Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Few Parental Regrets

In the past month, I have had two close girlfriends coincidentally ask me if there are things that my husband and I now regret about the way we raised our only child, Allie, and what things we did right.  Both friends are currently experiencing "preteen parental anxiety," with which I readily recall being afflicted when Allie hit the adolescent stage.  So both friends wanted to pick my brain a bit.  Embarrassingly, I found myself totally dumbfounded upon being asked about the regrets--I had a hard time coming up with anything.  I started to feel like I needed to make-up some stuff in order to appear humble, honest, and "normal."  But the more I poured over the choices we made in raising our daughter, the more I realized I really have very few regrets, if any.  First and foremost, I had to praise God for this realization.  He and He alone deserves one hundred percent of the credit and glory that we were able to raise our daughter in such a way that we can feel any success or blessing at all from our parenting experience.  Matt and I know full well that if we had not had Christ at the center of our marriage and home, we would never have made it--in our marriage or with our parenting. 

Starting out married with a baby at 18 years of age, the statistics didn't bode well for us.  Everything was honestly against us.  We should have been divorced within two years, and as a pregnant teenage mom (wince, wince--I still writhe at that label), I should have ended up in several failed marriages with numerous children from various biological fathers.  We should have ended up in poverty and our daughter should have likewise, suffered many of these same afflictions.  Why were we able to avoid these things?  God.  Period.

Matt and I realized early on in our marriage that if we were going to avoid becoming yet another statistic, we were going to need much more than our longtime friendship, hometown roots, family support, and passionate, teenage love for one another.   Our relationship was based on much more than lofty feelings and sex (regardless of cynical public opinion).  We were both smart kids, (but obviously not so smart as to avoid getting caught in our secret sin).  So when we made the decision to marry and raise our child together as best we could, we knew we were going to need much more than our own flawed intelligence and current assets.  When you begin your marriage in the opposite way that God desires, you already have some big strikes against you.  You bring some guilt into the marriage.  You bring some doubt into it, too (i.e.--does this person really love me or did they marry me because they felt they had to marry me?).  You bring a great deal of overcompensation into the marriage, striving to mend broken trust with parents and repair disappointment that you now see in your teachers, friends, church, and community.  You work to prove to extended family that you weren't out to harm the future of their loved one in creating this situation (and that you aren't mentally retarded for having "messed up").  You're dealing with a great many issues--namely, raising a child when you are still one yourself.  The day Allie was born, we discussed at length the fact that God would need to be at the center of everything if this was going to work.  I still praise God that He put us both on the same mental and spiritual wavelength with this acknowledgement, even at the ripe old age of eighteen.  He knew where our hearts were, even though we had "messed up."  He knew we loved each other deeply and that we were seeking to make things right.  He knew we wanted redemption and Him.

Did this spiritual awakening happen immediately?  No.  Sure, we were in church most Sundays.  Sure, we prayed together and read the Bible on occasion.  But at eighteen, no one is prepared to do all of the following:  get married, move away from home, start college, work on a new marriage, care for a new baby, care for a new home, study for college, pay bills, do all your own laundry, AND hold down a job.  Focusing on your spiritual walk with God gets easily bumped down on the list, as does your marriage.  It wasn't very long into our life together that we began to have "massive stress syndrome."  When you are totally overwhelmed in your life on pretty much every level, the ripple effect from it is pretty vast.  How we survived the first two years I will never know.  Well, that's not true.  I actually do know--it was on support of family, sheer love, selflessness, forgiveness, and the grace of God, plain and simple.

I remember praying devoutly for our little girl starting at age two (once we got through the initial shock of the aforementioned items).  I am convinced that for the first two years of her life, we were in total survival mode. I think the only praying I did besides in church and before meals, was flare prayers.  But when Allie hit two, things began to calm some.  We made some good, Christian friends that uplifted us, supported us, and that just enjoyed hanging out with us, even though we weren't living the "party life" as everyone else was at that season of life (we still praise God for Troy and Michelle).  We settled into our marital life together on a much healthier level.  We figured out how to keep things running and the checkbook balanced more regularly.  Things were just more even.  We got rather good at the juggling act required of us.  So it was then that I began to pray for my little bundle of joy--fervently.  For some reason, the fear of God came into my life and I looked upon my little girl with very new eyes.  She was no longer just an adorable, little being requiring and demanding constant feedings, changings, care, rockings, love, playtime, more feedings, and more changings.  She was a precious, little person--a little angel whose future was being entrusted to me.  I became very aware that I was a steward of her life, and God had made me the steward whether I was prepared for it or not.  I'd made choices, and now I had more--and I chose to be the best mom I could be.  I wasn't the brightest bulb in the box, but I was smart enough to know that there was no way I could manage all this at my young age without prayer, God's wisdom, and lots of His help.

Allie was a bright toddler.  She was speaking in 10-word sentences before her 2nd birthday.  I was very aware that my child was probably a great deal smarter than I (accurate prediction), and that if she was going to reach the potential God had set for her, I better step it up--on a lot of levels.  So instead of feeling sorry for myself (as many girls my age would have done) that I wasn't out in Aggieville, dressed to the nines, and having a big time with my girlfriends, I put every energy and all the joy I had into raising my little girl.  We read books, sang songs, took trips to the park, went on little excursions, worked on art and creative projects together, made up theatrical dance routines, and soaked up life in every way possible together (every way that didn't require a lot of money, that is).  I reveled in motherhood.  I was utterly smitten with my little doll and she thought I was pretty awesome, too.  It was one of the best relationships I'd ever had.  Life was good on the parental front.

In retrospect though, that would be linked to one of the first regrets I would have.  I know that I put so much of my energy, time, and creative zeal into being, "Mother of the Year," that my marriage suffered at times.  My son-in-law, Kale, who is currently in grad school studying Marriage and Family Therapy at Kansas State University, mentioned once that marital satisfaction and happiness drops significantly upon the birth of the first child.  It then begins to spike after the child hits about four years of age.  This is not a shocker to anyone who has had a baby.  Infants are about as demanding as a new puppy--what am I saying, they are far worse!  Toddlers are a little better, and you have typically had a decent night's sleep each day when you are faced with their new demands and needs (unlike infants).  Forgive my obtuse-sounding language--I don't mean to speak about babies as if they are mutant marriage home-wreckers.  But young children severely change a home, as we parents all know.  Since Matt and I had very little "before kid/s" time in our marriage (due to the way we started out), you might think we didn't suffer any great decline in marital satisfaction since we hadn't gotten used to being alone for long anyway.  But in actuality, it about killed us.  We needed that "before kid/s" time to work our way into marriage, just as everyone does.  There are so many things to work through when you begin to share a life with another person (just learning to bond in new ways and figure out all their little idiosyncrasies is a pretty big deal).  Marriage is just a huge leap.  When you have only just begun that and all of a sudden you are on no sleep and constantly under immense stress, your marriage is pretty low on the totem pole.  Like I said earlier--you're in survival mode.  So first, I would say I regret that in Allie's early years, I put her needs before Matt's nearly all the time.  Bless his heart for loving me enough to stick around, be patient, and deal.  It is never a good thing for a child to think they rule the home or to see the irritability that mom and dad have for one another due to the fact that they don't have a dating life anymore.  Kids always benefit more from seeing a mom and dad who are in charge and in love.  Matt and I figured this out after Allie hit her toddler years.  But prior to that, we had pretty much put each other to the side--and we shouldn't have.  So that's my first bit of advice to any parent out there.  Love your spouse first and foremost--no matter what age or stage your kids are.  If the house is a disaster and the laundry is piled to the moon, who cares.  If your marriage becomes a disaster, it won't matter that the house is spotless and the laundry is pressed and put away.

But back to prayer.  I know that my faithful praying and seeking truth in God's Word for how to manage my home, my marriage, my child, myself, and my life is the only way I had half a brain to do it properly or remotely successfully.  Without all that, life would have been pretty much all about me.  I would have had no concept that love is a choice, not a feeling.  I would have had no clue or preparation for the fact that children need to see purpose and meaning for life and the laws of it at a very early age.  When you raise a child in a home where there are "rules" but the rules are there "just because" or "because we say so," or even because of the obvious good outcomes, kids aren't as sure of their validity.  But when you raise a child in a home where the rules are there because God laid them down for even Mom and Dad, and because He desires to bless and protect them in their life due the amount of love and value He places on them, you have a much greater chance at success in parenting.  God designed the family for the purpose of making Him the Central Commander, and He knows best.

For the sake of brevity (yes, I'm aware I probably needed that earlier), and since I don't have a lot of parental regrets, here's my "parental advice list" to hopefully, in some way, help you also be able to say that you have few parental regrets one day (it's just advice, it's not the Bible--and in no particular order):

*Pray for yourself re: parenting--for wisdom, help, guidance, love, patience, and protection.
*Pray for your spouse and your marriage--for all the same items above, constantly, til the day you die.
*Pray for your child--for every facet of their life, constantly, til the day you die.
*Read your Bible--a lot.
*Study your Bible--a lot.
*Date your spouse--a lot.  Kids love to see their parents in love.  It gives them great confidence and security.  It's priceless.  When Matt and I would kiss in front of Allie, she would say, "Woo, woo!"  So we started calling her the "Woo-Woo Patrol."  It was hilarious and just one of our family's little special sayings.  Don't be frigid in your love for your spouse or for your kids.  Affection has huge psychological benefits.  Be generous with your verbal love and your physical love--with both your spouse and your kids.
*Have fun and take trips together--even little, inexpensive ones.  You can make lifelong memories together when you get away from the mundane and the daily stresses.  Your kids will think you are cool, and it is money and time well-spent.
*Tell your kids "no" and give yourself a break.  It isn't a crime, can actually be good, and can apply to a lot of situations.
*Take family naps--it is amazing what sleep does for crappy attitudes.  Quiet time, "being still" time, and "hanging-at-home" time is crucial for your family.  It is the best sanity protection for you and your kids.  (Note:  Facebook time and playing the Wii doesn't always equate to this).
*Guard your family time--at all cost.  Your poker buddies, fishing buddies, golf buddies, drinking buddies, shopping buddies, coffee shop girlfriends, lunch pals, wine-walk gals, and anyone else demanding excessive amounts of your free time, will not be there when your marriage or children fall apart.  And they sure won't be holding your hand when you are sick or on the day you die.
*Remove any tendencies to compare or compete with other families or couples.  Your family and marriage are unique and have special needs/goals.  No two are alike and even if you live in a cookie-cutter neighborhood, your marriage and parenting should never be that way.  Copy only God's ideas and rules for both.  Make it a cheerful choice to "do it your own way" and not follow the world.
*When a crisis or tragedy occurs in your home, if it won't matter in five years, it doesn't really matter now.  Don't sweat the small stuff.  It is a waste of time and energy, and your kids will learn to freak out over stupid stuff, too.
*Homework loads are horrific now days for kiddos.  If this begins to become a nightly, brutal problem for your family, talk to the teacher.  Complain.  As a teacher myself, I rarely felt comfortable going and complaining to another teacher.  I regret being so timid at times.  Don't be afraid to also lower your expectations a bit for your kid--we were too hard on Allie many times with homework, and I regret this.  Yes, kids need good grades for college scholarships, but this needs to be kept within reason.  Your family and kids can seriously suffer if homework is allowed to become a two-hour ordeal every freaking night (yes, I'm still bitter).
*Control the activity level of your kids.  Yes, they need to be involved and able to sample the buffet of possible abilities, skills, and talents they may possess.  But once they begin to realize their specific gifts, hone those and forget the rest.  We allowed Allie to be involved in everything--well, a lot.  She was good at it all, and she was able to maintain straight A's.  But it maimed our family time a great deal at times, and I regret this to a degree.  Some would argue that Allie was the obedient, confident kid she was because she was kept busy (the whole, "idle hands are the devil's workshop" idea).  I also think it was actually harder on me than it was on her and her dad (they have always been better suited at juggling a lot of things).  But at times, our family life was a total zoo.  I recall running supper up to the high school for Allie every night for two months each fall while she rehearsed for the musical til late at night--and that was after her two-hour dance team practice.  Then she'd come home to homework!  It was just a lot at times.  You wake up and your kid is gone, and what do you have?  A lot of recent memories of watching them in their school activities.  Again, guard your family life and your sanity.
*Love, hug, encourage, bless, love, support, compliment, love, and listen to your kid--every day (did I say, love?)!  Matt and I honestly believe that Allie never sought to rebel or be disobedient to us because she knew how very much we adored her and how special we thought she was.  She knew we wanted God's very best for her on all levels because we valued her to a ridiculous degree.  I asked her at about age 17 why she was so obedient to us and why she preferred to just hang with us on the weekends rather than her friends.  Her answer was a simple, matter of fact, "Why would I want to disappoint or be away from you and Dad?  You guys think I hung the moon!"  Case in point.
*Be honest with your kids--always.  No matter what question they throw at you--don't lie.  Don't hide stuff.  Be real.  Be transparent and vulnerable with them--they love it and they need it.  Share what you did wrong and how it hurt you.  Share how you desire for them to do it better than you did.  Tell them you know they are better than you (because who are we kidding, they probably are). Apologize to them immediately when you screw up.  Ask for their forgiveness, every time you blow it.
*Read the Bible and pray with your kids--from a young age.  Tell them that they need God for everything.  Tell them He thinks they are so great He came to die for them.  Give them His truth.  It's the only thing that's gonna last anyway.  Talk about Him every day and every night.  Bring up all that He has done for you--and for them.  I got up nearly every morning with Allie to eat breakfast with her and do a quick devotion and prayer with her at the table.  Many mornings, she was half asleep, but at least I was making the attempt (and I know she heard a lot of good stuff to begin her day, even if she did sit there acting like she was half-dead).  But I learned early on that if we didn't do it first thing, it wasn't going to happen that night.  We had to put God first.
*Help them to learn to be grateful, appreciative, and to count their blessings. Teach them manners are important and that thankfulness is crucial to happiness in life.  In this world of entitlement and where we see an, "all about me" attitude permeating every ounce of society, teach your kids to care more about other people than they do about themselves. Make your own life an object lesson for this as much as you can.  Take them with you to do ministry work, church work, and any other charitable stuff you do for family, friends, and neighbors.  Show them the joy that comes from helping others.
*Delay gratification.  Don't give them everything they want, every time they want it, and/or in the time-frame they request it.   Bless your kids richly, but do it in sneaky ways and when they aren't expecting it so that they don't think they are deserving of it or that their demands are constantly being met.
*Know everyone with whom your kid associates and require that they be a Godly &/or a well-known, healthy, safe influence.  Avoid anyone who isn't, and make no apologies to anyone for this.  Rely on your instinct.  Trust God's small voice when He throws up red flags about people or other kids.  Your child's mental and physical safety are of utmost importance.  Explain to your kid that you don't want them to suffer any harm at the hands of anyone who would seek to bring bad things into their life.  Give them examples of scary or harmful situations in which you found yourself as a young person, and tell them this is why you are protecting them. (Example:  I once went to a slumber party where the father watched, "The Playboy Channel," all evening--while we girls were running around the house awake--not that I'm condoning pornography when the kids are asleep.  But it was mortifying and those images still play in my head.  I was about 10 years old.  It scarred me for years). 
*Do not allow your child to date until they are of courting/marrying age.  Again, make no apologies to anyone for this, and don't let the scoffers, mockers, and naysayers tear you down for protecting your child from an unplanned pregnancy, STDs, a broken heart, and the like.  There are natural, obvious progressions in dating relationships, and it is proven that if two people, who even just like each other a lot, spend around 30 hours alone, they will end up having sex (duh).  There are many similar stats out there, but this particular one comes from the book by Tim and Beverly LaHaye called, Raising Sexually Pure Kids, and we highly recommend it.  It is natural and normal to have sexual feelings and kids needs to understand the facts and triggers.  No one under 18 needs to be having sex (or getting married), so why do we put our kids in situations where they are bound to do so?!  It is senseless.  We don't put our toddlers on train tracks to play, so why do we loosen the reigns so much in the teen years and then wonder why our kids screw up?!  Unless your biggest hopes for your child are STDs, abortions, teenage pregnancy, or a seriously broken heart, you will believe these truths and seek to protect and guard your beloved young person regardless of your personal popularity with other parents or your kids (or God-forbid, family members and friends who should be supporting you fully in this).  God has entrusted you with your kids and this.  Don't follow the crowd.  Again, your critics will not be in your life after your child graduates from high school (and they won't be suddenly supportive if your kid ends up "messing up," either).  Scoffers will scoff no matter what you do, and their kids will likely have major issues from dating at age 14 and suffering the consequences of it later.  Kids' brains aren't even fully developed until they are over 22 years of age (I believe it is proven that for girls, it is 23, and for boys, the age is 25).  How can they be expected to make adult decisions in situations like dating?!  I have spoken at a few purity conferences, and believe me--kids don't want to risk their lives in these ways, and they appreciate knowing all the real stats.  When they are presented with and understand the true, unguarded facts, they are happy to make a purity commitment to Christ and to their future spouse (and to themselves, for that matter).  According to research, the majority of them keep it (despite worldly views and opinions).  Abstinence works when it is presented properly and accurately (not declared piously with just the statement that, "God says fornication is forbidden!").  Teens need to hear all the facts.  They need to be given the truth in love.  They need to be told that God isn't forbidding them from this to ruin their fun--quite the contrary.  He has a better idea and wants only to bless their sex life even more with just good things.  They need to hear all the pitfalls and truths of the risks.  They need to hear they are worth the wait (because our children are, right?).  The world says, "All kids are going to do it, so give them the contraception and let it go."  Well, kids have a way of living up to your expectations.  If you hand your son a condom, he is going to use it--you just told him to do so and gave him permission.  The world also says that you have to practice sex to get good at it.  What a load of crap.  God designed us naturally to first, be spiritual beings.  But He designed us to also be sexual beings while we are here on earth.  When you love somebody, there is no practice needed.  Passion tends to work itself out just fine (and when it doesn't, there are usually other problems to address).  Besides, God promises if you do it His way and abstain til marriage, He'll bless your marital sex life greatly.  I've never met a couple that abstained who regretted doing so--quite the contrary (obviously, they are "good to go" in this realm).  God keeps His promises.  The world lies to us so often about so many things.  Teen pregnancy doesn't occur because of a lack of knowledge and availability of contraception, as the world likes to tout proudly in its attempt to solve all its own problems.  It also doesn't occur because of a lack of brain cells on the part of the teens involved, (thank you).  The honest reality is that no amount of contraception is fool-proof or STD-proof.  I believe knowledge is power--if it is factual knowledge, that is.  The kind of knowledge that says teens need to know how to use a prophylactic is bunk.  Sadly, most kids learn this in a teenage locker room.  I am talking about telling kids the harsh reality of dating and sex--laying it all out there and exposing it for what it is and what is at stake.  This can and should be done from both a Biblical standpoint and a factual, medical and psychological standpoint.  Regardless of your thoughts about religion, dating, and abstinence, no one can deny that having sex puts you at emotional and physical risk--even if you wear a condom. Last time I checked, putting your teenage girl on the pill doesn't protect her from a broken heart, either.  I've never heard anyone be grateful that they slept around--and if they are, they aren't being honest (and you can tell, because those people tend to self-medicate quite a lot).  Very few people sleep around without paying some price for it later (I happen to believe that God punishes all sin and that no one is exempt).  When you sleep with someone, they get a little piece of your soul, too.  God says so, and I believe Him.  I had no desire to compromise in this and accommodate anyone with my daughter's soul.  I began praying for her future husband when she was two years old, and I wanted him to get her entire soul.  Praise God, He did.  I can seriously die a happy woman now.
*Be in church regularly with your kids.  Talk about what you learned.  Talk about any ways you screwed up that week.  Talk about how you wish you could do better in certain areas, and how they can pray for you, too.  Just be a real person.  Don't ever let them think that being a Christian means being perfect or lying to cover-up that you aren't.  Get real with yourself and be real with them.  Be real in your faith.  Live it.  Walk it.  Talk it.  Quickest way to turn a kid off to God and find them having issues with disobedience and rebellion towards you?  Live in hypocrisy with a righteous, pious attitude, acting like they owe YOU something in life, and like your crap doesn't stink.  Remember:  God loaned them to you, and you have to prove your worth as manager of them to Him--not the other way around.  Do not provoke them to wrath.  Instead, give them reasons to want to honor you, as God's Word says.  There is an age of accountability with God, but no one really knows what that is.  So live like you are most accountable to God first (because you are), and your child is at a distant second.

I could probably keep going (you know me), but those are the main truths that Matt and I honestly tried to live by in raising our Allie-girl.  We weren't perfect parents, but God is a perfect parent, and somehow, with His help and by way of the transitive property, we were able to do it--even as young, dumb kids.  And, "Shout out to our daughter, Al"--she has always had a heart to please God and we give her some serious credit for her heart for Him, and her heart to always please us, as well.  She loved us as much as we loved her.  We didn't even deserve her.  God drew her to Himself at a very young age (age 5 actually), which was one of my earliest prayers for her.  She has been a devoted follower of Him ever since.  Again, we didn't do that--God did.  Thanks be to our Father in heaven--our Perfect Parental Example and Guide.  He was faithful to our prayers, our desires for Allie, and our honest efforts at trying to do this parenting-thing.  Have faith--He will be faithful to you, too.