A new religion in our American culture is rapidly gaining devout followers. Its followers are typically between the ages of about twenty-two and fifty and there are generally more women than men. This religion does not seem to produce much satisfaction or peace. Many of its followers end up frazzled, stressed, and scrupulous, and find their marriages drained of romance. Most importantly, this new religion hurts its own little gods, making them entitled and depriving them of self-reliance and self-esteem. I’m referring here to the Parenting Religion, a modern phenomenon in which parents treat their particular “parenting style” as something that demands constant and total attention and perfection at the expense of everything else, including healthy relationships with their children.
Some people suggest that in order to escape the clutches of the cult, parents should just stop focusing so much on their kids. Or, as so much of the Internet would say, let’s just go back to the 1970’s. But this approach is far too simplistic. With knowledge comes responsibility. We know more about the dangers of the world and the nature of childhood, psychology, health, etc. than people of other times. The fact that some kids thrive despite inattentiveness doesn’t mean inattentiveness is okay. There is a big difference between fearful, obsessive parenting and sacrificial, intentional parenting. We shouldn’t agonize over carseat selections, but we also shouldn’t toss our hands up and quit just because our grandparents didn’t even have them.
Another common suggestion is for parents to, essentially, love each other more than their children. Now, I’m a big believer in couples prioritizing romance. There’s no question that happy marriages contribute to happy families. And, practically speaking, my children will grow up and move away, while the relationship I have with my husband is the one which will most sustain me for the rest of my life. It’s absolutely worth my best efforts and attention. But I think having a mental hierarchy of importance within a family can be a little dangerous. If my relationship with my husband suffers, the whole family suffers. But that is also true for my relationship with my sons. It is entirely possible for parents to focus too much time on indulging themselves and each other while, in turn, neglecting the children. We can talk all we want about me-time and date nights but I don’t think we really want to go back to Victorian/Edwardian parenting where parents only saw their children once a day, if that.
I think the problem of the “parenting religion” is rooted in something deeper. For whatever reason, humans like to worship. Call it an innate perception of the divine or an epidemic guilt complex. Either way, if we don’t have a God already, we’re likely to make one. Since we already care so much about our children, it’s easy to make them our gods. When the world is so confused about right and wrong and good and evil, it’s easy to create our own little moral systems where complicated, circumstantial choices like crib sleeping, bottle feeding, and public schooling become objective sins, and blessings such as having kids in the first place, or the ability to stay home with them or successfully breastfeed them are steps on the stairway to Heaven. The cause of the anxiety? Imperfection is guaranteed. But the gods themselves are helpless and dependent and can’t atone for anything. So we drown in guilt and enslave ourselves to an impossible combination of ideals. Our children can’t save us. Flawless parenting can’t fill the deepest void.
I’m not going to say what or who has to fill your void. But I will say that expecting any one person to do it entirely puts too much pressure on them and sets you up for disappointment. What is the solution to this anxiety ridden family state that seems to consume so many of us? Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven. I know whenever my heart is centered on my root and destiny, my source and summit— that is when I find true peace in all my relationships. There is no question that my relationship with my children benefits from my relationship with my husband. But my relationship with my husband benefits from my relationship with God. And all of us benefit from the freedom, surrender, levity, and forgiveness that comes with believing that our love for each other is only a reflection of an even greater love.