As a single and as a young husband, I stood in awe of parents. They seemed so grown-up, so mature, so together. I recall the passing comment of a mentor and father of five who shared the news of his wife’s recent pregnancy as “bringing an eternal soul into the world.” The spiritual sobriety of his perspective made me marvel at parenthood even more. I wondered if I would ever become that mature.
From a distance, parenthood can appear to be the next step in human maturity—adolescent, college student, young adult, married person, parent. (For some reason, popular perception of empty-nesters doesn’t translate to the final step in maturity.) Those without children, tend to view those with children as wiser, more responsible human beings. After all, recent studies have shown that only the well-educated and affluent are the married-with-kids type. Are we then to conclude that true maturity begins with parenthood? Hardly. Most of us can tell adolescent stories of the parents who let their children get away with anything, parents who seemed more immature than their kids. Maturity isn’t always present in parents. As a parent who is two kids into fatherhood, I can vouch that there is nothing magically maturing about having kids. So how does one become mature enough to parent?
Certainly, close-up encounters with parents reveal that maturity doesn’t go hand in hand with motherhood or fatherhood, whether the parent is single or married. Yet, if we are to parent well, some level of maturity is necessary. Perhaps even more important is the willingness for a parent to mature as a person with their kids, a challenge well captured by Dan Allender in his book How Children Raise Parents.
Indeed, if we are willing to learn along with our children, parenthood may prove to be a maturing, even transforming experience. On the other hand, disengaged or duty-driven parenting can easily prove to be a paralyzing and heart hardening experience. Regardless of how you parent, one thing is certain; raising children will bring its fair share of fear and frustration, for both mothers and fathers.
The challenges of parenthood begin before the baby is born. The nine months before birth are a microcosm of the liberties and limitations of parenthood. Sonograms, name selection, baby room shopping, loss of time, money, and sleep all transpire in those few months, the beginnings of the diverse joys and pains of parenting. Fear sets in early on. Will the baby be born healthy or at all? How will we financially support another person? What about breast-feeding and diaper-changing? How will my spouse change? What if I screw up my kid? Can I do this? Depending on how we respond to these questions, fear of failure can result in earnest preparation or personal paralysis.
After the baby is born and the novelty wears off, our fears can quickly turn into frustrations. While I trembled at the thought of guiding and providing for our second child before she was born, afterwards I found myself incredibly annoyed and frustrated with Ellie’s incessant crying. Pre-birth fear is easily turned into post-partum frustration. As a result, questions begin to cascade. Why won’t that baby just shut up? How am I supposed to work on three hours of sleep? Why won’t my child just obey me the first time? What happened to my wife/husband? Where did all my free time go? Who am I? How do I respond to that!
The various frustrations encountered in parenting can quickly turn into anger or despair in lament over the loss of past freedoms. We discover just how much pre-parenthood personal freedom we had when we lose sleep, time with our spouses, time to see movies, to have dinner out, to enjoy quiet coffee shop reading and reflection, and time with friends.
Depending on how we respond, frustration over freedoms lost can lead to personal reformation or deep-seated resentment.
How are we to redemptively engage our parental fears and frustrations? How much of our fear and frustration is valid? How can frustration lead to redemption instead of resentment? In the space that remains, we will explore some of these gut-level questions with the aim of shedding light on what it looks like to parent by faith in the midst of fear and frustration.
Fear of Failure Parenting
In the months leading up Owen’s birth, our first child, something radical happened. All of a sudden, my strolls through bookshops led me, not down the usual Religion, Literature and Sociology aisles, but quickly into the Family and Parenting sections. Fearful of parental failure, I was willing to learn from anyone. My reading was not limited to the subjects of children and fathers, but even extended to literature on motherhood. I can remember an afternoon spent at Barnes & Noble, where I scoured the racks for wisdom. Consumed by the fear of failing as a father, I desperately picked up the camo-colored New Dad’s Survival Guide: Man-to-Man Advice for First-Time Fathers, by Scott Mactavish. I didn’t have a clue who Scott was, but I knew I was both a first-timer and in need of survival tips.
Fear jump-started my parental preparation. I began to line my utility belt with as many survival tips as possible. I soon called a weekly meeting for expecting fathers to plow through the emotional, spiritual, and practical issues of fatherhood. I frantically looked for post-graduate job placement and began to budget with a passion. In earnest preparation I sought to stamp out my parental fear.
This is not every parent’s response. Other soon-to-be parents encounter personal paralysis when considering the thought of becoming a parent. Feelings of inadequacy and thoughts of failure to meet our children’s emotional, social and physical needs converge, sending a paralyzing arrow of insufficiency straight to the heart. Add to that the tremor of being spiritually responsible for an eternal soul and the wincing pain of the financial demands in caring for another family member.
The fear that motivated my preparation was not constant; it also gave way to personal paralysis. We were expecting Owen. I was in graduate school and graduation was imminent. My wife was in her last month of pregnancy and had taken leave from work. I had been interviewing for months, working my way around the country and down the list of potential employers. We had no savings. I worked as an evening security guard at a prominent advertising firm for ten bucks an hour. We were on state health care and our expenses were about to skyrocket. No job, no money, no prospects, no hope. I experienced a deep, troubling, soul-wrenching despair. In the face of my apparent incompetence, my despair led to debilitating fear. I couldn’t study, make enough money for my family, or look people in the eye. Fortunately, it only lasted a day. Nevertheless, paralyzing fear laid its hands on my heart and, in an instant, my spirit of self-reliant preparation crumbled under the weight of worry.
Some of us respond to our parental fears by spending untold hours worrying instead of sleeping, hardening instead of embracing the in-breaking reality of parenthood. We fear that we will repeat our parents’ failures, and conclude that somehow we are hard-wired for second-rate parenting. Others of us respond by extreme preparation, thinking that if we read and prepare enough we will succeed. What are we to do with these responses? Is preparation the strong, godly response and paralysis the weak, ungodly response? How should we engage these fears?
 Married couples with children now account for less than a quarter of the U.S.population. Sociologists point out that this marriage gap is largely class-based. Blaine Harden, “Numbers Drop for the Married with Children,” Washington Post Mar 4, 2007:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/03/AR2007030300841_pf.html
 Dan Allender, How Children Raise Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Family(Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2003).
Jonathan Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie & Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of Austin City Life church and a leader in The GCM Collective, PlantR and Gospel Centered Discipleship.com. Jonathan is also the author of forthcoming Gospel-Centered Discipleship and writes regularly for The Resurgence, Boundless, and The High Calling. He blogs at jonathandodson.org, enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus.