If you have a child with special needs, a difficult baby, or an otherwise challenging child, and you are person of faith, chances are you’ve thought about faith and parenting. Because having a child who needs you more than most children need their parents takes a toll on every aspect of your life.
On ministers, faith and parenting
I can be tough on ministers, probably because I was one. Not for the span of an entire career, true. But long enough to bare the weight of it, to know the incredible privilege and responsibility of sharing in people’s lives in the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
To this day, many of my closest friends are ministers. They’ve walked with us through the hardest of times: questions, diagnoses (our child’s and our parents’), still more questions, and loss upon emotional loss. It’s been a challenging decade to say the least.
Three conversations around faith and parenting stand out in our early years as parents. One (a good one) with a pastor-friend, the other two with priests we barely knew. Two are beautiful examples of faith leaders speaking truth into hardship. The right words at the right time that sustained me long after they were spoken.
The third, not so. A trite response in the face of genuine vulnerability that illustrates what not to say when we haven’t walked in another person’s shoes. I’ll start there.
Parenting is not the same for everyone
It’s rare for us to request a meeting with our minister, but we did so on two occasions when Isaac was really young. This was the second such occasion. We were new to the area and to this church and wanted the minister to know a bit of our story. We talked about the uncertainty of having a rare diagnosis and no road map for what to expect as our child grew and developed. About the heartache of not knowing what the future would hold because of his differences.
The minister’s response was basically this: “That’s what it’s like for all parents, not knowing what will happen with their kids.” He was trying to draw a connection, I believe, to find commonality between our story and his own. But what he actually communicated in that moment was that he did not understand and did not care to understand what we were going through. He would not let his heart be broken by our heartbreak. No, his experience to date was good enough. He pulled the door in a bit, and eventually it closed all the way.
Faith allows for grief
Now to the first occasion, just a year or so before. It was Todd’s fellowship year when we learned Isaac’s diagnosis, a call that left our heads spinning and gave us far more questions than answers. We were in-between in every way, between Todd’s training and profession, between renting and home ownership, between the medical center and the burbs, where we were living temporarily. We had no community besides our parents, and we desperately needed someone to talk to. There was a church downtown we’d attended on a handful of occasions, and we called the minister there with a lump in our throats.
She was kind, compassionate, welcoming not only of us but of our baby, restless in his infant seat. I cried. A lot. I remember the mood more than the conversation, a feeling like I was being held, allowed to grieve. But one thing she said–the only thing I remember–I have never forgotten. “You are having to learn now,” she said, “what most parents don’t learn until their children are teenagers, and some parents never learn. That you are not in control of your child.”
Even hard truth heals
I can’t tell you why those words were so comforting, except that they expressed a truth I could already feel. I could not control this new life I’d helped bring into the world. He was mine and not mine. And if I was going to make it through this Mom thing, I had to give this child up and accept that he belonged to God.
Writing about it now still makes me emotional. She may have no idea the impact she had on me. Reverend Lisa. I’m not even sure we went to church there many more times before Todd finished his fellowship and we moved across town. But I return to those words often, for myself and for parents who are struggling with their children in my parenting seminars. Her words were hard but true, and therefore life-giving.
Faith and parenting and change
A few months later, I reached out to a friend. My mentor, actually. For the first few months (and years) after we “knew,” we kept everything strictly confidential. We still keep it fairly tight, because it’s not all ours to share. It is Isaac’s, first and foremost. But I needed a few people to know. I needed to talk about it. It was on a long car ride, alone, that I called George.
I don’t remember everything I told him, but I suspect it was something like this. What we knew and what we didn’t know. How distraught I was on one hand. How firmly I believed, on the other, that Isaac was exactly as God made him. And this part I do remember: I told George this was the first time in my life I felt truly powerless to change something. And George responded, simply, “You can’t change it, that’s true. But you can change.”
Another truth. Another word that landed. Yes, I could change. And I have been changing, for ten years now. I still am.