Towards the end of Margaret Laurence’s novel, A Jest of God, there is a particularly moving dialogue: Rachel, the story’s main character, an aging, spinster teacher, is more than a little frustrated with her state in life, teaching other people’s children rather than having her own. Lamenting to another woman, who is a mother, she complains how painful it is for her as a teacher to, year after year, intimately work with and get to know the young children in her classroom only to have them soon move on to other classrooms and to grow away from her. She expresses an honest envy of women who have their own children.
The mother to whom she is speaking says in reply: “It’s not so different for a parent. You also get to have young children only for a short time. They move on and grow away from you. They have their own lives. They don’t belong to you. In the end, even for parents, your kids are never really your own!”
There are a number of lessons in this: The children we have are never really ours. They are given to us, in trust, for a time, a short time really, and we are asked to be mothers and fathers, stewards, mentors, guardians, teachers, priests, ministers, and friends to them, but they are never really our children. They belong to somebody else, God, and to themselves more than they ever belong to us.
There is both a deep challenge and a deep consolation in understanding and accepting that.
The challenge is more obvious. If we accept this, we will be less inclined to act as “owners” of our children and we will be less prone to manipulate our children for our own ends, to see them as a satellites within our own orbits, and more inclined to love, cajole, challenge, and correct, even while giving them their freedom.
The consolation is not as obvious, but it is my focus here: When we realize, in the healthy sense, that our children are not really ours, we also realize that we are not alone in raising and caring for them. We are, in a manner of speaking, only foster parents. God is the real parent and God’s love, care, aid, and presence to our children is always in excess of our own. God’s anxiety for our children is also deeper than our own.
Ultimately, you are never a single parent, even when you don’t have a human spouse to help you. God, like you, is also worrying, struggling, involved, crying tears of solicitousness, trying to awaken love. What is consoling is that God can touch, challenge, soften, and inspire at levels inside of a child that you cannot reach.
Moreover, your children cannot, ultimately, turn their backs on God. They can refuse to listen to you, walk away from you, spit on your values, but there is still another parent from whom they can never walk away, whom they carry inside. Not many people, I suspect, would ever have the courage to be a parent without realizing this.
That we aren’t alone in our task of parenting needs emphasis today for lots of reasons: More and more, very sincere couples are opting not to have children for fear of the world into which they would be bringing those children. They look at the world, at themselves, their inadequacy, and are frightened at what they see: “Do we really want to bring children into a world like this? We are powerless to guarantee them health, safety, security, love. It’s an unfair risk to the child!”
Persons who think like this are right in their feeling of powerlessness and in their sense that they cannot guarantee health, safety, love, and security to a child. But they are wrong in their feeling that they alone are responsible for effecting and guaranteeing these. God is also there and can redeem our children and make them whole beyond any tragedy that might befall them. We can risk having children since God risks it.
Finally, and perhaps most consoling of all, realizing this can do more than a little to bring some peace and joy into the hearts of those who have lost children tragically – to accidents, but especially to suicide, drug and alcohol related deaths, and other such things that make parents second-guess, worry about their failures and betrayals, and worry about all the things they should have done. Again, we are being asked to not forget that we are not the only parents here. When this child died, in whatever circumstance, he or she was received by hands far gentler than our own. They left our foster care and our powerlessness to fully embrace them to live with a parent who can fully embrace them and bring them to joy and wholeness that we could never quite give.
Fear not you are inadequate! You can live with that. You’re only a foster parent. God is the real parent.