It’s not for the faint of heart, this parenting business.
Lately, he’s gone more than he’s home and I’m feeling a lot like that sludge circling the bottom of the sink after the dishwater has been drained. Down, down, swirling bubbles and gone, left with the bleh. But I read to know I’m not alone, because C.S. Lewis told me so, and boy, was he right. And I remember a friend who writes healing words about my hands. About the miles they’ve traveled and the beauty they’ve seen. About the beauty they are.
I turn them over, though soggy with dishwater and wrinkled sensitive, they are a bit beautiful, aren’t they?
Even the sensitive parts. No, especially the sensitive parts.
These hands that tap keys and wipe buttocks and make dinner. Again. These hands that upsweep ponytails and hold the camera so I can find the maddening beauty here, in all this preposterous repetition, so I don’t succumb to the maddening. Or perhaps, I do. These hands that massage sore muscles in whispered night hours when he finally warms the other side of the bed for his few winks. To paraphrase the sage words of Mother Teresa, these hands do no great things, only a few shabby things with great love.
But I think the hardest part of parenting is not the ordinary struggles of schedule balancing or discipline or the days that all line up and blur together like a string of monotonous Mondays in late winter. I think the hardest part of parenting is a poisonous little word that eeks into our emotional center, insidious, suggestive, serpentine. It’s guilt.*
And we talk about our kids on our date (because what else do you talk about, right?) and we start to hear it in the sound of our own voices reverberating off the windshield. We feel guilty. Not enough time together. Discipline’s inconsistent. Saying “yes” to too much. Saying “no” to too much. No pool for the summer. Not enough opportunities for their talents. More candy than they need. On and on and on. First it’s my fault, then it’s his. And round and round. I’m getting dizzy and why does the car seem to spin all of the sudden?
He names it first, puts down anchor, “I guess I just feel guilty.”
And it’s like something has split wide open. We both see it and neither of us is pointing a finger. Not at each other. Not even at ourselves. We are starting to see the pernicious root of the problem, there, lying quietly concealed under all the rubble of blame. The poison is the guilt we have allowed to saturate our thinking: That we’re not doing it right. That there must be a right and a wrong way to do everything and we will feel better – stable, even – when we’ve discovered the right way. Like God needs us to decipher His formula so He can bless us. Because certainly He’s much more like a nasal, calculating math teacher than like a storyteller, spinning yarns . . . er, right?
Not only does this guilt affect the decisions we make, but more importantly, it affects how we feel about the decisions we make. Every decision is made half-heartedly, a “yes” can’t be confident and a “no” is wavering at best, because insecurity, like an untrusting spouse is present in the background, wreaking doubtful havoc. Our little things, though done with love, look more like crumbs for the dogs than bread for the children. And it’s single-handedly sabotaging our enjoyment of this once-in-a-lifetime amazing adventure called parenting.
We look at each other. The grace shines in our eyes with the tears. We know we need both.
My eyes go to his work-worn, cracked and dry hands, what a tale they tell. And is it my imagination, or is he looking at my hands, too? Seeing the soak in large sinks of dishwater and the middle-of-the-night-wiping-of-the-brow for a sick child. We hold them out as a lifeline. As a grace line. All the sensitive parts and calloused parts, too.
And my hands, these mysterious, creative, resplendent things, they perform yet another not-so-shabby little thing. They wipe the tears from his cheeks. He sees I don’t hold him hostage for missing dinners and soccer games just as much as he doesn’t hold me hostage for the mountain of unmatched socks that I’ll never climb. We take our forlorn hands, all generous grace contained, and wind them together. Stronger that way. Healing in the touch.
It’s our hands that bring us back to true Center.
To the only firm place to stand. To the only One who will ever get it all right. Or better yet, who will make it all right. Because the truth in parenting – the truth in all of life – is that He doesn’t do good work because of us, even on our best day — but rather, in spite of us.
Like beauty in spite of dishwater hands.
*Note: I realize there is such a thing as ‘healthy guilt’. This piece is not meant to address that in any way, shape or form. What I mean by ‘guilt’ here is the vague sense that what I do is not enough. And the heavy footprints of shame that often ride with it.
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