When I think of real parenting, I think of a time when my daughter Anna was about nine months old. I was a single mom at the time and we were living with an elderly widow in California, so I couldn’t let baby Anna cry at night–not even for a little while. So when Anna would wake up at night I would walk her in a circle from the family room into the kitchen and around to the living room and back into the family room, trying to get her to go back to sleep.
I would walk circles for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t put her down because she would have disturbed the sleep of the kindly old woman who had taken us in. There was one point on our loop when I could look down and by the light of the street lamp outside, I could see her tiny face. So many times in the dark, I would convince myself that she must be asleep, but when I would get to the point where I could see her face, I would look down and see that her eyes were wide open. Then I would circle into the family room where I could see the swimming pool outside, and back into the kitchen and back into the living room.
One night walked through the living room, I looked out the window at the pool, this thought popped into my head: toss her in the pool and going to bed. She won’t make a sound. I wish I could tell you that this only happened once, but I would be lying. It happened many times. Toss her in the pool. I was so desperate, I was tempted.
Of course I never did toss Anna into the pool, but at times parenting young children can bring us to the point of real desperation where– if we are real with ourselves–we realize that we would like to do the unthinkable–like tossing our kids into the pool so we can go back to bed. Ahh, yes, real parenting!
The opposite of real parenting is false parenting–parenting where we are not being real about what we are going through. When I think of false parenting I remember a young mother’s class that I attended around the same time–that first year that Anna was a baby. Kaiser had this wonderful idea of putting all the mothers of all the babies who had been born on the same day in this large hospital in a support group. So all of our babies were the same age. We would show up with our little ones, once month and meet in a conference room where a nurse would talk to us about an age-appropriate topic, such as teething, and then they would take us out one by one and for our well babies checks, weight and height while the other moms had a chance to chat. In theory, it was a great idea, but our little group of ten mothers and ten babies we were anything but supportive. It all started with one mother who had a very precocious son. He was doing everything–rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking – waaayy before any body else’s darling child. His mother was thrilled and she would come into the meeting each month and say, very nonchalantly, what is your baby doing now? Then without waiting for any of us to answer, she would tell us about her son’s amazing feats. We all secretly hated him. He was running around the room before my daughter was crawling. It seemed like Anna rocked back and forth on all fours for months. Back and forth. Back and forth. On her hands and kneeds. I would get down on the floor and try to coax her forward, “Come on honey, you can do it!” I even tried moving her hands for her which only made her flop on her nose and look at me like, “What is wrong with you? Try rocking back and forth; it is way more fun!”
I would go into these meetings with my little baby girl in my arms, the same little girl that I had been perfectly content with just moments before, and I would think Something’s wrong with her. I was so insecure that I started lying to the other mothers about what my daughter was doing and the worst part was I am certain they all knew I was lying, but I couldn’t stop! We could have been a great support to each other but we were too busy posing. No one was willing to voice the fears in their heart that all new mothers face, Is my baby normal? Am I normal? What is this weird rash? Will her ears always stick out like this? Will my stomach always feel like raw bread dough? Is my baby getting enough to eat? Will I ever be able to sleep through the night? Is romance permanently gone from my life? But none of us were willing to be real with each other.
Why is it so hard to be real? When I look at my own life, I see three areas where I struggle. The first is that I struggle to be real with myself. It is easier to live with a vague sense of unhappiness or tension than to stop and face what is going on. We are experts at avoiding pain, but our pain avoiding techniques never really work. I remember when we were living in California. I was married by now and out of graduate school and one day I was doing some yard work and decided to prune a tree in our yard. Let’s just say I got a teensy, tiny bit carried away. I was up on a ladder, whacking away when my neighbor from across the street, called out, “Don’t get carried away there!” I paused, wondered what he was talking about and continued to trim. But when I got down from the ladder and looked at what I had done, I was slack jawed. The tree had once been about ten feet tall and after my pruning job, it distinctly reminded me of one of those Italian statures where both arms are broken off. All that remained were the trunk and a couple of thick branches than went up a few feet to where I had lopped them off.
I hoped the tree would recover, and that spring the tree valiantly sent out a two-inch sprig with a single leaf. Then it died.
I was so embarrassed. I just blocked that tree from my radar. It wasn’t hard to do, I was busy with my two kids and work. I got very good and pulling into the driveway and never, ever, looking in that direction. In my mind that tree had ceased to exist.
I blocked it out for . . . five years. That tree stood in my yard for five years, but I did not see it. Then we put our house on the market and our realtor asked, “What is with that tree out front?” I turned and looked. There is was: the trunk, the three branches that extended out about two feet like amputated limbs.
Now I haven’t told you the worst part. The worst part is this wasn’t even my tree, this was a city tree. It belonged to the city of Menlo Park. You know, the kind of trees that cities plant in long rows to beautify their city. In fact I had been paying taxes on this tree for five years without telling the city what I had done. Now I had to face the music.
“Just call the city and tell them,” the relator said. But, I thought, then I will have to admitt my crime! I punched in the number for the city of Menlo Park and they put me through to the appropriate person. “I have a city tree on my property has died.”
“What kind of tree is it?” the lady asked.
“A Liquid Amber.” These are one of the few species of maple that turn briallant colors in the San Francisco Bay area.
“Let’s see. We can be out there on Thursday.”
This was too easy! “Wait!” I stopped the woman from hanging up.
“I . . . I . . . killed the tree. I over pruned it.” Now the dasterdly deed was out!
There was a long pause on the other end. The a voice, slowly said, “Okay, we will be out there on Thursday.” And she hung up.
That was it! That was it! I had lived with that shame for five years when I could have just picked up the phone, and they would have put in a new tree.
Dr. Beth Cuje’, a local psychotherapist, says that we are all experts at avoiding pain. We either escape in some way–to alcohol, shopping, chocolate, busyiness or TV. Or we dump on someone–the kids, husband, parents–blaming them for our pain. Or we repress the pain and say it is no big deal, it doesn’t really bother us or we helplessly submit and let someone roll right over us. We all do these things automatically and they do lessen the pain–temporarily.
But there is only one healthy way to deal with pain and that process begins with naming it. Owning it. The Bible calls this confessing. And this is where we all must start, by getting real with ourselves and acknowledging where we are, even when we don’t want to be there.
I for one, am an expert at blaming my husband for my pain. If I am in pain then surely he must be being insensitive or not meeting my needs. Right? It is easy to feel that way. When I am not doing well it is far easier to blame my husband, or distract myself by shopping or eating chocolate than it is to face my negative emotions. But I have learned that blaming and shopping and, yes, even chocolate, are only temporary fixes. We have to face our pain and really own it.
The second area where I struggle is being real with God. I don’t know why this is so hard. It is completely irrational. The Bible tells us that God is intimately aquainted with all our ways–and loves us anyway. He knows our thoughts from afar. He knows our past and our future. He sees into our heart and knows us better than we know ourselves., yet it is so hard to be honest with him. Why is that?
I think the answer is that we don’t see God accurately. We think that God is an old fashioned, distant sort of fellow up in heaven peering down at us over his bifocals, keeping score. One thing I have loved about having children I have come to understand the heart of God better through loving my children. I have seen that God is a loving father, cheering us on. He wants us to succeed. I remember when Anna was learning how to walk. Finally. She would take a few steps with me cheering her on, and then she would fall and cry.
I never once said, “Well after all the time it took you to finally get it, and now look at you! You’ll never get it, you’ve blown it for good.” I didn’t even think those things. I was so proud of her. When she cried, I scooped her up into my arms and comforted her and encouraged her. I believed in her. I knew she would learn to walk. I knew she’d do it.
God is just like that. He is watching us toddle, cheering us on, and when we fall, he doesn’t scold, he picks us up, brushes the dirt off us, and comfort us. Then he lets us try again. He knows we are going to get it. The Bible says God is making us new creatures and he knows we are going to make it.
But to come to God, to be intimate and personal with him, we have to be real, both with ourselves and with him. Having an intimate, personal relationship with God is the richest thing we can do with our lives. It gives our lives so much meaning. But to start we have to come as we are with all our doubts and fears. It is part of being human. We have to be honest with out feelings. The Bible said that if we confess our sins God will forgive us and cleanse us. So what do we do when we feel angry or lonely or afraid. We tell God all about it. He understands. We say, this is where I am at, but I don’t want to stay here. Help me. Forgive me. He forgive and cleans our heart and make us new. I feel that now.
We confess sin to each other every night as a family and every night, I feel that release. This is how we come to God the first time and every time. It starts with confession and acknowledging that we need him and we want to give it all to him and let him take over. We can’t do it on our own.
Well the third area where I struggle to be real is with other people. It is easier for me to get angry with my husband than to admit that I am feeling lonely, rejected or abandoned. One of the people I’ve struggled to be real with is my own mother. I know this sounds very weird, but I realized recently that I was not very real with my mom because I was still looking for her approval. So I present a sanitized version of my life to her, thinking that she–my own mother–would like me better if I appeared more successful, more together, than I really am. Is that neurotic or what? When I realized what I was doing, I had to give it to God and let him touch my heart and heal me. And now I am free to be more real with my mom and ironically, now that she knows more about my struggles, she is more supportive. We can’t have real friendship, real relationships with someone when we keep our masks on.
Today I just want to encourage you, where ever you are, to come one step closer to being real with God. Many years ago I was in Santa Fe New Mexico on the way to a scientific conference, driving with a colleague whose wife was a psychiatrist. He mentioned that psychiatry is able to help people understand what is wrong and let them know that they are not the only one who is suffering. He’s right. Therapy can be so helpful, but it is limited. God is the only one who can touch our hearts and heal our hurts so we are able to be the people he made us to be. So I want to encourage you to get real with God. He will take what ever you bring to him, and give you a life worth living.
The text of this talk was originally given at a MOPS special event in Spring 2003