What Kind of Parents Are We?
A sermon by Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt
There are two kinds of parents, you know: perfect parents, and all the rest of us. When we lived in Montclair, for example, and both Allen and Daniel were in Little League, Bob and I used to dread the arrival of one set of preppy parents. They were sleek and polished every Saturday morning, and wore their red Cornell alumni jackets with hearty good cheer. They drove a Volvo that was spotless inside and out, and clapped politely whenever our team scored. They were perfectly nice people, and they got on my last nerve. I can’t speak for Bob, but just being around them reminded me of all the things I wasn’t. Not only was I not sleek and polished early in the morning, I was barely awake at 9 a.m. on Saturday. Bob and I could have ordered Yale alumni jackets and done the Ivy League Wars, but between having two children, going to seminary, doing an internship and Bob working to feed us all, neither of us had time. Rather than the boxy Volvo that I loved, I had descended into stereotype and drove a white minivan filled with unspeakable things growing in the back seat where one child or another had left something to sprout. Worst of all, I was (and still am) blessed with the unerring capacity to embarrass my sons in any competitive situation. This means that while other parents were graciously encouraging their sons and daughters while they were up at bat, I was yelling at Allen to take his time and wait for his pitch, shouting “good cut,” whenever he missed, and speeding his circuit around the bases when he got a hit by screaming at the top of my lungs, “Run, baby, run!” (which he finally asked me please not to do, ever again.)
Who knew? Of all the things that have surprised Bob and me, our capacity for parenting has been among the most surprising. First we were surprised that anyone let us take the baby home from the hospital. Then we spent the next few years waiting for Allen and Daniel’s real parents to show up, because we certainly didn’t know what we were doing. Then there was the memorable and embarrassing moment when, in the midst of my seminary studies, one of the boys wanted me to get them something. I was reading something especially challenging, and exasperated at the interruption, I looked up and snapped, “Will you please stop interrupting me? For goodness sake, I’m not your mother—“ and stopped cold, because I realized, once and for all, that I was their mother, that there was no one to call except me, that I was it.
I can remember attending a UU conference without my boys, a conference that did include many other children. At one point, one mother began a conversation with me that focused on the joy of raising her four year old, and what a sacred task she believed it to be. After all, she told me, it had taken a long time for her to have children, and so she regarded every minute of time with her darling boys as a precious gift. She was sure I knew what she meant. I did know what she meant, I told her, except for the moments when my children made me so crazy I would sell them to the first person who asked for them.
It’s not that I don’t adore my children. Or even other people’s children, at least in theory. It’s just that I don’t adore them all the time. I have always wanted to be a sweet, non-sarcastic, openhearted mother, the kind whose house was the one that everyone came over and hung out, because she was so cool. I have always wanted to be patient and wise. I have always wanted to make the right choices and understand my children completely, and put them first, no matter what. Unfortunately, I am not that person. I am me, and my kids are stuck with me, with my bad decisions and big mouth and my impatience and my uncoolness.
What I was thinking, that I should take the responsibility for not one but two human beings, when I can so often be impatient, tired, bored or with an overwhelming desire to be left alone? Is it any wonder, then, that I love Anne Lamott better than any other writer when it comes to the subject of children? She is artful and funny and honest about how ambivalent we parents can be, and yet her words ring not only with truth, but with commitment. She may not be able to find her infant in the bed one morning, but she loves him with all her heart. And love counts for an awful lot when it comes to the raising of children. At least it better count for a lot, because sometimes I feel like my crazy love for my children is all I have to give them. At other times, I’m left asking myself the question Daniel once asked me in total exasperation: What kind of mother are you?
When we ask ourselves what kind of parents we are, we have good reason to wonder, because our entire culture is filled with mixed messages about parenting. They sacralize it, especially motherhood, in ways that make most women feel utterly inadequate, for no one can be as wonderful all the time as the idealized mothers of media fantasy, even the perfect mothers I meet from time to time. Every minute with our children is not estacy, or a chance to bond for all time, or the definitive moment that will determine the course of our entire future relationship. Every minute with our children is what it is: we are happy or angry, exhausted or content, loving or sick or at rest. They are looking at us and we are looking at them and, amid whatever issue we are dealing with, together we are looking at life and learning how to live it.
It took my having my own children and to become aware of how much they studied me and the things I did, for me to remember how much of my own mother’s life was an object lesson for me. In watching her, I learned much about how I wanted to treat people and how I wanted them to treat me. In watching my father, I learned much about how I wanted to regard systems and political institutions, and how I didn’t want to be with people I loved. Our lives are laboratories for our children, and we do not have to be perfect for them to learn life lessons—we need only be open and willing to share with them what we already know, willing to let them actively learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes.
That is true not only for parents, but for the many trusted adults in a child’s life. Many of you in the sanctuary are not parents, but you have a role to play in the lives of children you know, and it matters more than you believe. For every child should have the blessing of a trusted adult who simply adores them. If you are an aunt or uncle, a godparent or dear friend of someone with a child, your willingness to befriend that child can make a world of difference. My father’s brother, my uncle Amos, was as kind as my father was difficult and angry; I lived for his visits to our house, because he delighted in the children we were, enjoyed us as we were and appreciated us as we grew and changed. Such appreciation is sometimes hard for parents to muster, because we are too busy juggling the logistics of the change. We would love for our children to settle on a personality so that we could learn for ourselves whether we appreciate it or not. But for a trusted adult outside of the immediate family, your openness and friendship can be foundational.
In her book, “Nurturing Children and Youth: A Developmental Guide,” Tracey Hurd, part of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Lifespan Faith Development Group, writes of the task that lies before any of us who want to support the development of young people. “Compassionately appreciating who a child is now is key to both enjoying and supporting his development,” she writes. “Seeing developmental unfolding as ‘getting different’ rather than ‘getting better’ makes room for unique variations in the path of ‘typical’ development a person will walk as a child, youth, and young adult. Providing the scaffolding for him to learn, express, refine and abandon understandings, we nurture a child’s natural impulse toward growth and development. Engaging him in environments that provide sustained involvement with a diversity of people, he gains a wider and more accepting sense of humanity. Becoming part of communites of family, frind, and faith, he grows in love and meaning. We imbue his life with respect. We do our best.”
Every one of us who has embarked on the adventure of parenthood has had our doubts about “our best” and whether it was good enough for the trusting hearts in our care. It is yet another reason that men and women who wouldn’t have been caught dead in a religious institution of any kind find themselves transformed into fathers and mothers who make their way into churches and synagogues and mosques with baby carriages and diaper bags a few years later. So what kind of parents are we, as liberal religious parents? We know or suspect that the communities of love and meaning that our children need—and that we as parents need—are not limited to our families or close friends. We begin to understand that there are beautiful and terrible things about this world we live in, great questions that preoccupy our own minds and that will take up residence in the minds of our children when the time comes, and we want to be ready. We want to help and support them in the growing, not just of their minds and their bodies but the growing of their souls. And like any truly worthy enterprise, we know we cannot, and in fact, should not, do it alone.
Some parents believe their children should be free to choose their own faith, and so raise them in no particular faith at all. As you might guess, that is not where I stand. I believe it is crucial for our children—and for us—to be theologically literate, to understand a variety of faith traditions. But Bob and I are liberal religious parents who believe in Unitarian Universalist principles and values as the best way to raise my children for a life in the 21st century, and all of my work around their life is pointed in that direction. Many people, even my children, believe that we have taken that position because I am a minister.
Once, when he was much younger than he is now, Allen once groused at me that it wasn’t fair that he had to go to church just because his mother was a minister. “I hate to break it to you,” I announced to him, “ but you’d have to go to church every Sunday even if I weren’t a minister.” The look of dismay on his face was something to behold. “But why?” he wanted to know. “Because your dad and I love you, and we’re responsible for you, and we care about what kind of person you’re going to grow up to be. There’s lots of stuff you’ll need to learn and some of it you can learn in school. But there’s lots more stuff you need to learn about life, and people, and how you want to live, and what is really important in life. Those are things you can learn best from your father and me, and from church. So no matter what I did for a living, you’d still have to go to church. That’s what church is for.”
James Luther Adams, the great Unitarian theologian, reminds us that church is where we practice what it is to be human. For those of us who are liberal religious parents, being human starts early. That’s the kind of parents we are. Amen.