Is there anyone more idealistic than the parents of a newborn? We looked at that baby in endless fascination, overcome with awe and with fear: awe at the mystery of life and this creation that we held in our hands and fear of the responsibility for raising this child to adulthood. At some point in this mixture of emotion we promised to that child and to ourselves that we would be perfect—or near perfect—parents, for this newborn babe deserved nothing less.
We were determined to pass on to this child all the values that are most important to us, including our Catholic faith. Then, we believed in all innocence and ignorance, when our child reached adulthood, our parenting responsibilities would be completed. We would reap our just rewards and, with humble gratitude, receive the honor and adulation of family and friends.
But then, as one parent described it, “Life banged us up against mystery.” We learned very soon of our own imperfections and limitations and of the definite personality of our child. Now, instead of the realization of our dreams, we are confronted with crisis.
Despite our efforts and our waiting times of faith, despite years of words and example and prayers, we are in a situation that we never envisioned. The details vary: We have a son who has married into another Christian denomination. Our daughter is pregnant and not married. Our son is living a materialistic, no-time-for-religion lifestyle. Our daughter has become a Jew (or Buddhist or Muslim or…). Our son has “come out” and is in a gay relationship. Our daughter is getting another divorce. Our son is into drugs and has severed all ties with our family. The list of possibilities seems endless.
We are heartbroken. We feel both guilty and betrayed. Our pain is deep.
We struggle with knowing how to respond. How do we sustain a relationship with our child? Or should we?
When we parents are confronted with an adult child who decides to go in a different direction, we are often glibly told, “Let go!”
But let go of what? The relationship? Dreams? Guilt? Love? Embarrassment? The desire to be friends with our child? Anger? Feelings of failure? Disappointment? Our values? Communication? The pain? Our integrity? The memories? Our hopes? Resentment? Everything?
Having survived our child’s adolescence, we know how little control we have over our adult offspring. While we may harbor a remnant of desire for control, most of us are quite ready to enter into an adult relationship with this person in whom we’ve invested so much. We cannot erase the joy-filled memories. Dreams do persist. The longing for a close relationship remains. Hope and love continue beyond all reason. As Saint Paul reminds us, “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). That is true of God’s love for us and our love for our child.
So What about ‘Letting Go’?
Desire to control may linger out of habit, for we’ve had responsibility for this child for many years. Letting go of control is not difficult when our adult child is mature, well-established in a profession, married to someone of whom we approve, faithfully practices the Catholic faith, lives an approved lifestyle and still has time to honor us appropriately.
Letting go of control when the situation is, according to our expectations, not acceptable is another matter. We wonder, is this our last opportunity to influence our child? If we don’t control our child’s behavior, will we lose both the child and the relationship? Are we responding out of guilt or resentment or parental pride? Is it possible that we need to maintain control because, deep down, we really don’t believe in God?
Unfortunately, just feeling that we must be in the director’s place may contribute to the problem! Intellectually, we know that parenting is the vocation of weaning a child to independence—physical, psychological, spiritual. However, there also comes a time when we need to wean ourselves, not only from our desire to control, but also from feelings of responsibility, from guilt and embarrassment, from resentment and anger.
We did the best we could with what we had at the time. We love our child and we have always wanted to be good parents—we were and still are!
So we are not to let go of parenting, which has merely shifted into another phase, one as important as all the preceding phases.
Our parenting continues through the example of our actions: To our child, we remain the prime example of love, of faith in God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In addition, we set the tone for how others respond to situations, for siblings and friends and the extended family often take their cue from us.
As we have taught Christianity, so we are now to be Christianity toward our own child. As we have taught acceptance and respect for all people, so we are now to accept and respect our child and that child’s decisions and lifestyle. As we have taught God’s all-embracing love and mercy, so we are now to embody that love and mercy toward our own child. Blessed Pope John XXIII said, “Remember that Christ’s eighth sacrament is you.”
We are to let go of control, of resentment and anger and pain and, yes, even of dreams and goals that are ours but not our child’s. None of us is to be held rigid by the bonds of either memory or wishful daydreaming, no matter how loving those bonds or praiseworthy those dreams.
Some people perceive letting go as passive and weak behavior, an admission of defeat. They’ve never tried it! Often we do not let go until we have exhausted all other actions and in absolute desperation cry out, “I surrender! I don’t know what else to do. I give my child back to you, God!”
We are not mouthing the words—it is a wrenching heart cry emanating from our core being. In that exact instant, even though the situation has not changed, wehave!
In letting go, we are eloquently enumerating our beliefs: We are recognizing that God is active in all our lives. We are affirming our child as a unique creature of God who is directed by the Holy Spirit. We are making an act of absolute faith and trust in God. We are moving from the parent/child relationship to an adult/adult relationship. We are opening ourselves to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and to continued learning and growing. We are admitting that, while we don’t understand God’s ways, we do believe in the miraculous working power of the Divine.
Paradoxically, letting go of control, of feelings of guilt and responsibility and regret, can be the most positive action available. We are affirming that we are no longer responsible for our child’s actions.
Letting go of our dreams and parental goals makes room for our child’s dreams and life goals. Letting go creates space for relationships to change and mature. Letting go allows us to cast off negative thought patterns, becoming open to new and creative ways of relating, imaginative ways of loving.
A spiritual director I know says, “When a parent comes to me, concerned about an apparently wayward adult child, my first question is, ‘What do you, the parent, fear?’”
A good starting point in any quandary is to ask ourselves, “What do I fear? What is my deepest concern?”
Ingrained in the minds of some parents of fallen-away Catholics is a despair of salvation for their own children. Memories and rumors and handed-down sayings continue to haunt us, like ghosts delighting to appear when we are most fragile and vulnerable. Thankfully, the Church has officially corrected such distorted theology—theology that painted an insultingly unloving picture of God. As the Second Vatican Council assured us, God wills the salvation of everyone!
God is not the avenging judge, the meticulous record-keeper, the harsh disciplinarian. God judges and disciplines with mercy and loving kindness. God does not and will not abandon us or our children. God is love—inclusive, radical love. When we wander astray, God never forbids our return. When our child wanders astray, God never forbids that child’s return but instead promises an open welcome.
Of course we are all God’s children, each of us loved more than we can possibly comprehend. Of course God is bigger than any one church or group or religion. Of course someone can be saved even if that person does not know Christ or his Church.
And of course we continue to pray, praying prayers that reflect this theology of love. We pray that our daughter has the courage to be open to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We pray that our son is sensitive to God’s call, whatever that call may be. We pray that we ourselves are liberated from the fears that rule our narrowness of thought, for faith is broader than religion.
Our fears may also be of matters quite practical. We may fear that our empty nest will be called upon to house grown children and energetic grandchildren. We may fear for the physical safety of our gay son. We may fear that this latest crisis will cause deep divisions within the family. We may fear for the financial security of the family.
These matters do indeed need to be addressed. We turn to the Serenity Prayer to help us determine what is under our control and what is not—and then tend to those matters we can, relying on available resources and assistance. We do not hesitate to call on others for help, for that is community. The rest of our fears we place in God’s hands.
Fulfilling God’s Dreams
Another common fear is the loss of a dream. All people have hopes and dreams of the future, but parents have them in abundance. Raising a child is an act of faith into the forever-future. This faith comes accompanied with wonderful, joy-filled, laudable dreams of what is to come! Our dreams provide goals and consolation, sustaining us through both difficult times and the dailyness of parenting.
We have dreams that affirm us as good, dedicated parents: our child following in the family business, our child’s children united with us in the practice of our Catholic faith, our child a close and loving friend, our child ordained or in the religious life, our family as our solace in old age.
Unfortunately, dreams can also become roadblocks in the unfolding of our child’s personality and talents, especially when the very giftedness of our child does not conform to our dream. The macho dad has a violin-playing, ballet-loving son. The artsy-craftsy homemaker’s daughter is a radical feminist. We look at some families and cringe at God’s sense of humor.
Dreams may help sustain us during the tough times. When our dreams conflict with reality, however, they can blind us to the Spirit’s gifts within our child. As a father who is a biblical scholar is fond of saying, “God forbids graven images of the Divine. We parents should do likewise—our children are not to be images of us.”
Children are not to become clones of parents; neither are they to be the fulfillment of our personal dreams or goals. Children are to be the fulfillment of God’s dreams for them. We cannot hold our children in bondage to our wishful daydreams, no matter how loving we consider those dream-bonds.
But relinquishing our dreams can be extremely painful. To dream of being united with our child and that child’s family in a close relationship is a most worthy dream. Many parents do enjoy such relationships, but not all.
The ‘Perfect’ Parent
How do we define success in parenting?
Our worth as a person is not dependent upon our child’s accomplishments; our identity as a person is not dependent upon our “success” as a parent. We are of value not because of our achievements or those of our child; we are of value because we are God’s creatures, created in the image and likeness of God, totally loved by God. All else is secondary!
Parenting is the unveiling of the wonderful mystery of God’s creation that has been entrusted to us; success becomes a matter known only to God. God notes our efforts that seem fruitless, our frustrations of not knowing what to do, our faithfulness in loving. God sees our own childhood scars, the pressures of culture, our fatigue as we age, the times we have sought support and were disappointed by family and friends and even Church.
God sees all this and continues to hold us in love. To God, we—and our child—are never failures!
Theresa Cotter is a wife, mother of five and grandmother of five, who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is also a theologian and a retired liturgical musician.