National Catholic Register


What Imperfect Parents Know

BY Melinda Selmys

September 21-27, 2008 Issue | Posted 9/16/08 at 2:11 PM


I grew up in Brampton, Ontario (lovingly nicknamed “Bramladesh”), at a school with more Singhs than Smiths, and I know a lot of women from Southeast Asia. A common refrain among them is that it is so difficult to have children here. Back in India, they would happily have given birth to five or six. But in Canada? It’s hard to manage more than two.

This is tremendously counterintuitive. Education and health care are provided by the government, the low-water line for child poverty is above the average income of third-world families, there are day-care programs, libraries, parks, recreation centers, etc. How could it possibly be more difficult to have children here?

What is lacking is community. This cannot be substituted with government programs; someone with a social work degree and a “happy families” pamphlet is no substitute for a wise and experienced mother who will ensure that you are not a failure.

The ivory tower crowd make it more difficult to be a parent. They offer advice that is unrealistic, make absurd promises, present whitewash as though it was reality and reality as though it was a horror movie. I cringe every time I flick past Dr. Phil, and he’s got the blue-filtered Big Brother tape running, some poor woman tearing out her hair and yelling at her children, and the “war on terror” theme song from CNN playing in the background.

The hours of video where she is hugging her children, playing games, drinking tea, talking on the phone, and behaving like a human being are cute. This is a “family in crisis.” Strangely, it looks like every family I’ve ever known.

The best part is the solution: Tear down the house and rebuild it so everyone can have more “personal” space. This is a very realistic approach to family conflict. Oddly enough, sponsored by Ikea and The Home Depot.

The hallmark of useless expert advice is a total lack of understanding of the actual problem. “Never yell at your children or lose your temper. Always reason with them. Treat them as you would like to be treated.” Great. How?

Either the expert is a hypocrite, piling on advice that he is unable to follow, or he is an armchair general criticizing Waterloo. If you are one of the lucky few whose temper is always in the lukewarm range, and your children have inherited your easygoing nature, great. Don’t assume it’s that easy for everyone else.

I have given birth to a natural-born defense lawyer. If she is called up on some petty charge, she will draw out the proceedings for the entire afternoon. She is innocent until proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt, and once the sentence has been handed down, you can expect a long series of appeals. I have four children. I don’t have time to talk it through every time she breaks the rules. Sometimes, I lose my temper. I yell. I even resort to spanking.

Fortunately, I have a confessor who gives better advice than the parenting magazines. Instead of telling me to overcome my most difficult interior struggles in one go, he tells me to ask for forgiveness. Say sorry. Admit that you’re not perfect; show your children that even mommies struggle. Be authentic.

Whatever your faults are, your children have probably inherited them. Don’t cheat them out of the chance to realize that there is life after failure. Don’t rob them of the opportunity to learn how to fix a broken relationship. That is the one lesson we cannot get through life without. It is the drama of salvation written on the human heart.

You will still want to overcome the problems in your family. This is where community helps. People can face starvation, war and epidemic, so long as they are together. They can’t face Christmas dinner if they are alone. Parenting is wonderful and rewarding, a means of salvation, cooperation in the great divine act of creation — but it is also difficult. It requires more of you than you actually possess. Without help, it is practically impossible.

The good news: Even if you are struggling along, you can provide a ready-made community for your children. Just have eight. I’m not being facetious; I have seven siblings. Countless times, I’ve been ready to give up and run off to live as a mendicant in the south of France — until I’ve talked to one of my sisters. They’re very much like me. They understand.

This brings us back to the meaning of parenthood, which is the creation of new human persons. This is the great bulwark that we throw up against the greatest suffering that man has ever faced — the final trial of Christ, when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The trial of loneliness, of being forsaken and unloved — this is the greatest of burdens, which only love, and especially the love of family, can lighten.

Melinda Selmys

is a staff writer