There’s a framed school portrait on our guest bathroom wall of kindergartener Liam smiling happily with a big, blue Bob-the-Builder Band-aid pasted between his upper lip and nose. Liam’s eyes are twinkling and he is apparently unbothered by having a large swath of plastic taped on his face on picture day.
Other school portraits of our kids have come and gone; usually we keep just the most recent picture of each child displayed. But something about that picture has always spoken to me, and even though Liam is now in sixth grade and the stitches in his upper lip have long since healed, the picture remains, and I notice that guests occasionally leave our bathroom chuckling.
Liam’s smiling Band-aid photo captures for me the essence of the journey of parenting. It’s not the smooth, untroubled times that form us and our children—it is the difficult times that we work through, cry through, and finally emerge from, somehow stronger and more joyful. Liam’s stitches don’t stand out as a particularly difficult moment for our family (yes, there was the screaming, the blood, the emergency room, and the Velcro papoose they needed to tie him down-- but all of that was less than 20 minutes). But the picture does symbolize for me the far more seriously challenging times we’ve made it through as a family.
And every family has them.
A friend of mine got divorced and shortly afterward, one of their three young sons was diagnosed with leukemia. At the time, I remember wondering how she could possibly make it through this. The weight of what she was dealing with looked crushing to me. Yet, the community rallied; brought her meals; prayed for her and with her. She, in turn, approached the illness rather matter-of-factly, spending long days at the hospital and at home nursing him through the chemo, believing he would get better. He responded well to the treatment and now, about seven years later, he has been in remission for about five years and is a great athlete. I see her in Mass, with her three big boys. She is not crushed. She is strong and whole.
Difficult sections of parenting are terrifying because we fear they may either never end or may end badly. Because of this, some parents choose denial during the difficult periods. I have seen parents of children who are clearly bullying others at school make excuses for their child, blame the victim for overreacting, or otherwise shrug off their child’s behavior. These parents may be afraid that they have made mistakes that led to the bullying; or perhaps they fear the measures they might take to stop it won’t be successful; or perhaps dealing with their child’s poor behavior will require energy and time that they don’t believe they have. Their fear causes them to freeze. They ignore the problem, hoping that a happy ending will build itself. But in doing so, they miss out on the joy and satisfaction that comes when a family acknowledges a problem; works through it; and after maybe weeks or months—or even years; solves it. They miss their smiling Band-aid moment because they refused to acknowledge that stitches were needed in the first place.
We only need to look at the Gospels to see that Jesus is all about acknowledging sickness, failure or sin in order to bring about new life and healing. He steps into problems rather than away from them. He heals the hemorrhaging woman; brings Lazarus back to life; gives the blind man sight. When he sees people making bad choices, his relationship with them brings about change —the woman at the well with many lovers starts living a moral life after meeting Jesus; Zacchaeus, who cheated people out of taxes, gives half his money to the poor when Jesus comes for dinner at his home; Saul stops persecuting Christians and transforms into St. Paul after meeting the risen Christ.
Imagine if, instead of stepping into problems, Jesus would have simply smoothed them over, saying about the hemorrhaging woman “I’m sure her bleeding is just a stage.” Yet, some parents do this. Unwilling to believe they have the ability or responsibility to stop the hemorrhage, they allow their child to continue unhealthy or destructive behavior. Friends who are teachers tell me about parents who come to them not in a spirit of collaboration to help a child who is struggling, but instead, with a spirit of defensiveness to their child and aggressiveness toward the teacher, refusing to acknowledge their child’s faults; blaming the teacher for picking on the child.
If our faith calls us to become Christ to others, the first “others” we must heal and transform are our children. We must recognize that the most difficult aspects of parenting aren’t evidence that we’ve failed, but rather are opportunities to become more than we thought we were capable of. But this requires us to first acknowledge the hemorrhage; the immorality; the sickness. Being Christ to our children requires us to step into problems rather than away from them.
And it requires us to stick with the problem until there is resolution—to pray our way through issues, while working every brain cell God gave us. We are called, as parents, to give everything we are to pulling the best from our children, understanding that sometimes pulling this best from kids is a joyful task, and sometimes it is sheer pain.And when we do this; when we acknowledge the pain, step into the hurt; enter into the difficulty; that is when the miracle will begin to occur. For pulling the best from our children—no matter how hard— is love in action. And love transforms.