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A choice to live in the 'now' of children


At the risk of sounding glib, I have decided that raising children can be compared to the mysterious paradox of the events we recalled during Holy Week. The passionate emotions of the parenting journey with its desperations, sorrows and joys reflect in some measure the steps that Jesus took up the hill toward Calvary and ultimately Easter.

All parents I know struggle to balance their children's needs with their own personal, work and relationship needs. Almost every parent I know feels inadequate at one time or another -- some most of the time -- in one of these areas. I myself can tolerate a certain level of chaos for a while -- noise, household clutter, varying expectations demanding my time and energy as immediately as two preschoolers tugging at each arm for attention. But there comes a time when I can't take it any more.

Some days, three minutes in the bathroom by myself with the door firmly closed is a luxury. And it's even better when there is no toddler banging on the door keening, "Maaa-maaaa!" But I am not alone; every parent knows this feeling.

Why do we do it? I admit that for me the worst moments of parenting have been relatively benign -- occasionally I feel overwhelmed, angry, trapped. And this is certainly not the worst a parent can feel. Worse, to be alienated by a misguided teenager who lies and manipulates. Worse, to feel betrayed by an adult child who makes bad choices about drugs and relationships, perhaps affecting his or her own children. Worse, to know the forever pain of losing a child to death. These are some family stories I know. You know others.

All parents, those whose experience is an uphill battle as well as those who sacrifice less, take up a cross of sorts. We are taunted by the "what-ifs," questions I imagine Jesus asked himself as he sat wearing a crown of thorns, mercilessly jeered by the Roman soldiers who made belligerent sport of their work. What if I had rejected all this? What if I had reacted differently?

But there is always a Simon of Cyrene to help me bear the load -- a friend, my mother-in-law, my spouse, a trusted child-care provider, someone to help me carry that cross. I am not alone. I worry greatly about the parents and children who do not have such a support system. They are the ones who might be forgiven for feeling the despair of the cross.

Yet for me, and for most parents I know, there are moments of great pleasure, of grace and goodness in raising our children. There are moments of pure joy. A small trusting hand slipped into mine as we walk the three blocks to school. The comfort of a just-bathed baby in my lap settling in to sleep, drinking her bottle of warm milk. The fun of reading fairy tales, stories of saints, kings, dragons, castles, beasts, giants, children and trolls. The chime of little voices when their father comes home from work -- "Daddy!" as they run to the door. (Not to mention my sigh of relief!)

To choose to parent often means to choose to forgo other paths, to refuse to be tempted by images of what else I could be doing. It means that decisions are made taking children into account, even consulting children. It also means that after I grieve at the foot of the cross of my unchosen path, I roll back the stone to greet new dreams, the hopes and dreams of children. It means I love as I have never loved. It means I learn patience for the limitations of small children, to balance their dependence with their yearning for independence, to read their ways of communicating. I become more whole through my loving relationship with my children, the give and take of the daily routine. Life for them is now -- and I am better, living on their schedule.

One morning before school a couple of weeks ago, my daughter eagerly suggested we make a "Hallelujah sign," an idea she picked up at her Sunday morning religious education class. Intrigued, I promised we could do it after school. She reminded me again when we arrived home. I was planning dinner, reading the day's mail and thinking about a million other things. But it was important to her, so I found the appropriate paper, and with a black marker drew block letters for her to decorate with crayons.

She worked on the sign and when she was satisfied, searched out an empty mayonnaise jar to contain the rolled-up banner, and hid it in a corner behind a piece of furniture, covered with a washcloth. Of course, I thought, imagining purple-shrouded crucifix and statues. We were hiding Hallelujah until Easter. She said, "After six days we can get it out." I asked her if she meant three days after Good Friday. She said, no, she was sure it was six. In any case, this was her four-year-old way of celebrating the mystery of Easter. I'm not going to quibble over numbers when it's the passion that really counts.

Kris Berggren lives and writes in Minnesota.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 1997