The hideousness (and healing) of being a parent

Becoming a parent brings with it some of life’s most intense emotions, experiences, and revelations. The highs and lows are manifold: joyous expectation, anxious (pain-filled) labour, wonder in beholding newborn life, total readjustment of daily routines, the testing of sleep deprivation, the lowliness of changing pooey nappies, to name but a few.

What I have been realising lately is that becoming a parent is also a profound way of revealing to us some of our deepest, core-most realities, in painful, yet therapeutic ways. In a way, I believe this is God’s design, a gracious depth of insight into our own hearts and minds, and into the heart of God, our heavenly Father, Himself. In this blog, I will discuss what I mean by the hideousness of being a parent.

First of all, my assumption is that in our parenthood we are most likely to display some of the least attractive aspects of ourselves, as well as some of our best. This is because as a parent in relation to our child we are most tempted and most permitted to show our true colours, whether in love or in anger, in our acceptance or in our disapproval of the child. Where else do we have the authority to rule another’s life, to impress our reality onto another? Where else are we able to be most authentic, and get away with it?

The hideousness of parenthood lies in the fact that parents are both expected and allowed to express the depths of their hearts to their kids. Though often the most tender expressions of respect, dignity and affirmation, it can also be expressions of heartless criticalness, proud judging, or smothering neediness.

Imagine this situation: An energetic 4-year-old boy is jumping noisily and calling out around the house. At first the parent, though irritated, ignores the noise, telling himself that it is normal for kids to be like this. The child continues to shout, sprouting out loud nonsense words and sentences. The parent’s sense of annoyance at his son’s “immature” behaviour rising and intensifying inside him. The threshold is reached, and the parent snaps in anger at the child’s “bad behaviour”. The parent shouts abusively, shocking the child in his shell for something the child had no idea was wrong to do. The child is now nervous, on edge. He will have to tread carefully around Dad, lest he displeases him again.

Here we have an example of the hideouesness that a parent is capable of. In a sense it seems fairly harmless, innocent, justifiable. The father was probably tired, worn out after a long week at work. The child had probably made these noises in an effort to upset Dad. It hardly seems all that ‘hideous’. Or perhaps the hideousness of it was hidden.

In my mind, the reason why a parent would respond in this way is because he cannot come to accept such behaviour in himself. There is an intolerance of the child’s behaviour because it was never acceptable for the parent to behave in this way when he was a child. As a child, this parent probably had to vie for mum and dad’s attention, shoved aside or beaten down for his energetic need for their attention. This parent was not loved to the extent he longed for, instead his clammerings for attentive acceptance were squashed or disciplined out of him. Exasperated and empty, his only way of coping was to suppress his longings, cutting off part of his deepest, truest being. Having been denied the completeness of his emotional self, this child could no longer access those parts of him which allowed him to stretch out to others in selfless, abounding love and acceptance. “I can’t have it, so I’m not going to give it to others,” became his ethic.

Furthermore, naked and shamed, this individual no longer desired to appreciate others’ differences and accept them for who they were, but now sought to expose, ridicule and criticise others, just as had been done to him as a child.

What is the hideousness of being a parent? It is the total and absolute license for a parent to inflict on his own child the horrific and emotionally destrcutive abuses that were inflicted on him as a child. It is the cycle of abuse which too often goes unbroken. It is a hideous crime against humanity, yet it is perfectly legal. Parenting can be hideous because we each were once parented.

The privilege of parenting is accompanied by a huge liability: the care of a human being is entrusted to us as parents. There are many ways to butch it up. There are also powerful factors at work in us in our parenting which we may, more often than not, be unaware of. Our own first years of life are generally unavailable to explicit memory. These may have formed us in ways that we are not aware of.

It may take becoming a parent to realise what we are, deep down inside. This is the hideousness as well as the graciousness of God to us in parenting: a chance to know the depths of brokenness and of our need for restoration. It is humbling to know the extent to which we cannot control ourselves, just how infused with fallenness our lives are.

The depths of our hideousness in our being parents leads us to the depths of healing that parenthood brings.


2 Responses to “The hideousness (and healing) of being a parent”

  1. Very interesting Steve.
    Here are a few quick, random thoughts -.

    – Kids seem to “love’ their parents unconditioonally, even when they are really lousy parents and abuse them terribly, although it fades somewhat when they reach adulthood (or teenagerhood). Do you think a comparison with Stockholm syndrome is out of line? .

    – Fritz Perls reckoned that to become a whole human being you need frist to forgive your parents. I think he was onto something.

    – The 5th commandment is linked by some scholars with the first 4 rather than the more popular 4-6 division. It puts parents in the place of God for their children. Alas we live in a fallen sinful world – Maranatha as Brother John would say.

  2. I enjoyed reading this Steve.

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