The late dog-days of summer; still no rain. My younger teen and his friends are spending as much fun-time as they can before school resumes; there is much whooping from upstairs, where they are playing computer games. When they tire of this, they make loud bad jokes; there is much laughter, much banging of doors. Periodically they take a break and do a little work painting the garage, which is why they're all over here. The garage is nearly painted. It has taken all of a month, and I think the adults have put in more time getting the kids to paint it than they would have put into painting the garage themselves.
Do I sound cranky? So do my other mother-of-teens friends. We love out children, but right now we wish we could ship them to Patagonia for a few well-deserved months. It is simply not possible to get a single @$#% thing done with a kid in the house. The phone's ringing, sibs are arguing, the crowd swoops from above, intent on soft drinks. "Mom! the cat just barfed!" "Mom! Can Jenny come over?" "Mom! Can I go over to Corey's?" "Mom! All my stuff is dirty!" "Mom! We're out of soda!" "Mom! Alex finished all the popsicles and didn't leave me any!" All of the home-based mothers I know signed on originally for the long-haul loving-and-nurturing bit, but right now we'd kill to have jobs in the city, where we could have a little air-conditioned peace and quiet. Office politics look positively appealing, compared to the mess around here. Double that desire for those of us who are actually trying to make a living working at home. (I'm sure that the mothers in offices feel just as envious in the other direction. Nobody ever said that this parenthood business would be easy, regardless of employment status, gender, or socioeconomic status.)
Trying to work with teenaged kids in the house makes you realize that that good old-fashioned concept of "nerves" needs to be revived. The kids get on our nerves. Our nerves are stretched until you could practically play Bach's Air on the G String on them. "I can't stand this any longer," we home-bound mothers-of-teens say to each other, and each of us understands exactly what that means.
So, realizing that the alternative was infanticide (meaning the slaughter of one's offspring, not of an infant), I seized upon my laptop and hauled it and myself off to a cafe in the neighbouring village. There may be noises here, but because I'm not responsible for them, they don't bother me--they're background noise. Here there is tea in a brilliant blue earthenware pot with a solid white china cup and saucer and gentle jazz noodling on the sound system, good smells coming from the kitchen. Ah, say the nerves, and stop trembling. And the mind, instead of seething with late-summer angst, can actually relax and think about the situation.
We've been told to love others unconditionally and without counting the cost, but whoever said that wasn't dealing with summertime teenagers. It's at times like this that we remember a fundamental truth: you are to love your neighbour (read teen) *as yourself*. Conversely, this means that we should love ourselves as much as we love our teens, because if we don't, we're going to be quivering piles of gone-bad Jello by Labour Day.
In fact, failing to take this into account is probably why we're studying the Patagonia option. We are loving parents. That's why we deal with all the "Mom!" stuff, while the work goes to hell and the nerves twang. Our kids drive us nuts because we have excellent relationships with them; they talk to us, they come to us when they're troubled; their friends feel comfortable in our houses. We are giving them what we know is best, and what many of us would have ached to have at their age: parents who are really *there*. And that's why we're slowly going round the twist.
Most of the parents I know are good parents. There are exceptions, some of them flagrant, others more subtle. I know one mother of four who sees her kids as extensions of herself, which is bad enough; but she doesn't like herself, and so she doesn't like her kids, which is worse. I know parents who are in thrall to one dumb-assed bad childrearing philosophy or another, whether it's old-fashioned rigidity or "never say no" because the little darling might get upset. I know children who play the role of scapegoat at home--the lightning rods, around whom all the trouble sparks and who can do no right. I also know some parents who seem to be clueless or just not very interested; and it's their kids, perhaps, who I see hanging around downtown, looking lost, looking for trouble.
More commonly, perhaps, it's that parents are stretched too thin, with job worries or poverty or health problems. Depression is pretty common among stay-at-home mothers without adequate support or resources, and I suppose that includes a fair number of the women I see around town. Too many of the fathers work long days, and then there's the commute, and a guy's tired at the end of the week and just doesn't have the wherewithal to do stuff with the kids. Or a guy's been brought up to believe that the kids are the mother's job, not his; or he's just not quite sure what to do with them.
One thing I know for sure: the one thing all human parents share is imperfection. Even among the best parents I know, I don't know any who wouldn't look back over their shoulders and see some places they made mistakes, or were inadequate, or failed to be all that they should have been for their kids. Now that my younger one is turning fifteen, I find myself doing that. I know that my failures weren't tiny ones either; they were pretty sizable, and they have left damage behind. I can try to understand and they understand even better than I do, but that doesn't make the past go away. I think the kids will forgive me for my failings; I don't know if I ever can.
And so, when we think of Father/Mother God, we may think (if we've had bad or so-so parenting) of someone who doesn't care very much, or who is helpless to protect us, or who is rigid and unforgiving --even abusive!--or who is distant and unapproachable. We think of a God who only lets us down. Easier, then, to abandon that language, to peel parenthood out of our God-vocabulary. Who needs to be hurt like that again?
But at the same time, Jesus called God "Abba", Daddy, a term of total trust and intimacy. He taught us to pray to "our Father," not "Lord God Almighty." His father-images are full of tenderness"Would a father give his child a stone when he asked for bread?" And then there's the parable of the Prodigal--of the father running down the road to grasp and embrace the child he thought was lost.
God as a parent doesn't get tired, doesn't have lapses in judgment, can see straight enough not to make muddled and disastrous choices, does have time, does have energy, does have love enough--all the things that we parents, even the best of us, lack sometimes. God as parent is the parent that each and every one of us deserved, by right of our humanity, and that none of us ever got, this world being a fallen sort of place. Everything we longed for in our parents that our parents, in their woundedness and wrongness, could not give us, we find in God. And being as he slumbers not nor sleeps, he doesn't even get snarly at three in the morning when we've yelled "Help me!" for the eleventyseventh time.
But: just as my children, when they leave my arms, have to be in a risky world, so we have to live in a world which biology, physics, and human free will sometimes make very unsafe. I cannot tell my 18-year-old that until he tackles his sleep problems, his grades are not going to improve, and that living in a room as dusty as his is not good for his lungs. Or rather, I can tell him, but I can't make him do a danged thing about it. We too have free will; we're at liberty to misconstrue or ignore what God wants for us and to suffer the consequences. A good parent also knows when to get hands-off and let the kid make mistakes, for learning purposes.
But it's easy to mistake this necessary hands-off for indifference or uncaring. My theological head says that God is passionately involved with us, suffering with our suffering and dancing when we rejoice; but my gut isn't quite so sure. My experience of fatherhood is anything but perfect: my own father was a distant, chilly, self-centred man, whose love, such as it was, was a faint and thready business, never to be truly counted on. I know that that experience shapes my views on fathers, divine or otherwise. It's at the root of my unwillingness to trust God to look after me. I cannot truly lean back in God's arms like the tired toddler in Psalm 131, because who knows? he might have a meeting he has to get to. I think, I hope, I've done better than that with my own kids; and that when they start their own God-talking, their image is a warmer and more present one than mine.
I do know, however, what it feels like to love one's child. I remember very clearly how I felt when I held my first newborn, blinded with love--and the love's still there, although I'd never embarrass a teenaged boy by getting all goopy about him. The struggle is always to believe that God my Father, God my Mother, loves me with that overwhelming, wholly delighted love--the love that had us sitting up at all hours, too pooped to pop, ready to put a fist through the plaster--but still marvelling over the curve of a cheek and eyelashes lying in a dark curve.... The love's there. It's the same love that still propels us, in a hot late August, to sigh and get up from the computer and find more popsicles, because that's what the kid asked for....
Love you, guys.
For John Greenough, on his 15th birthday