The Paradox of Parenting

Roman 7: 15-20 and Selected Scripture
Father’s Day 2015

When our kids were younger, we had a cartoon from the New Yorker called “Bad Mom Cards” attached to our refrigerator door. The artist, Roz Chast, obviously a mom, captured the reality of what it means to be a mom in today’s world. Bad Mom Card # 4 for instance is Esther J. who, “ran out of orange juice one morning and served kids orange soda instead.” Or how about Suzie M. who, “Let kid play two hours at Nintendo just to get him out of her hair.” Then there’s Dawn K. who “when daughter left stuffed bear in Grand Union, waited until next day to retrieve it.” Maybe you’re like Lucy L. who “told friend ‘funny’ story about kid and had a laugh at kid’s expense.” Bad Mom #89, Becky O., “while on the phone, told child to shut the h. up, or she would brain her.” You’ve never done that, have you?

Peggy promptly stuck that on our refrigerator when she found it and has passed it on to many other discouraged moms. For in those cards we recognize ourselves and laugh (or cringe) as they expose the paradoxes of parenting. When I became a father I went through a transformation. With the arrival of each of my two children there emerged from within me this person I had never met, a person whom I liked very much—this loving, caring, nurturing, patient man. And I watched him, amazed.
There was another transformation that occurred. Another person who was not as attractive, who was frazzled and angry and impatient. And I was in amazement as I watched him. It was a sort of a Jekyll and Hyde split, a creature who came out of me who was wonderful, and a creature who I didn’t know. Now that my kids are young adults living at home, it’s a different kind of struggle—them reverting back to being and having to be reminded to pick up after themselves and we reverting back to bossy parents. But the struggle is still real.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s book, Jekyll and Hyde, he starts his tale with this opening: “I stood already committed to the profound duplicity of life, that humankind is not truly one but two. And that those polar twins should be continuously struggling. One of these polar twins, who was the Mr. Hyde character, bore the stamp of the lower elements in my soul.”
I found that there was this kind of polarity in being a parent. In the transformation, a struggle emerged. For you it might be something other than motherhood or fatherhood that brings this struggle to the forefront of your life. It might be your job, an illness, a relationship, or stress that exposes the two people who live within you. I could have just as easily talked about the paradox of marriage, or of teaching, or of being a boss.
Sheila Kissinger, a social anthropologist, talks about what happens to women in particular when they become parents. She writes in her book, Ourselves as Mothers:

Becoming a mother is a biological process, but it is also a social transformation, and one of the most dramatic and far-reaching that a woman may experience. The home is supposed to be a haven of love and good feelings. Thus it comes as a great disappointment to many women that it proves not to be so for them; for it is also a place where the ugliest and most destructive emotions are experienced, where there is disturbing interpersonal conflict and inside four walls these raw feelings are concentrated and mixed together as if in a pressure cooker. She hates what she has become. Happy as a woman may be to have a baby, and although she may enjoy being a mother, she must now pay the price of motherhood—the total and virtual annihilation of self.

We have a family story that on one Mother’s Day I was looking for a comb and couldn’t find any. I usually kept a stash in the bathroom. Anna, being a teenager at the time, would often hijack them and they would pile up in her room. So I marched into her room and said accusingly, “Anna, do you have my combs?” She became very indignant. “Why do you always think I have your stupid combs and no I don’t have any.” There happened to be some clothes on the floor covered by a wet towel. I picked up the towel and lo and behold, there was a comb under it.” I, of course, was very understanding and solicitous. No, I said, “I knew you’d have it! You always take my stuff without asking and blah, blah, blah.” Of course, the poor kid was devastated. I walked out of Anna’s room and Peggy had heard the whole thing. She exclaimed, “Norman, it’s Mother’s Day!” And I said, “Mother, schmother. I want my comb.” So now whenever someone is frustrated or about to pitch a fit we say, “Mother, schmother.”

Lest you think you are alone in this struggle, the apostle Paul describes this internal struggle of the good and evil in us. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.” In other words, I need restrictions to keep my behavior in line. “As it is,” Paul continues, “it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

I think Paul might have been a parent or at least he was very much in tune with human nature. He hits the nail on the head. There is that constant struggle within me where a good person responds to my children, and then this creature I don’t know comes out.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s work, Jekyll and Hyde, unfortunately, the darkness of Mr. Hyde’s character overshadows the goodness of Dr. Jekyll. But let’s look at the Jekyll character. He was a good person. The novel says he was a well-respected physician, surrounded by good friends who hated to leave his dinner parties because he was so good to be around.
When I became a father, I found a Jekyll inside of me. For the first time there was a person in my life who I loved more than I loved myself. Before I had kids, something I struggled with, and still do—as we all do–were my self-interested tendencies. My life went on my schedule. I did what I wanted, and I did it when I wanted.

Now all of a sudden there was this other person in my life, and I didn’t want to be selfish anymore. Even though I was hungry, I fed him breakfast first (even before I had my coffee, if you can believe it!). Even when I was tired, I was more concerned about his sleep. I was doing unselfish things because I wanted to.

I was becoming a more patient and kind, calm, reasonable, generous, thoughtful, loving person. And I can honestly say the same was true of Peggy. I thought, “I like this. This is a good thing, this person who is emerging.” I learned to love being a dad.

There is another person who comes out sometimes when I am a parent whom I don’t know, and I want to say, “Who is he? What does he want? How can I make him go away?” I remember the first time Nathan got a cold. He would sleep half-an-hour then be up crying for forty-five minutes. Then we’d get him down and half-an-hour later he’d be up again. We tried a hot vaporizer and a cold vaporizer. We tried saline drops for his nose. We tried having him sleep on his stomach or propping up his head on an extra pillow, but nothing worked. During the day, of course, he was all sweetness and light, but at night he turned into the demon child.
On the third night about 3 a.m., Peggy got up with him and he wouldn’t settle down. I finally got out of bed and walked into him room to find the overhead light on, Nathan standing up in his crib wailing and Peggy flat out on the bedroom floor. We tried to brainstorm—what were we gonna do. If she took him at night, I’d take him in the morning and let her sleep in. All the while Nathan was just howling away, until I snapped and yelled, “Shutup.” To which Nathan promptly complied because he was so startled. But then he was so frightened that he started wailing again with even more intensity.

On those days I felt like I was becoming an impatient, frazzled, rude, angry, frustrated person; and I was splitting into two people. Not all parents are like that. I know moms and dads who seem to have an endless supply of patience and kindness for their kids. I admire them. I don’t like them, but I admire them. That is not me.

I used to think that my kids were doing this to me, or maybe it was somebody else’s fault. Maybe if I read the right book I’d get a handle on this. But God was using being a parent to hold a mirror up to show me these two people who lived inside of me, to remind me that this Hyde character had been there all along. Maybe you’re like me and you look at these two faces in the mirror and ask: “What do I do with these two people?”

Let me walk you through four steps that have helped me, and are currently helping me deal with these two people who live inside of me—inside of all of us. As God held up the mirror and I looked at this wonderful Jekyll and this hideous Hyde, the first thing that happened is that it shattered my illusions.

We like to think we’re good people. We read the news online. We listen to “All Things Considered” on the way home from work. We see how awful some parents can be to their children. We’re not like those people. But for me, after becoming a parent, I can no longer hold unequivocally to that truth. I have never hit, or abused, or belittled my children, as I’m sure is true of you. But at times we are all aware that there can be some pretty nasty stuff in us that if unchecked by the grace of God we could do some hurtful things. We would like to say, “Oh, it’s not that bad. All parents do it.” While that may be true, not all parents want to do it. We want to be different.

I’m sure there are times that if we heard ourselves on a tape recorder we would be quite chagrined. What might we hear? “I’m busy. You’re bothering me. What I’m doing is more impor¬tant and I wish you would leave me alone.” You know what I’m talking about. Moments like that are a mirror to me. I saw an easily irritated and annoyed person and I didn’t want that person in my life.

A good person does not unleash anger on a defenseless child. If you come over to my house and have a glass of milk; if you spill your milk I won’t yell at you. But we do with our children. We need to learn to say we’re sorry. It’s a very humbling and healthy thing to look your child in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry. I messed up. Will you please forgive me?” How will they otherwise ever to learn forgiveness or the need to say I’m sorry, if mom and dad can’t do it? And I also am reminded that while I can never presume on God’s forgiveness, it is always there. I am reminded that God is interested in redeeming that Hyde-like creature and changing him.

So, after our illusions are shattered, then what? The next step is that I am reminded how much I need God. Have you ever heard your kids talk to each other using the same tone of voice or unkind expressions that you recognize as your own? I remember how embarrassed my mother was when my little sister started saying, “Dammit all.” That kind of stuff drives me to God: “Oh Lord, fix me. Make me less angry, less critical, less impatient. Make me more like you, because I like the results when I inflict kindness on my family. I like what it does to their souls when I’m like you.” There are some days when I say to myself, “Lord, I’m doing pretty good today so far. I haven’t gotten angry or impatient, I haven’t committed any sins that I know of, but in a few minutes I’m going to get out of bed and I’ll need your help.” It isn’t resolve I need. It’s the power of God.

When I saw how much I needed God, a third thing happened: I saw God; I began to experience God more fully. Robert Lewis Stevenson says that the Hyde character in his book bore the stamp of the lower element of his soul. Jekyll, on the other hand, bore the stamp of God. This person coming out of me, this person I saw, reflected who God was. Scripture is loaded with parenting images of God. And as I loved my children with this new, wonderful, overwhelming love—I realized that’s how God loves me.

There’s a passage in Isaiah that says, “As a mother nurses her newborn at her breast, so God is like that with you.” God could never forget you. It goes on to say that as a mother comforts her child, so God will comfort you. As I love my children in all the stages of their lives, I am getting a glimpse of how God loves me. I can honestly say, that I had not known God’s love to the depth that I know it today until I had my children.
The last step on my journey, and it is a continuing one, is this: Because my illusions have been shattered, when I realize how much I need God, and I have seen God’s face, I can now relearn who God is.

My kids have always connected me with God in ways I would never otherwise know. When they were young they helped me appreciate things I had forgotten: their wide-eyed wonder at this marvelous world we live in; their freedom to just laugh their guts out for no obvious reason; their easy acceptance of those who are different—reminded me of God’s marvelous grace. I also learned kayaking and mountain biking and how to deliver newspapers on a snowy Sunday morning before church.

Now that they’re adults they teach me other things…like realizing I have to let them go to make their own mistakes, that they don’t always take dad’s insightful wisdom to heart, that it’s not a good idea to try to be a matchmaker for my son, and that if I could take their pain I would. But they would never otherwise learn that that is part of being an adult too. I learn all about BMW’s, even if I don’t want to and all about indie and underground music.

If you’re honest, you can say that Hyde lives in you. I know Hyde lives in me. But the good news is that Jekyll lives there, too. And I celebrate that person who is like God. It is my prayer this morning that all and dads—and mom’s too—by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, will see more of Jekyll and less of Hyde as we live out this paradox of parenthood.

About Norman Bendroth

Norman Bendroth is a Professional Transition Specialist certified by the Interim Ministry Network. He has served as a settled pastor in two United Church of Christ congregations and as a Sr. Interim pastor in seven other UCC congregations. He was also an executive for three different non-profit agencies. He has had additional training in Mediation Skills for Church Leaders from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center and training in Appreciative Inquiry from the Clergy Leadership Institute. Rev. Bendroth has the M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his D. Min. from Andover Newton Theological school where he concentrated on theology and systems theory. He is married to Peggy Bendroth and has two adopted Amerasian children.
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