Seasons of Parenthood

Readings Before the Sermon

From a 34 year-old mother of three children….

At 34 I took Art 101 at my local community college. One day our instructor announced that the project we had done on the first day of class was to be included in the notebook that would be a major part of our grade. “May I do another project,” I asked somewhat anxiously. “I just don’t have the first one anymore.” The instructor asked what had happened to it. Somewhat embarrassed, I  replied, “It’s on my mother’s fridge.”

From professional speaker Mike Staver:

I was 13 years old. My family had moved to Southern California from North Florida a year before. I hit adolescence with a vengeance. I was angry and rebellious, with little regard for anything my parents had to say, particularly if it had to do with me. Like so many teenagers, I struggled to escape from anything that didn’t agree with my picture of the world. A “brilliant without need of guidance” kid, I rejected any overt offering of love. In fact, I got angry at the mention of the word love.

One night, after a particularly difficult day, I stormed into my room, shut the door and got into bed. As I lay down in the privacy of my bed, my hands slipped under my pillow. There was an envelope. I pulled it out and on the envelope it said, “To read when you’re alone.”

Since I was alone, no one would know whether I read it or not, so I opened it. It said, “Mike, I know life is hard right now, I know you are frustrated and I know we don’t do everything right. I also know that I love you completely and nothing you do or say will ever change that. I am here for you if you ever need to talk, and if you don’t, that’s okay. Just know that no matter where you go or what you do in your life, I will always love you and be proud that you are my son. I’m here for you and I love you–that will never change. Love, Mom.”

That was the first of several “To read when you’re alone” letters. They were never mentioned until I was an adult.

Today, I travel the world helping people. I was in Sarasota, Florida, teaching a seminar when, at the end of the day, a lady came up to me and shared the difficulty she was having with her son. We walked out to the beach, and I told her of my mom’s undying love and about the “To read when you’re alone” letters. Several weeks later, I got a card that said she had written her first letter and left it for her son.

That night as I went to bed, I put my hands under my pillow and remembered the relief I felt every time I got a letter. In the midst of my turbulent teen years, the letters were the calm assurance that I could be loved in spite of me, not because of me. Just before I fell asleep I thanked God that my mom knew what I, an angry teenager, needed.

Today when the seas of life get stormy, I know that just under my pillow there is that calm assurance that love–consistent, abiding, unconditional love–changes lives.

The Sermon

From Erma Bombeck, a piece entitled “Costume for the School Play”:

There is nothing that does more for my mornings than to have a child announce hysterically, “Mom! I’m in a play today. I need a costume!”

Some mothers are lucky. They have children who get all the good parts. Their little girls are fairy princesses with magic wands and Sunday dresses. Or their little boys are assigned roles as toy soldiers who can be outfitted from the toy box.

Not my kids. They are always cast as a bad tooth, the Sixteenth Amendment or Mr. Courtesy.

With the bad tooth, we faked it. I wrapped the kid in a white sheet and stuck a raisin in his navel to depict a cavity.

The Sixteenth Amendment was a bit more complicated. It deals, of course, with the power of Congress to lay and collect taxes on incomes. We outfitted her in a baggy suit with the pockets inside out and a blank check across her mouth stamped INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

Mr. Courtesy was a real challenge. We finally put him in a Superman suit, changed the big red S to a big red C and told him to smile until his face broke.

Last week, one of the kids did it again. “Hey, Mom. I forgot to tell you, but I’m in a play today.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said calmly. “I’ll get a costume. What are you?”

“I’m a participle,” he said.

I steadied myself against the stove. “Split or dangling?”

“You’re confused,” he said. “I only dangle. Dan Freeby is the one who splits. He’s an infinitive.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “Now, what did you have in mind?”

“I don’t care. The teachers just want me to modify Mike Ferrett.”

“What’s he wearing?”

“I don’t know. Whatever nouns wear.”

“You’re right,” I said. “You see one noun, you’ve seen them all. Look, why don’t you just wear a clean shirt and your slipover with your Sunday pants?”

“That’s dumb,” he said. “Who’d know I was a participle?”

“Who’d know you weren’t?” I snapped.

“If this will help you,” he said, “I look exactly like a gerund.”

I promised myself a good stiff belt of vanilla if I lived through this morning.

**

Actress Elizabeth Stone once said, “Making the decision to have a child—it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” And no parent is unchanged by this. From the initial experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, or of adoption; to the first nine months of infancy; to baby’s first steps and toddlerhood; to elementary school years; to adolescence and middle school & high school years; to the time when the now young adult leaves home for college or work or elsewhere; to the time when the now mature adult is financially independent and perhaps has children of his or her own; to the time when you the parent require your adult child to care for you—no parent is unchanged by all this. “We’re certainly shaping our children’s lives,” says Barbara Unell and Jerry Wyckoff in their fantastic book The Eight Seasons of Parenthood, “but they are recreating us season by season, in effect causing us to redefine ourselves through this shared experience.”

No less than our hearts are walking around outside our bodies! So, like Erma Bombeck, you learn a lot of things you never ever thought you would, like how to make up school costumes on the spot, even if the costumes are of odd or random things like a bad tooth, the Sixteenth Amendment, Mr. Courtesy, or that great hero of the English language, the participle. You learn a lot, and you feel a lot, as you ride the parenthood roller coaster, experiencing all the fun and all the not-so-fun. And while we know that not every parent is able to show unconditional love skillfully, even so, that is the direction it all wants to move towards. How to love. Putting your 34 year-old mother of three’s art project on your fridge, because you never stop being a mom. Slipping “To read when you’re alone” letters underneath your angry adolescent’s pillow, because you accept his anger, and love him anyway.

Not everyone here is a parent, and that needs to be clearly acknowledged. Yet we have all been parented; we are all children of moms or children of dads or children of both. So one reason for my sermon today is to help us understand our parents better, whether they were skillful or not. Another reason is to speak to those of us who are parents (myself included) and encourage taking a longer view of the journey we are on—seeing ourselves from a broader and perhaps more compassionate perspective than usual. To do this, we’ll first of all survey the eight seasons of parenting that Barbara Unell and Jerry Wyckoff explore in their book, and then we’ll highlight some of the main ways in which these seasons (with all their challenges and opportunities) move parents towards a greater love.

As we turn to the eight parenting seasons, as a way of prefacing things I want to briefly recount an old story about a King, who one day commanded all his wise women and men to come to him, and there he commanded them to create a motto which would be appropriate in every situation, as useful in prosperity as in adversity, something wise and true, words that might in any possible circumstance guide any person, their whole lives. And (he said) it needs to be short enough to be engraved on my ring.” (The King obviously did not invite preachers to this party.) So the wise people withdrew, and wrestled with this command for days and days, until finally they emerged from their chambers and came to the King with their newly created motto. “O King,” they said, “we have created the words that shall give rise to wisdom in every circumstance of life, happy or sad.” And these were the words they gave to the King, short enough to engrave on his ring: “this too shall pass away.”

Parents need to put this ring on every day. “When my daughter was a baby,” says one of the many parents that Barbara Unell and Jerry Wyckoff interviewed, “I couldn’t wait for her to start walking and talking. Now I just wish she’d stay put and be quiet … for even a minute!” But this too shall pass away. Such wisdom can give us a measure of peace when, in the moment, frustration makes us want to do bad things; and it can also prevent future regrets, as when we reflect on a parenting stage that has flashed by, as they do, and we say, “I wish I had appreciated it more. I wish my head had been more in the present, rather than somewhere else.”

This too shall pass. Starting with the first parenting season, which Barbara Unell and Jerry Wyckoff describe as the Celebrity season. For biological mothers, it begins at conception and continues until birth, and for the most part, the focus is on the mother-to-be. The more her pregnancy shows, the more she becomes the center of attention; “to onlookers she’s the rosy, blooming symbol of fertility. [But] invisible to her adoring fans are the back pain, morning sickness, hemorrhoids, elevated blood pressure, anemia, nosebleeds, frequent urination, leg cramps, toxemia, swollen ankles, shortness of breath, and, eventually, stretch marks.” Up to this time, the mother-to-be has been focused on herself, forging her own unique identity and destiny; but now her body is telling her a different story. Story of WE, not me. The more her belly grows, the more she comes to understand that her personal agenda as an individual will never again be absolute, automatic top priority; that from now on, she will balance her own needs with that of the beloved child growing within her. “It’s unbelievable,” says one young mother, “how I could be so full of joy and so full of fear in the same breath.”

But this too shall pass. Soon the baby is born, and from that moment, up till he or she begins to walk, it is a whole new world. Smiling, staring, gurgling, babbling, crying, rolling over, sitting up, creeping, crawling, taking first steps. A baby completely dependent on his or her parents, and the parents soak it all up. Says one mother, “It’s like someone kicks down a door that was sealed shut, and then the whole world—sunshine, flowers—falls through.” But parents can also feel completely wrung out by the intensity of the new experience, the intensity of constantly needing to forego personal needs in order to meet baby’s. All of which is why Barbara Unell and Jerry Wyckoff call this parenting season the Sponge season. Parents soaking it all in, parents wrung out. Hundreds of decisions to be made, small and large, but often incredible fear of doing the wrong thing. Should I go back to work? Should I stay home with the baby? And still a continuing sense of, Really? I’m a mom? Really? It’s just as writer Anne Lamott puts it: “It feels like I’m baby-sitting in the Twilight Zone. I keep waiting for the parents to show up because we are out of chips and Diet Coke.” As for Dad, the path to “WE not me” has been somewhat delayed by the fact that he has not experienced pregnancy and childbirth as the mother has. He’s got to get cracking, though, and become an equal partner in the parenthood venture. But too often men can feel helpless and unsure of where they fit in … and disguise this as sheer lack of interest, or busyness at work. Not for the first time will the issue of how we ourselves have been parented come up; if dad never changed a diaper in his life, should the son follow the blueprint laid out, or should he rip it up and make a different choice? So many decisions to be made.

And the season passes. Soon enough, the baby is walking, and parenting moves into its next season, that of Family Manager. Behavior, diet, intellectual stimulation, safety, shelter, social development, physical health, and well-being—all are managed to the end of training one’s toddler in social ways and means. This is often the season when parents go looking for a religious community in which to bring up their child—that’s my own story! But in the training of one’s toddler: forget about such things as efficiency or order. “All the rules change,” say Unell and Wyckoff, “as children demonstrate their personalities and activate their ability to protest: running away when their names are called; uttering their new word, no; coloring walls, furniture, and curtains with streaks of crayon; venturing into streets; scrambling out of strollers; getting into medicine cabinets.” “My way or the highway” isn’t going to cut it here as a parenting strategy. So parents must learn how to negotiate with their child in ways that honor his or her growing sense of self even as justice is done to larger considerations. My wife Laura’s classic strategy with Sophia was giving her choices within boundaries. “For a snack you can have an apple or a carrot; which one would you like?” Choices within boundaries—not “my way or the highway” and neither the sheer abandonment of “whatever you like, honey,” but negotiation.

And this too shall pass. “When a child enters first grade,” says Unell and Wyckoff, “regardless of how many baby-sitters, day care centers, preschools, or kindergartens she has gone to, parents feel the family foundations shift and it causes a ripple to travel through every aspect of their lives.” Your child now spends the majority of his or her time outside of the home, and it looks like costumes for the school play, teacher conferences, soccer tournaments, Valentine’s Day parties, day camps, piano recitals, field trips, ballet lessons, Cub Scouts, Brownies, and on and on. Thus the name of this particular parenting season: that of the Travel Agent. The task here is “to discover just where your children need to go in the world, help them prepare for the trip, and arrange how to get them there and back home as safely as possible, physically, spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.” Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in this season is coping with how other people and the larger world treat your child. One’s heart, walking around outside of one’s body! And so the helplessness parents can feel when a child comes home and says they are being bullied, or they feel like no one likes them. How the blood pressure elevates during parent-teacher conferences, or when you hear that a school policy does not act in what you perceive to be your child’s favor. The natural tendency can be to helicopter and try to micromanage your kid’s life. The tendency can be to rebel against teachers and school policies on your kid’s behalf, because he or she is of course the exception to the rule. Multiply all this stress and worry by twenty if your child has special needs, and you find yourself fighting a constant battle of bureaucracy, misinformation, and prejudice. It is just so hard to get clear about what is truly within one’s power, and what is not; just so hard to let go; so hard to honor the human condition of disappointment and frustration in our children’s lives as well as in our own, and refocus our efforts in helping them learn how to cope, how to play the cards they’ve been dealt.

But the parenting season passes, into what Unell and Wyckoff call that of the Volcano Dweller. Just guess what stage of life we’re talking about here—from around ten to eighteen years of age? Adolescence. Dangerous hot gases of mood swings, surliness, and criticism of the parents’ every move; hormone-infused explosions of tears and anger and rebelliousness. The need for “to read when you are alone” letters, because love offered publicly by a parent? You have got to be kidding! Never trust anyone over 30! And what a shock for parents to realize that THEY are now the authorities they used to rebel against. How did that happen? Every parenting season triggers some sort of identity crisis, and here’s the latest version: mid-life crisis. The adolescence of one’s child is so often a potent trigger for mid-life crisis in the parent. So the parent wonders about his or her own vanishing youth, and whether it can be recaptured. Are the best days behind me? It can be time of experimentation that is adolescent in its own way, as in having an affair, or excessive gambling, or skydiving, or plastic surgery all over the place, or a sudden heightened interest in nudism. “The irony of this season is not lost on parents who appreciate the fact that they long to be younger at the same time that their children desperately want to be older.”

And this too shall pass. The ring we wear tells the truth. Before you know it, one’s teenager has left home to become independent, and parents move into the Family Remodeler stage. How to be in relationship with our child, now that he or she is independent and building a life separate from us? And what about our own lives together, as partners? What are we going to talk about now? What are we going to do now? For eighteen years, the parenting venture has been all about MORE stress, more teamwork, more compromise, more flexibility, more frustration, more fulfillment, more love, more patience, more responsibility; and LESS conversation between partners, less freedom, less intimacy and romance, less privacy, less spontaneity, and (last but NOT least) less sex. So now, what’s it going to be?

But even this passes, into the seventh season of parenthood, that of the Plateau Parent. The keynote here is perspective—seeing the big picture. One’s children are now mature adults, often with their own children, and grandparenthood enables Plateau Parents to revisit all the old neighborhoods of parenting. To look back to where they came from, but also where they are going, since in this parenthood season, they may be responsible for caring for their own aging parents. Ultimately the lesson here is about priorities. “All human beings,” say Unell and Wyckoff, “spend parenthood adapting to this basic human need to forge one’s individual destiny while being responsible for helping their offspring give birth to theirs. Now Plateau Parents have an additional test of their skills of self-reliance, independence, and personal responsibility: helping their parents move comfortably into the final season of their lives and their grandchildren blossom into the first stages of childhood.”

The seasons pass, one by one, until the last, that of the Rebounder. Says poet W. B. Yeats, “Though the leaves are many / the root is one; / Through all the lying days of my youth / I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun; / Now I may wither into the truth.” Part of this withering is clearly about taking stock of our lives and shaping the quality of the legacy we leave behind; and part of it is about aging in graceful relationship to our children and grandchildren. Neither stubborn and impractical independence at all costs, nor passive-aggressive strategies of guilt and manipulation. Says one parent in this stage, “When I stopped complaining that my daughter never called or my sons never came to see me, I suddenly became more popular. I had to learn not to push my grandchildren into taking care of me. Instead I asked them about their lives and didn’t complain about mine.”

There’s so much that could be said about each and every season—I have tried to offer up only a taste of the wisdom and perspective of the Eight Seasons of Parenthood book. But do you see what happens when you make a decision to have your heart go walking around outside your body? You put yourself on a journey towards love, and there are so many challenges and so many lessons. Every one as hard as a differential equations class in college (or whatever class was hardest for you!). Even harder if you have several kids in different stages of life, and you are living in multiple parenting seasons all at once. We need to know this, to have compassion for the limitations of our parents. Compassion for our own limitations. Learning the great way of we not me. Hundreds of decisions to ponder, and what if we make a mistake? Do we follow the blueprint of our parents, or rip it up and begin anew? Learning how to negotiate. Learning how to let go. Learning who we are as we age, and what to do about lost youth. Reinvigorating, reimagining longtime relationships. Honoring our true priorities. Withering into the truth. All the seasons of parenthood, transforming us as we cannot transform ourselves, and it is awesome, it is immense. We put the ring on—“this too shall pass”—but there is an exception here, the exception of what remains at the end of the journey, love, the love that is forever.