(This OP-ED was published by the Amarillo News-Globe on Sept. 24, 1995. Three weeks later my first child was born. I often go back to it to set my parental bearings as I traversed with them through infancy, childhood and adolescence. Now my children are young adults … beginning their lives as “in-dependents”—that is standing alone at times and at other times standing with family in the beautiful dance of family giving and receiving.)
“Do you know what it is, or are you going to wait?”
“No, we’ll wait until it’s born.”
“That’s great. It really doesn’t matter anyway, just as long as it’s healthy”
As my wife and I reach the ninth month of pregnancy, this interaction has come to weigh heavily on my heart. I now loathe the statement, “Just as long as it is healthy.”
Imbedded within this idea about the “healthy child” lies a subtle prejudice which I think is the foundation of inappropriate parenting. Honestly, I would prefer a healthy baby, a smart baby, a cute baby; one who sleeps through the night; doesn’t spit up or have colic and can change its own diaper after the first week. But what if he or she is not cute: What if he or she is dumb, sickly or deformed: As I contemplated these questions, I imagined counting fingers and toes, waiting for the APGAR score, hoping that the attending pediatrician and nurses will inform me that this child is “healthy” or “whole” or “a real trophy.”
Already this child is expected to perform. The foundation for “I will love you if you are good enough” has been laid, even before the child has taken his or first breath. When I hear the “healthy child” comment I also hear an implication that the goal for parents is to have a child who is free of imperfections. Imperfections cause stress, pain and uncomfortableness. I cannot reconcile being a parent and maintaining a life of convenience.
This has led me to thing about what I want to accomplish as a parent.
First, I want to release my child of expectations designed primarily for my benefit. That is a difficult proposition in a world of adult children who act as if children exist to meet the needs of the parents. Part of releasing children from this perspective involves not demanding that they are able to care for others before they are old enough to care for themselves. It requires that I as a parent, possess insight and strategy into how this child will move from a dependent infant to a mature adult. It also requires that I sufficiently attend to my needs through adult relationships. Children should not be burdened to carry the weight of life-strain which rests with parents. That is why I have friends … adult friends… to bear one another’s burdens.
It is not just the accumulation of years which make children into mature adults. It is the selective exposure to experiences that shape values, form character and mold identity. With proper expectations, I am placed in a position to teach this child about security and play, boundaries and responsibility, and giving and receiving. This perspective is about not needing parents when the child in an adult in that same way that pare were needed wen he or she was an infant, toddler or adolescent.
Second, it is my job to teach this child about trust. I find a great deal of talk about trusting self and believing in yourself. However, I think we are over-reliant on self-trust. We must be. Most of us have experienced others who were not trustworthy. We have little assurance that safety and protection will be provided from others when we are vulnerable. Therefore, self-reliance is our only hope.
However, I want my child to be able to trust others. Trusting will occur when I do what I say I intend to do, when my priority in deed, not just in word; when “quality time” is experienced by the child as “quantity time”; and when the child sees that he or she does not need to be fearful of life because parents are able to create a protective world. If I fail, this child will be overly self-reliant, and self-reliance can be very lonely.
Finally, I want to teach my child to be good at life. This is not to say that I want him or her to be the best, the brightest, the cutest or healthiest. It is to say that he or she will have life and it may be long or short. It might include physical challenges early … or late. Suffering will come. Be good at it. Whatever
Life will include victory, accomplishment, jubilation, success, failure, sickness, sorrow and death. I will be teaching my child about meaning in life as we live it. This child will likely experience the extremes of life, as well as day-to-day mundane routines.
Parents are instruction books for how children can live. I want my child to “read” about being gracious when he or she wins, loses or finishes in the middle. I hope this child can see through me that God is not an abstract, but a person who is loving, just and who sees an active relationship. This child will need to observe the concepts of holiness, mercy, rightness and responsibility so that he or she will know how to respond to the unique circumstances to be faced.
My friends who want my baby, their babies and all babies to be healthy mean well. But all babies are not healthy. And the ones who are will, at some point, experience some form of disease, be it physical, social, emotional, or spiritual. It is up to me and you to guard against the thought, “Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get a problem-free baby.” Rather, it is my task to receive this child—all children—with the strengths and limitations and assist them in overcoming them. Such is life.