Mama animals always make me feel so self-reflective. A few weeks ago I sat by a pond outside a neighborhood restaurant, watching a pair of goose parents being followed by their fluffy goslings. The babies were like little mimics, doing everything their parents did. They swam in a neat little row, mama in front, papa in back (I imagine this is to keep them all in line; if Jamin and I were geese that’s definitely how we’d do things). The babies waddled around pecking at the grass surrounding the pond looking like tinier, fuzier versions of their parents.
Tonight I came back to the same restaurant, same pond, and saw that same family. The baby geese weren’t fluffy anymore. They still followed and copied their parents, but otherwise they weren’t very much like babies anymore…they were basically just smaller geese. I considered their mama leading and herding and preparing to release them, and I saw myself for a minute.
There is something so very monumental about this task called parenthood. Like the mama goose whose sole existence these last few weeks has revolved around perpetuating her species, I very often feel like child-rearing is the only thing happening in my world. It’s so constant, minute by minute, day by day, week by week, that it feels all-consuming. Even beyond the care and the feeding and the educating, there’s this daunting proposition that my kids are developing integral pieces of their personhood while they live for eighteen-ish years in my house.
I’ve done a lot of heart work lately. The kind of work where you go back and consult your five-year-old self to find out why you want to go hide in a closet at the first hint of conflict. Or where you search your family tree to better understand why you never could just half-ass any of your school projects even when everyone else was doing it, and even if your grade was inconsequential. I always knew that my parents were a big deal; I mean, I look just like them both, depending on which part of me you look at. But the more work I do, the more I recognize just how much I learned from them, even though I had no idea that I was learning it. And this is what terrifies me about being a parent.
Family is the place my kids are learning about themselves. It’s where they’ll develop their first sense of God-given identity and belonging – or it’s where they’ll learn they don’t belong anywhere. Family is where they’ll understand the value of their voice and presence and unique-ness – or it’s where they’ll learn that they don’t have what it takes, that they have to hustle for love, or that others are happier when they don’t speak up. It’s where they’ll learn how to interact in relationships in a safe, protected space, gaining the coaching and tools to navigate conflict and relational challenges well. Or it’s where they’ll learn that conflict isn’t safe, relationships are unpredictable, and people can’t be trusted.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who gained important things from your family like being seen, heard, loved, accepted, understood, guided, protected, and provided for. Unfortunately, most – probably all – of the adults I know, didn’t receive at least one of those things. And that deficit has created patterns and relational strategies in their lives where they attempt to get that need met, or attempt to protect themselves from the negative implications of the void. Again, this terrifies me as a parent. And while I’m learning to accept that I can’t possibly perfect parenting, and that there will be things I miss that I’m not even aware I’m missing, it also compels me to take every moment seriously.
Since cultivating connection in my family is a highly pressing concern for me, I refuse to allow the pursuit of connection to be outranked by other things. “Prioritizing family” isn’t just about not chasing money or status. Career-minded people get a bad rap in this department, as if careers are the only thing standing in the way of developing connection in families. It can also be about being willing to do hard work on myself, grow in my relationship skills, or invest in my marriage. In my case as a recovering conflict-avoider, pursuing connection means I fight all my deeply ingrained bad habits so I can strengthen my ability to communicate, engage in conflict, and work through hard emotions.
A dear friend once shared a story about a really challenging season in her life. She recalled how tempting it was to let herself be swallowed up by her current struggle, and to let her parenting go on auto-pilot. And then one day she had this revelation: “This is my daughters’ tenth year. This is the only year they are going to be ten. I don’t get to do this one over again.” She realized that she wasn’t the only one experiencing the crisis her family was going through, and that this moment, like all the others, was having an imprint on her kids’ lives and memories and development. Not to sound dramatic or anything, but all the days matter. All the seasons matter. All of my responses, and their emotions, and our financial decisions, and the things we do on Saturdays, and how we discipline and train and love…all of that minutiae adds up into the life my kids will remember and the imprint, for better or worse, I will have left on them by the time they move out.
So this is why I take this parenting thing so seriously. This is why, above almost every other thing, I feel compelled to invest in cultivating connection in my home. This core value motivates how we spend our time and money, sets the culture and tone of our family life, and drives the way Jamin and I govern our own personal growth and development. Like this little goose family that I wish I could take home, my babies are watching me, taking their cues from me, mimicking my moves, and ultimately will look in many ways very much like me. How I lead them is kind of a big deal.