My oldest daughter is a senior in high school. All school year, I’ve been waxing philosophical about transitions. As our family hurtles toward the end of an era, which even though I’ve been anxiously anticipating somehow seems to have taken me by surprise, I can’t help but do a little inventory check. What can I say about my job so far as a parent? What does it mean to be an Orthodox Christian parent specifically?
1) Teenagers are big babies.
When you have a newborn, you don’t blame that tiny bundle of bodily fluids for all the havoc they have wreaked on your life. You don’t assign intent to their actions or blame them for anything. You know they can’t help it, and you’re o.k. with that. That baby’s world is all about him all the time. You’re the warm, soft thing that makes those strange feelings of hunger, discomfort and fear go away. You don’t get a thank you, nor do you expect one. You’re the parent. They need you. End of discussion.
Seventeen years later, things have changed. For years now, they’ve lived around your schedule, shared your opinions, and your feet are firmly planted on a pedestal. Then the hormones devour your sweet little one and your world crumbles. Your life revolves around their schedule: where they need to be and where they want to go. They have opinions, and they say them…all the time…and loudly. It was awfully comfy back there in preschool land when that child couldn’t get enough of you. When all they wanted was to play your games and listen to your stories and just BE with you. This teen land is quite inhospitable. Your games are not welcome. Your mere presence is frequently not welcome. And your opinion…you apparently don’t even have one.
It all seems so unfamiliar there, but it really isn’t. You remember this. They’re babies. It’s all about them. It has to be for a time. It’s part of them becoming adults. So, remember when you didn’t assign intent to their actions? When you didn’t take it personally? It’s like that again. You’re the warm, soft thing that can make those feelings of hunger, discomfort and fear go away. You really can. You can still be the source of good in their lives. In a lot of ways, they’re just big babies right now. You’re the parent. They need you. End of discussion.
Being an Orthodox parent is embracing the role of humble servant.
2) It’s not about ME, it’s about THEM. It’s not about THEM, it’s about ME. It’s not about ME, it’s about God.
So, I acknowledge that this time is about serving my children. Growing up and transitioning to adulthood is unspeakably difficult. Especially in our modern culture. They are out there on the front lines, daily fighting for their lives. They are the warriors. I am the servant.
But they can’t be control! They can’t say those things to me, and treat me like that in my own house, and they can’t…they can’t… Details, details. It so easy to get lost in the details. The small picture is that they’re totally out of line today and behaving like children. The big picture is that it’s not about me, it’s about them. They are on their own path to salvation. I am part of their salvation. They are part of mine. We are all working out our salvation in community. And we do it with fear. And it makes us tremble down to our toes. I can’t save them. They can’t save me. We can just be thankful for the opportunity to help each other. We’re in this together.
Yes, they’re acting like children, because they ARE children. We are not raising children. We are raising adults. We want the end product to be healthy adults who live lives for God. They’re not there yet. They’re kids. Some days half kid, half adult. Some days all kid. And those few, blessed days when they say or do something so grown-up, it takes our breath away. Ah, those days are gifts from God to keep us going! It’s a process. They won’t get there without going through the tough times. We can’t take a child at 12 and plop them into life at 25 and expect them to know what on earth to do. They have to crawl through the trenches of the teen years, getting muddy and dodging bullets. They pick the route. We follow along behind and hand them ammunition when they need it.
Because they’re kids, they say the wrong things. And it stings. And they find that one button, the one they can push and get a response each and every time, and they push it all day and all night. They certainly do. But it’s not about them, it’s about me. No one can make me do anything. No one, including my children. My children tempt me like nobody’s business. They tempt me to fire back in anger when they push my buttons. They tempt me, like the lazy and slothful lump I am, to take the day off and go back on what I said or not follow through with that thing I promised. They tempt me to make it all about me. To be selfish, just like I accuse them of being. But it isn’t about me, it’s about God.
My daughter is also my sister in Christ. I am not above her, and she is not below me. We are equals in God. When l fail to see the image of Christ in my snarling, grouchy teenager, I miss an opportunity. My daughter is an icon of Christ. When I talk to her, I’m talking to Christ. Yet I say and do the nastiest things. I treat her in ways I would never dare to treat a friend, a boss, or even a stranger. I’m comfortable with my children, so I let the real me show, and it’s an ugly display. How different things are when I lay aside the fact that I’m the one who’s right, and I just say to my children, “Please forgive me.” How different things are when I just say nothing and pray instead.
Being an Orthodox parent is sacramental. I meet God in the process.
3) Time is a created thing.
God created time. It is not linear. The past, the present, and the future all overlap and get into a big jumble sometimes. This is how we can truly live and partake of the death and resurrection of Christ. How we can already proclaim His return. God is forever. Puberty is finite.
My children will live with me for about 18 years. Probably more, but let’s just talk about that first 18 years when they are children. Life expectancies now are well into the 80’s. I could get into big ratios and percentages, but I won’t. It’s obvious that they are only with us for a small amount of time. An incredibly teeny, tiny, small portion of their lives. We don’t have to cram a lifetime of interaction with them into 18 years. Those young years, they matter. They matter huge. But they’re gone. You can’t parent them as 8 year olds ever again. You can only parent them for who they are now, and if you forget that, you’ll ruin your chance at parenting them when they’re 30. They won’t listen to you. They might not even speak to you. I’d rather loosen my influence now, so I can still be an influence that they value and seek out later.
Last year, my family went through a dark and difficult time. The short version is that my teenage son had a major depressive episode and a literal and complete breakdown. The day after we admitted him to a mental hospital, I gathered the rest of the family in the icon corner at home. It felt so small with only four of us there instead of five. We stood close to make up the difference. We prayed the Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children, and the tears and the brokenness flowed like rivers in the torrent of spring. I turned to them and spoke a challenge. We were facing one of the toughest times in our lives, but we had to see it for what it really was…a gift. I told my family that I didn’t know what we were supposed to learn from this. It wasn’t clear yet. I didn’t know, but I was determined that we were not going to miss it. God gave us an opportunity to learn a huge lesson as a family. Not in laughter and ease, but in sorrow and suffering. We were going to live through that mess one way or the other. We could choose to let it break us, or we could choose to let it make us Christians. True Christians who fight and get bloody. True Christians who solely depend on God. My constant prayer at that time went something like this: “Thank you God for this time. Thank you for loving us enough to let us hurt, so we can learn in our suffering. Thank you for this opportunity. Don’t let us miss it!” Watching my son fight the demons and knowing that I couldn’t save him from the fight is the most real and certain pain I have ever felt. That pain did indeed give me clarity. My son doesn’t belong to me. He belongs to God. Glory to God for that! God is so much bigger and better than I am. I would hate for my son to have to settle for just what I can give him, when God can give him life. I can’t be my children’s God, and I need to stop trying to be.
Being an Orthodox parent is rejoicing that my children do not belong to me but to God.
The amazing God Who created the universe also created my family. The five of us are perfect for each other. Not because we get along all the time or agree or even love each other the same. We’re perfect for each other, because God put us together, and He does not make mistakes. This is it. This is my family. It’s raw and it’s real and it’s far from perfect, but God is with us. People and places and things can try to stand against us, but it doesn’t matter. God is with us. The anger and the hurt and the seemingly endless teenage battles may try to break us, but it doesn’t matter. God is with us. It may seem heavy and unbearable, but this time of trouble is truly light and momentary, for God is with us. Glory to God, He is with us!