“You hate me”, my five-year-old says through angry tears. I’m caught off guard by his accusation. My heart knows it isn’t true; nothing matters more to me than he does. But a different message is written across my scowling face. I’m mad and any stranger in the world who walked up right now would see plainly that, in this moment, we are against each other. I’ve made an enemy of a five-year-old child.
This is not the parenthood that I wanted. I wanted to be a safe, calm, and secure father for my kids. On days like this one, however, that vision gets away from me. My son has misbehaved and all he needs is loving and confident correction. But often I’m surprised to find that, apart from actually having anything to do with my kids, there is something in their misbehavior which is deeply threatening to me.
More than just about anything else, parenting has a way of dragging your stuff to the surface. This is because to be a parent is to be out of control. When I’m alone, I can arrange my world in such a way that I don’t have to hear the hurtful messages that, for one reason or another, I’ve been running from (and carrying with me) my whole life. Those messages are different from person to person and depend on our stories, but for most of us they essentially boil down to “you don’t matter, don’t count, and don’t deserve to be loved.”
Parenting precludes the stagnating luxury of hiding from these messages. Some days more than others, something in my kids’ (or wife’s or friends' or coworkers') behaviors blasts those messages on the surround-sound system of my internal world and I see now that those are the days that I don’t really believe in love at all. They are the days that I see life and all of its endeavors as proving ground for my validity and worthiness. I get sucked into the struggle of trying to get it all just right so that I might finally live down the accusations against me and be worth something in my own eyes. On these days, even my own children are either for or against me, and my capacity to love a five-year-old depends on the extent to which he cooperates in this test I’ve devised for myself.
But even on the days I fall prey to this trap, I know in my gut that it’s wrong. I know that isn’t how love works. Even on those days I could answer without hesitation that my children are worthy of love just because they are. We have it on the authority of Christmas that to be a human is to be made for, and the object of, love. They can’t earn it and they can’t lose it. When I forget this it is my failure, not theirs.
It is here that I have to deal with a difficult but life-giving dilemma: I can’t defend the inherent worthiness of my children to be loved while simultaneously disqualifying myself. Truly loving my kids, or anyone else, necessitates and depends on my willingness to receive that love for myself. It is in the security and peace of this love that I have the capacity to be the father I want to be and that my children deserve. If, like me, you have dragons to slay to gain access to that love, I promise you it's worth the fight.
I am blessed this week by Andrew Peterson who lives out this truth in a song he wrote for his children: