Sunday, February 3, 2013

Heartbreak Is Part of the Deal. . .

OK, I promised that if/when I ever stop blogging, I'd leave this post at the top of the page, just in case anyone comes back here from time to time, this is what they'd see. . .

If I may say so myself, this is about the most important thing that I'll ever say in this humble blog.  So there.

This post runs parallel to something I posted four-and-a-half years ago.  It's not really a re-post, but the thoughts are pretty similar (that older post is pretty good in its own right, maybe even better than this one; go ahead and read it, too, if you're so inclined). . .


Over the course of my 30-or-so years of parenthood, I have come to the conclusion that parenthood is, by its very nature, inherently heart-breaking.

That is not, by any means, to adopt a cynical or 'woe-is-me' attitude to the biggest, best, and noblest thing I've done with my life thus far (however poorly I've actually done it; and the empirical evidence is pretty damning).  It is to say that, one way or another, our kids will, inevitably, disappoint us; sometimes crushingly so.  And that the heartbreak of parenting is one of the main ways that we fulfil what Mother Theresa liked to refer to as 'our main task in this life' - 'to learn what it really means to love'.

When my kids were born, I held such high hopes and dreams for them.  Not, to be sure, that I had 'The Plan' for their lives, or anything like that.  I actually looked forward to the adventure of finding out who they were, and what amazing and wonderful traits they would blend from Jen and me into their own, unique selves, and what traits of theirs might go off in some entirely unforeseen directions.

And it has been wonderful to see all their lives unfold.  Several of our kids are very musical - 1F, 3M and 7M perhaps most especially.  3M, 7M and 8M are near-genius bright.  4M and 6F are both hard-working and good-looking, and 4M is a star athlete (sometimes I wonder how this kid ever came from me; Jen assures me that he did).  1F, 2F and 5M are all very kind and compassionate.  And so it goes.

But our kids, being, alas, human (wait, that doesn't sound right; I'm really, really glad that they aren't newts, or tapeworms, or whatever), are subject to the effects of The Fall, just like Jen and I are (well, I know that I am; I'm pretty sure that she is, too).  And therein lie the seeds of heartbreak.  In our early years of parenthood, we hoped to raise a family of kids who were better than we were - with all our strengths (which we were just arrogant enough to think were considerable), but none (or at least, not so many) of our weaknesses.  We hoped that they would be smart, strong, wise, virtuous, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent, without all that nagging selfishness and venality.  Because, of course, we were better than our own parents had been, right?  (Well, of course not; but we thought we were.  It's a Boomer thing.)  And we would just impart our own superior wisdom, virtue, etc. to our kids, and all would be well.  Right?


When 1F was in her teens, people used to congratulate us for having raised such a wonderful young woman. And I (perhaps inspired by a salutary humility; or perhaps merely prophesying a glimpse of the future) used to reply that it wasn't really wonderful teenagers I was after, but rather capable, wise and virtuous adults. And it wasn't too many years before my own words were borne out, to my own chagrin.

Back in the days when our older kids were passing through middle school, the Religion teacher (if that strikes your ear as a trifle odd, it's a Catholic school thing. . .) was a very wise woman, who became a good friend.  In the course of a, uh, conversation we were having about one of our kids, who was proving to be a tad more intractable than we had planned on (but which didn't seem to faze her all that much), she told us, with a wistful maternal smile, that the day would inevitably come when we would find ourselves talking to the police about one of our children (and not necessarily the one we were discussing at the time); that it had happened to her, and that it happened to most parents sooner or later, no matter how earnest or capable they were, and that we shouldn't freak out when it did.  And Jen and I both shook our heads inwardly, certain in our own minds that her words were ridiculous, that such a thing would never happen to parents as conscientious as we were.

Such touching naivete, right?

It wasn't that many years later (distressingly few, in fact) that one of our kids (I'll decline to say which one) threw back at us, as I was retrieving him from a night in jail, that all of our kids down to him had now had run-ins with the police, and that, as far as he was concerned, that constituted slam-dunk definitive empirical proof that we were simply, utterly, execrable parents (OK, he didn't use the word 'execrable', but he used one of its synonyms).  In the years since then, that flawless record has been extended by a few kids younger than him.

I have written elsewhere of some of the youthful (or even not-so-youthful) misadventures of our older kids.  I won't rehash them for you here (and I think I've mostly taken those posts down from my old blog), but trust me when I say that we were utterly, absolutely flabbergasted.  We'd said and done all the right things, as best we could see, and as best we were able (well, you know, aside from a certain proclivity to outbursts of temper, and a few (*ahem*) minor character flaws on that order; but God understands our weakness, right?), and it hadn't been enough.  And I can tell you that it hasn't ended with them; our younger kids have made their own significant contributions to the broken-ness of our hearts

It slowly dawned on us (perhaps a good bit more slowly than it should have, but both Jen and I had been 'good kids', so our own experience had left us a tad ill-equipped to deal with kids who were less 'with the program' than we'd been) that God, in his wisdom, had blessed our children, just as he'd blessed us, with Free Will (what He was thinking when He did that, I've had occasion to wonder).  And that, our own earnestness and sincerity notwithstanding, our kids, even though made, as we were, in the Image and Likeness of God, were also, as we were, subject to the effects of The Fall, and capable of the same sorts of jaw-dropping venality we were; sometimes, even moreso.  Even astoundingly moreso.

Taken all together, in the fullness of time it became an occasion of deeper insight into what it means to be human, to carry simultaneously within ourselves, and virtually side-by-side, both significant markers of divinity, and appalling selfishness and venality.  And to learn, on a deep, down-and-dirty level, what Jesus was talking about when he said (in so many words) that the measure of love isn't how you treat agreeable, congenial people, but rather, in how you deal with (as Thomas a Kempis called them in The Imitation of Christ) "hard, obstinate and undisciplined people".  Which is to say, people like our kids.  At least, some of the time (distressingly much of it, to be brutally candid).  Put another way - it's not the absence of heartbreak, or disappointment, that makes our lives successful, it's what we DO with the heartbreak that will, inevitably, come into our lives – can we let “love cover a multitude of sins”, or not?

So yeah - heartbreak is part of the deal.  Our kids will never be as perfect as we wish they were, and their flaws will be all-too-evident (and the ones they've picked up from us will be duly galling).  But somewhere along the way, we'll have made progress toward what Mother Theresa was talking about, learning 'what it really means to love'. . .


And. . . heartbreak. . .  I pre-posted this a couple weeks ago, before the events of this past Friday in Connecticut, which make my concerns seem. . . small.  My heart breaks in two for all the families who will have gaping, bleeding holes in their hearts, and around their tables, where their children - their little children - or their parents, or their siblings, or their spouses, should have been this Christmas.  I just can't grasp the brutal cruelty of it.  Please join me in praying for them, and the entire community there. . .

GK Chesterton once said that, of all the doctrines of Christianity, none would seem to be more empirically obvious than that of the fallen-ness of human nature.  How I wish that were even a little bit less true. . .

And then this - Jimmy Greene, whose six-year-old daughter, Ana Marquez-Greene, was among the slain, said, out of his grief, that "Ana beat us to Paradise."  That father, whose heart is certainly broken in two, is my hero today.  You get it, sir. . . you really do. . .

O Lord, have mercy. . .


  1. Such a great post this is, Craig! I think about parenting a lot, maybe more so now that my kids are all 'adults.' And how different my parents' and inlaws' parenting styles were from ours. And how most of our clashes in our marriage have been about how to parent.

    My husband and I often shake our heads and wonder why our kid has done something so dumb, but we have equally shaken our heads and said we have no idea how our kids have turned out to be better teens and young adults than we were. I firmly believe that outside influences make more of a difference than parenting. We have just had the grace of God touch our kids with good friends (for the most part) and for our son, a great group of guys in his youth group at church and a 20something leader that he really looks up to.

  2. Yeah. What you said.

    And, what our Priest said, too:

    "When tragedy happens... God's heart was the first to break."

    Really really hard to teach SS this morning, so thank you for this post.

  3. Lord have mercy indeed! It is such a heartbreaking situation; one can't even imagine it or try to make sense of it, but knowing God is in control and trusting in him is all we can do. I admire the faith of that father yet I know he will always grief for and miss his little girl.

    I always feel for all who are affected by such a tragedy; especially the family of the one that commits the atrocious act. They are often persecuted by the press or others, but in reality they for the most part had no idea their children could do such an event and are often stunned and heartbroken when they hear the news. I am sure they question themselves forever wondering what they did wrong.

    I have two children, both have gone down wrong paths so to speak and caused incredible amount of stress and anxiety with their "antics". However, during those times it was one of the best walking with God times I had because I literaly had to hold onto him and his promises for my very next breath it was that stressful at home. And we were considered stable family, went to church, had the kids involved in church activities, etc. But they made their own choices on this and that. I am just so thankful God in his mercy protected my children, especially my son, when he did not "deserve" to be protected and in reality should be dead now for some of the stuff he got away with. I would like to hope God has wonderful plans for him as he grows and that God's hand is on him protecting him. In the meantime, I do what I do best, pray......


  4. The biggest heartbreak is when one of our kids beats us to Paradise. It's not because we're jealous.

  5. this particular shooting (and how obscene it feels to have to delineate BETWEEN mass shootings) is hitting me so very hard because it's so many children, because it's a school, because it was during hanukkah and so close to christmas, because.....probably reasons i can't even identify right now. i'm just utterly heartbroken for the families of the children and teachers lost.

  6. As I was watching the news over the course of the weekend, and heard Jimmy Greene's words about his beautiful daughter, they just made me tear up once again. May we all one day have a faith as pure as his.

  7. Bijoux - I'm sure you're right about 'outside influences'. Some of our worst heartbreak came as a result of utterly chance encounters our kids had with people we wish they hadn't. . .

    Sailor - An amazing way of saying it. 'God With Us' is really the whole point of Christmas, isn't it?

    Betty - I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Adam Lanza's father or brother right now. . .

    One of our kids' 'antics' resulted in a day-long 'observation' by the Michigan Department of Social Services. At the end of the day, the social worker told us, "This is a normal, loving family." So we have documentation on file with the State of Michigan that we are a normal, loving family; which is more than any of our friends can say. . . ;)

    Skip - We attended a funeral last week for a friend of ours, a 49-year-old father of five. Both his parents were in attendance. Not as heart-wrenching as a first-grader, but as you say, we're never supposed to be at our kids' funerals. . .

    Lime - I am unutterably sad that so many families will be burying their 6-year-olds during what is supposed to be a joyous, festive season. And that even the children who survived were witness to horror that no child should ever see. And that his father will live the rest of his life wondering what the hell went wrong. . .

    FADKOG - So good to see you around these parts again; hope all is well with you. . .

    As I said, Mr. Greene is my hero today. I might have shed a tear or two over that, myself. . .

  8. Words can not express. That's all I got.

  9. I found myself arguing with MY WIFE yesterday, concerning gun control and the second amendment, and I reached a level of actual shouting. I caught myself, apologized, told her "I love you"... And then came to the realization - perhaps much later in life than I should have, but at least I finally got there - that this is how evil wins; not by the overt evil action, but by the reactions to it that cause love to go out the window.

  10. Xavier - You're right. But that doesn't stop us from trying. . .

    Suldog - You remind me of something I came across in the late pope's Theology of the Body (at least, I think that's where I saw it): a person is that to which the only fitting response is love.

    I'd love to find the off-switch for the Fall, if only so the people I bump into won't have to put up with so much of my crap. But alas. . .

  11. An excellent piece, Craig. I've bookmarked it for future use, should I need it. By that I mean this: I was blessed in the way my two adult sons turned out; most credit for that goes to their Mom. I still have one son left, though, a boy who's but 15 years of age. And let me say this about that...

    One night when The Second Mrs. Pennington was pregnant with SN3 she sat right straight up in bed after we'd turned out the lights and said "Oh my GOD!" Which concerned me, of course. Greatly. Then she said "I'm OK, but I just had this horrible thought. What if this child gets the worst traits of BOTH of us?"

    Yeah, that would be cause for worry.

  12. Buck - Yeah, I understand that. With eight kids, we've got a pretty broad mix of our traits, both good and bad, in evidence among our progeny. I'm not sure if any of 'em got the best of both of us, or the worst of both of us, but I do marvel sometimes, that this kid and that one emerged out of the same two-parent gene pool. . .

    You also remind me of the old story (almost certainly apocryphal) of the time Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein were seated together at some dinner. Marilyn leaned over to the great physicist and said, "Dr. Einstein, you and I should have a child together; with your brains and my looks, how could he go wrong?"

    "Ah," answered Einstein, "an attractive proposal. But what if he gets my looks, and your brains?"

    (Yes, yes, I know that Norma Jean was near-genius bright herself; but the story, y'know?)