I remember the moment I realized that parenting wasn’t something that came with guaranteed results. My husband had just returned to work, leaving me alone for the first time with our week-old daughter. I had bathed her, fed her, and, in a flurry of optimism, placed her in her crib so that I might shower.
Within ten minutes, the entire exercise culminated with me crying, covered in delightfully fluid newborn poo, and my baby screaming as if someone was holding her finger in an electric socket.
Wait! I remember thinking, I did all the things. I followed the steps. She should be happily relaxing in her bed, maybe even falling asleep. What happened here?
Free will. Free will had happened. And– as I would come to appreciate time and time again over the subsequent decades of parenting– there’s just no accounting for the actions of another person in this life… even if that person is your own child.
You see, you can’t legislate that your child conform to your expectations. Not when he’s two, or ten, or thirty-five. When something deeper is afoot, when the diagnosis says autism or ADHD, or something we can grab hold of, well… we realign. We surrender because we have no choice, and we learn to live in something much more realistic.
But when the child is neurotypical, when the path seems fairly straight…
We assume we won’t be hearing the door slam as our twenty year-old daughter tells us she’s moving in with the guy she met online.
We assume we’ll never hear police sirens rushing up our street and to our door.
We assume we’ll never be the grandparents cut out of our grandchildren’s lives.
We assume we’ll never pick our son up from a rehab facitility.
We assume we’ll never be touched by all the hurt and brokenness and sin and failure and dirt that other families have to endure.
We assume… and sometimes, we’re wrong.
Sometimes, I’ve learned, it’s the devoted, godly, loving parents who have to tell their child that no, they won’t be paying for a lawyer. Or it’s the parents who steeped their children in Scripture who find themselves crying out for their Prodigal. Or the parents who did everything they could who wind up burying a son whose appetites were more than he could handle.
There are no guarantees in parenting. None. We do the very best, we create the environment we know to be the one most likely to lead to salvation, to a life pleasing to the Lord, to joy.
But we can’t make them take it.
And we know this. We look down at our four year-old, as she grits her teeth in frustration at our refusal to allow her to have what we know she ought not, and we think, “Oh, child. I’m saying no now because I want you to say no yourself in ten years.” We point our sons to heroes and our daughters to mentors and we pray that they will choose the right. And if they don’t, well… we pray that they will stumble just a little, and realize their fault and come running back before things get out of control.
We love them despite the lack of assurances, despite knowing that the return on our investment might be messy and break our hearts into a million pieces. We love them because we are parents, no matter what our children do, or say, or become.