete, a huge emphasis was placed on the ability to control your thought process and block out the noise to focus on the task at hand no matter the situation. Not until recently did I make the connection of how important this quality is in marriage, parenting, and my relationship with God.
We have all seen frazzled parents at mass who are desperately trying to keep their young children quiet and entertained so they don’t disturb others and at the same time trying to glean whatever nourishment they can. It sometimes feels like a waste of time to go to church because most of our energies are spent on babysitting rather than entering into prayer and meditation. What I am realizing is that it takes a certain amount of mental discipline to pray and be engaged in the mass, pick up the toy your child dropped and ask them to be quiet, and then turn your attention back to the altar and enter in once again.
The same goes for family prayers at night. The kids are quiet and docile one minute and then loud and distracting the next. I have found in order to maintain and grow my relationship with both God and my wife, I need mental toughness to multi-task and block out noise without becoming distracted or annoyed when I am trying to pray. The same goes for reading a book or having a deep conversation with other adults. I have to tear myself away every minute or two, check on the kids, and then return to the activity with the same focus and mental capacity I had before.
Even little things like consciously setting aside our own needs and desires for those of our families can be considered mental discipline. Just as it’s a choice to love your spouse every day, it is a deliberate decision to place your family’s needs first. When I am struggling in this area, I like to think of Jesus in Luke 9:51,
“When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”
He knew there would be difficulty and distractions on his journey but he resolved in his heart to be mentally tougher than whatever the devil threw at him.
Learning on the Fly
I think we all want to do “big things” and make an impact on the world. As much as society tries to tell us otherwise, parenting and family life is about as big of a deal as it gets when it comes to shaping the future. We are told that focusing on our careers or worldly endeavors is what will make us truly happy. But I am learning that God has given us the gift of children and allows us to be sanctified through them so, together, we may come to know the love of Christ in our lives.
It is hard, no doubt, but by modeling the example of Jesus in joyfully laying down our lives for each other we may help my generation find their way again.