Because we’re friends, and I’m a veteran mom, I can only say that giving unsolicited advice is my modus operandi, my gifting…haha! Seriously, I know that you are in the sleep-deprived stage of sifting through myriad how-to’s on breastfeeding, expressing, sleep-wake-cycles, and all the rest. I know there is a tremendous amount of discernment required to sort out the veracity of parenting-advice claims and establishing your own family culture, the values that guide and direct your actions as you look toward a vision of what your is and is becoming and will be.
So here goes. My unasked for parenting advice.
Get comfortable with fear.
Make it your greatest ally.
I realize that from the first flutters of incubating that little nugget that’s keeping you up at night, fear has been whispering what-ifs non-stop.
I’m here to tell you, fear never shuts up.
Never stops asking the hard questions. Never stops pushing you toward intentionality. Never ceases to threaten the freedom and joy of parenting.
Fear is stealthy and often masquerades as wisdom.
Fear is silent and often moves in your unchecked and deepest thoughts. Fear is quick and strategic as it moves you toward reacting, retreating, resorting-to. Fear is ever-present.
Fear makes freedom-loving people justify cowardly behavior.
Fear creates an environment of comparison and motivates cultivating the “right environment” with the “right people”. Fear instigates arguments and screams “retreat!” and ultimately sabotages all the wonderful what-ifs right out of life.
Fear destroys relationships and squelches the true adventure of living.
Fear annihilates grace and even goes so far as to erase the need for mercy because it deceives you into sanitizing a life where all of life’s sharp corners and edges and drop-offs and drop-outs are kept well away from your darling ideal of scary-free living.
So it makes the most sense, in my accounting, to get used to and comfortable with and familiar with the way fear slithers into your thoughts.
How it works for me may be different than how it works for you. Where fear takes me will look different than where it may lead you. But make it work for you.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I only have control so far as my arms will reach, and this is even a delusion that gets me through the day. I have a minutia of control, and even that is up for debate. So, I have learned to read fear and it’s influence on my thinking and behavior. I’ve learned to look for the signs. This has much less to do with actual parenting than it has to do with actual living. Looking fear in the face and saying, “I see you”, recognizing it’s power and then making what you hope is the right choice right then and there is, well, scary (and I don’t need to skydive because parenting alone provides me with more terrifying situations than any adrenaline junkie needs).
Somewhere along the line, we parents learn how to live side-by-side with the ever-present threat of disaster.
We get to take it in baby steps, thank God, because He knows we need the incremental movement.
It begins with pregnancy, the threat of loss, then on to the threat of SIDS, then, as baby’s world moves beyond our arms and the relative safety of every buckled accessory, it’s fevers and bumps and sickness and broken bones.
It’s potty-training and fatigue and calling the poison control hotline.
It’s crying in public and dealing with tantrums and teachable moments and the weird pride-fear-anxiety brew we drink from day after day.
It’s danger imagined and danger realized. Because bad things do happen.
One day I couldn’t ride roller coasters. Ever again. There, beside me, sat tiny five-ear-old Isabella, so slight that the security bar was a joke. No way could that bar keep gravity from taking my child. But she laughed hilariously as we turned upside down. She flung her arms in the air with all the abandon of one who simply doesn’t understand just how horribly terrifying life – and death – can be. All of my internal organs seemed to suddenly reside in my throat and I could not make a sound. I turned my face toward her and laid my hand upon her chest for the remainder of the ride. That was it. That’s why I hate Silverwood Theme Park. All it took was sixty seconds to reveal my limitations. Of course, she rolled her eyes afterward and told me, “Mom, you’re so scared.”
A few weeks ago, Isabella left the house and I walked her out to her car. She would be leaving for Chicago the following day and I asked her to please let me know that she landed safely. Just shoot off a quick text. “Mom, you’re so fearful. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
When we went to Europe, we took a train to a small town in northern England and hiked along and up and down a path where the sweeping hills of the countryside, dotted with sheep and illumined with sunshine, fell tumbling every which way into the North Sea. We were hiking toward the lighthouse at St. Abb’s Head. The wind and sea and sun and green and blue and the abundance of air and life and movement exhilarated the senses. Her youthful pace afforded me a view of her backside for then entire 7 miles. We climbed a small, well-worn path along the edge of hillside that fell, nearly tripping over itself, into the sea that wooshed and waved to our right.
That hillside slid sharply and narrowed to nothing more than a strand of somewhat solid-looking rock that led to a rock promontory about the shape of a toe. Isabella scurried down that steep grade straight toward the sea, scrambled to the little-worn path fifty feet below me and out to the tip of the point.
I watched. What more could I do? Hike on? Have a snack? Take pictures of the wildflowers?
The whatifs swept up off the voice of the crashing waves that crumpled against the solid, ancient volcanic rock. What if she loses her footing? What if she falls into the sea and you have only to watch her die? What if she is hanging on for dear life and you have to run for help, with your bad leg and worn-out body, miles to the nearest town?
I stood in that tiny path at a great height that led straight down into an inlet populated by giant rocks and a few seabirds. The wind blew my eyes teary and in the blur I spoke aloud, What if?
So I turned and took a step, and another, until the path led to a headland further north, level and broad that only slightly narrowed to harrowing point above the water. I felt secure in my legs to take me there. I stood on my point and turned toward her, maybe a thousand feet south and a hundred feet below me, so far out of my arm’s reach. I waved. I took a picture of her, a tiny dot in a green coat atop a precipice. And from my position beyond hers I watched her navigate her route back to the relative safety of the main path.
I was brave in my own way. I had taken a path that led to a point in the headlands beyond the safer route. I sat in the face of the wind and felt its buffeting strength.
But mostly I know I was brave because I moved in spite of the paralyzing fear that gripped me. I risked losing what is more precious to me than my own breath.
I am used to fear and it’s presence in my life, yet I need not kowtow to its power. I have gained practice doing this now for over two decades. And I have years and fears ahead of me to face and fail and maybe conquer. Although my skills in discerning fear are being honed, I’ll always have more to learn.
And that is the next bit of advice: give yourself (and each other, and the child(ren) grace.
There are many times fear will win. There are times you’ll be glad for it, too. There might be times that you’ll realize that you’ve been living within fear’s paradigm, entrapped in its dogma, and you will need to break free of that, try something new, go directly in the direction of your fear.
Keep grace at hand. Pass it out as generously as you might dispense antibacterial gel at a birthday party.
But remember, it’s a very sad thing to watch parents continuously move in fear and call it something else. Fear turns ugly, and the gangrenous nature of it runs deep. It becomes the culture of one’s family and takes its place at the dinner table and insidiously becomes a household god. I’ve seen it happen. Maybe you have, too.
And I think just as being brave takes a lot of practice and failure and grace and trying again, genuflecting to the god of fear is a learned behavior, a developed habit borne from pride of self and a great desire for self-preservation.
What we don’t realize in the process of it all is the generational affect of our choices in this fear-freedom tension. Always ask and mean it: What am I really afraid of?
While my kids might think I’m fearful, they seriously have no idea the battle I fight daily for them – on my knees, in the word, before God and alongside my husband. The struggle for the lifeline of wisdom is real and tangible. I can tell you this: being brave enough to recognize fear as it manifests itself in your own temperament and day-to-day living will give you the stepping stones that you need to bravely, confidently, lovingly, even with your internal organs gathering up in your throat, give those fledglings the push they need to fall from the nest and stick their God-given wings out onto the air of adulthood.
Because raising kids is actually raising humans who will eventually be adults.
And while we may think we really, really want them to stay on the safe path even while their heading toward possible danger, we have to ask ourselves, “Do we?”
Or, do we maybe want them to be brave, to know fear and choose action and grace and even failure so that they may discern the difference and begin to live confidently apart from us?
That is a question with no easy answer. And it seems so far off when it’s all about feeding and swaddling and fussy times. But I can tell you from my stage in the game – it’s worth every scary moment. There is little more rewarding than watching my kids think for themselves, respond to conviction and the truth of God’s word on their own, to disagree with me, to move out, to walk away, to be defeated, to come back and find grace, and be decent humans who don’t need me in their day to day lives in order to function in a healthy way.
Faith comes from becoming intimately acquainted with it’s indivisible converse, fear, and by acting upon the wisdom that can be spotted like a bit of sea glass among the rocks, in the hairbreadth space between the two.
This forward movement is risk-laden with what-ifs and always beyond your own strength. Keep God’s strength at hand.
I wish you many years of practice, success and failure and honestly a few good nights of sleep. I offer all the friendship I can give as you bravely adventure forth as parents. And I wouldn’t be a proper nerd without quipping, “And may the Force be with you.”