Margaret Laurence’s novel, “A Jest of God,” tells the story of two sisters: One of them, Rachel, single still and childless at mid-life, is a gifted, elementary school teacher. The other is a stay-at-home-mother, dedicating herself full-time to caring for her children.
As the years go by and Rachel finds herself still without children of her own, her frustration grows. She works with children all day, every day, but they are not her children. They come into her classroom, learn from her, pass through her life, but then move on to other classrooms and to a life away from her. She suffers deeply from this transience, this lack of possession. Most everything inside her screams for children of her own, children who will not simply pass through her life.
One day she shares this frustration with her sister, confessing how painful it is to have children pass through your life, a different group every year, and never have any that are really your own.
Her sister is less than fully sympathetic. She tells Rachel, in effect, that it is no different being a parent. Your children also pass through your life and move on to their own lives, away from you. They also are never really your children, someone you possess. Children are never really yours, irrespective of whether you are their natural parent, their foster parent, or their teacher. They have their own lives, lives that you do not own.
There are some important truths in that: Children are never really our own. They are given to us, in trust, for a time, a short time in fact, during which we are asked to be their parents, their teachers, their mentors, their pastors, their uncles, their aunts, their guardians, but they are not, in the end, our children. Their lives belong to them, and to God. That’s both challenging and consoling to realize.
The challenge is more obvious: If we accept this then we are less likely to be manipulative as parents, teachers and guardians. We are less likely to see a child as a satellite in our own orbit or as someone whose life must be shaped according to our image and likeness. Rather, if we accept that they are their own persons, we will be able to offer our love, support and guidance with less strings attached.
The consolation is not as obvious, but is my main point here: If we accept that our children are really not our own, then we will also realize that we are not alone in raising them. How so?
Our children are not ours, they are God’s children. In the end, we are only their guardians, all of us. God is the real parent and God’s love, care and anxiety for them will always be in excess of our own. You are never a single parent, even if you are doing the parenting alone. God is alongside, loving, caring, cajoling, worrying, trying to instill values, trying to awaken love, worrying about what company they are keeping, concerned about what they are watching on the internet, and spending the same sleepless nights that you are. God’s worry exceeds our own.
Moreover, God has the power to touch the heart of a child and break through to a child in a way that you, as a parent, often cannot. Your children can refuse to listen to you, turn their backs on you, reject your values, and walk away from everything you stand for; but there is always still another parent, God, from whom they cannot walk away. God can reach into places, including hell itself, into which we cannot reach. God is always there, with a love more patient and solicitousness more fierce than is our own. From that we can draw courage and consolation. Our children are surrounded always by a love, a concern, an anxiety, and an invitation to awaken to love, that far exceeds anything we can offer. God is the real parent and has powers we don’t have.
This particularly important and consoling if we have ever lost a child tragically, to an accident that might have been prevented, to suicide, to drugs or alcohol, or to a set of friends and a lifestyle that ended up killing them and, as a parent or guardian, you are left feeling guilty and second-guessing: Why did I fail so badly in this? How much am I to blame for this failure?
Again, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we were, and are, not the only parents here and when this child died, however tragic the circumstances, he or she was received by hands far gentler than our own, was embraced by an understanding far deeper than our own, and was welcomed into the arms of a parent more loving than we. Our child left our foster care and our inadequacy to provide everything, to live with a mother and a father who can give him or her the protection, guidance and joy that we could never quite fully provide.
Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher, and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted through his website www.ronrolheiser.com