Parenting as a Spiritual Practice: Roots & Wings
“For the lessons of life, there is no better teacher than the look in the eyes of a child.” —Air Supply (lyrics)
“Live in a way that will create a better future for our children.” —Thich Nhat Hanh (Buddhist monk)
This time of year, many parents are sending children off to school—watching as they board the school bus, purchasing their school supplies, or wondering how everything that got packed will fit into a college dorm room. Having just dropped off my youngest daughter at college, I am entering the “empty nest” phase. As a friend reminded me, I have given both my daughters secure roots. Now, it’s time for them to fly.
Still, I find myself periodically wiping away tears. My tears well up unexpectedly—releasing an emotional jumbled mix of immense awe, pride, sadness, joy, and gratitude. I feel a profound nostalgia for a past that is all too quickly fading: ice cream outings, movie night, bicycling to the art museum grounds, sunbathing at the pool, roasting marshmallows on summer vacations, and staying at a cabin to watch a meteor shower. All my rational knowledge regarding the natural process of children rearing does no good when parenting heartstrings are tugged.
Religions don’t often discuss the role of children as our spiritual teachers, but here are a few nuggets I’ve found to be true as a parent:
The days are long. Diapers. Sleepless nights. Attending school events. Transporting to and from school activities. Waiting for safe arrival home once they have their driver’s license. Concern over eating habits and mounting bedroom clutter. Late night texts and arguments when plans change again, along with the multitude of reasons why they can’t possibly come home now. Anxiety over potential (or actual) alcohol and drug use. Reminders about college application deadlines, grades, and college entrance tests. College visits and college orientation. Or awaiting news on job interviews for youth who opt out (or can’t afford) higher education. Daily fears about the risks these young adults face as they venture out into the world.
The years are short. It all goes by in a blink. Mindful attention is helpful for fully appreciating each fleeting moment. Extreme loss brings a greater awareness of impermanence. Sometimes the mishaps are the things we remember later with laughter. Sometimes the mistakes are what change the course of our lives.
Learning to hold on while letting go takes practice. It’s true that we must let go of our children. We do so mentally, as they discover and learn new things we don’t understand; as well as physically, when they leave to go to summer camp or college or study abroad or find a job out of state or join the military or marry someone and move far away. It’s also true that we find ways to hold on: through memories, hopes for the future, and shared moments that bring both laughter and tears. This ever-changing, mysterious landscape that makes up a parent-child relationship lasts a lifetime. The letting go process starts when our children learn to walk without holding our hand and continues as they get in the car and, eventually, leave to find their way in the world. The holding on may change forms, but they always remain our children, even when grown. Even when gone.
Releasing what we can’t control is hard work. Most of us who are parents feel an obligation to guide and protect our children. It’s part of the parenting job. Yet, there is so much in life we simply cannot control—despite our best efforts. Parents who have children with addictions are acutely aware of this truth, as are parents who have lost children to illness, accidents, overdose, violence, or suicide. We can’t control the everyday choices our children make or the experiences they encounter. This summer, my daughter was hurting emotionally from a relationship breakup. It was her first love, and her heart deeply ached. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that I couldn’t do anything to make the situation better. I could see she was hurting, and all I could do was listen, tell her I loved her, and let her know I was there for her if she needed me. I couldn’t solve it, fix it, or make her hurt less. It is soul wrenching to watch someone you love hurting, while also feeling completely helpless and unable to control the outcome. This aspect of parenting—releasing what we can’t control—is spiritual warrior work. It’s difficult, rugged, and, at times, heartbreaking terrain. We go through this process the best we can, one day at a time.
Children motivate us to create a better future. For many parents, we know we may not reap the benefits of what we sow. Nevertheless, we do the challenging work of raising children and working to ensure the world they inhabit is healthy, safe, and loving. We work to preserve nature. We work to end poverty. We work to safeguard food from poisons and chemicals. We work to teach children how to read and how to learn the lessons of history, so past atrocities are not repeated. We allow them to paint, draw, sing, dance, play, laugh, and run freely in nature. We work to implement healthier ways of resolving conflicts. We work to understand religious, political, ethnic, gender, and racial differences—because we want a world where our children do not face the ravages of hatred, cruelty, and violence. We work to instill tolerance and acceptance. We work on issues of addictions. We work on issues of anger. We work on issues of injustice. We work on issues that matter, because future generations are depending on us to do so.
Happiness in a child’s eye is life at it’s best. If we based local and global decisions on how to best care for all children, we would create a world of joy. No one wants to see children suffer. If our actions cause suffering for children, then we need to change what we are doing and how we are doing it. If our actions cause a child’s eyes to light up with happiness, then we have accomplished one of our highest missions on this planet.
Love is the most important gift we give. In the end—after all the heartaches, mistakes, arguments, triumphs, accomplishments, and loss—how well we loved is what matters most. That is what children remember. That is what they take with them when they go. It is the only question asked when our work here is done: How well did I love?
In joy & gratitude,
Diana J. Ensign