I started into my traditional Mother’s Day guilt early this year-at a marriage retreat in April. One of the presenting couples showed a video clip of a little girl who watched her parents laugh and kiss and talk and plan, then went to bed happy and secure. The song playing in the background gave the message that the best thing you can give children is the gift of knowing that their parents love each other, and are fully committed to each other. That this is what makes them safe. . . this is what builds a strong life foundation for them. The video was poignant and beautifully crafted to touch heartstrings, but it wrenched mine. There it was again-Even though I had worked through this so many times I still felt I had failed my children.
The Pain of Unrealistic Expectations
In my head I knew perfectly well that my youthful expectations were unrealistic, but my heart still wasn’t buying it. A part of me still hung onto to the idea that what I should have and could have given my children if I’d been a better person was the ideal home where every true principle was taught and exemplified with effective clarity, where both parents were paragons of virtue, full of gospel goodness, and love for each other. Where every day was a Spirit-filled exercise in gospel living and gospel joy. Where their every need was filled so they could go forth from that home filled with strength and testimony ready to make the world a better place.
That picture sounds so pie in the sky that it would make me laugh if it wasn’t for the fact that I had been completely taken in by it for so long. And every mother’s day for decades I’ve spent some time lamenting the cavernous gap between that ideal and the reality I lived with. Wasn’t it about time I exchanged that unrealistic picture with a solid scriptural-based view of the real purpose of mortal experience and the real responsibility of parents?
What is Reality?
What I previously wanted, without realizing it, was either a Garden of Eden experience for my children-where everything was beautiful and pleasant, and we walked and talked with God-or a city of Zion or celestial experience here and now, without the testing and proving time necessary to get there. Was I totally forgetting the law of opposition? The necessity of adversity?
The reality is that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and no parents on this earth can re-create it in mortality. Their posterity, including me and my children, live in the lone and dreary world, the same of which the Lord said, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Genesis 3:17-18).
Mortal life is simply not planned to be easy! But the thorns and thistles are for our good: the Lord said he cursed the ground for our sakes.” Our job as parents is not to create a place of comfort and lack of challenge for our children. Of course we’d never plant thorns and thistles in the ground of our children’s lives on purpose, but we can be sure there will be some. No matter how hard we try to smooth the way, our children are going to have trials and adversities. That is God’s plan.
The Lord has said, “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” (D&C 136:31) But of all our trials and chastisements we are told, “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.“ (D&C 122:7).
Building celestial character traits is our goal; however, celestial conditions are not possible in this telestial world. And the experiences of this sphere are calculated to bring us to our knees in humble recognition of our need for the Atonement and our need for constant spiritual guidance. Our problems and trials show us our lack, and our lack is designed to motivate a closer walk with the Lord. (See Ether 12:27)
The Homes We Are Born Into Are Part of God’s Plan
The Lord has foreknowledge of what will happen in the homes in which he places each child. An all-knowing God has tailor-made the resulting trials to teach each child the exact lessons he needs to learn. Neal Maxwell said: “The truth about foreordination also helps us to partake of the wisdom of Alma, when he said we ought to be content with things that God has allotted to each of us. (See Alma 29:3-4.) If, indeed, the things allotted to each were divinely customized according to our ability and capacity, then for us to seek to wrench ourselves free of every schooling circumstance in mortality is to tear ourselves away from matched opportunities. It is to go against divine wisdom, wisdom in which we may once have concurred before we came here and to which we once gave assent.” (Neal A. Maxwell, Things As They Really Are, Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 31.)
The implications of those words are breath-taking. It seems that less-than-perfect parents, and even difficult and challenging home circumstances are part and parcel of the testing and trying of this probationary experience. God knows exactly what He is doing when He places each child in each home. He never makes mistakes-His placements inevitably give individuals the precise difficulties they most need for their particular personality-and in order to fulfill their particular mission on this earth.
So many times it is not in spite of, but because of difficult home backgrounds that children develop the strength of character and drive to become who the Lord wants them to become. How many people do you know who have developed good characteristics in a herculean effort to do things differently from the way their parents did them?
What We Do with the Circumstances We Are Born into is Part of the Test
I know a mother of a large family who is doing an amazing job with her children. The children are all bright-eyed, creative, full of life. She herself was neglected and abused by a mother who simply was unable to love. The daughter is determined to be the opposite kind of mother. She isn’t perfect, and her issues with her mother undoubtedly spill over, creating some challenges to her own children. However, the contrast between her mother’s parenting style and her own is astounding.
When I was on my mission, I taught a young man whose alcoholic parents had no interest in religion. However, he was determined to live an addiction-free life, and had a yearning to know the things of God. He joined the Church, served a mission, married in the temple, and last I heard was raising his family in full church activity.
I was raised in a loving but dysfunctional “sweep everything under the carpet” home where we never talked about feelings or problems. I developed a passion for learning to express honest feelings, to resolve problems, to understand relationships. That drive has been the basis for much of what I’ve done with my life.
One More Thing to Remember About God’s Parenting Guidelines
The last thing I want to mention that has come up for me as I’ve sought to dig out from under inappropriate Mother’s Day guilt is the remembrance of the Lord’s primary direction to parents. Never does he indicate that our job is to raise children who never make mistakes and never have problems. Nephi said, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look of a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).
The idea is not mistake-free living, either for us or our children! That was Satan’s plan. We don’t teach of Christ with hopes that our children will never sin and never need the Savior’s Atonement. We do not fail as parents every time a child makes a mistake. We are counseled to talk of Christ and teach of Christ so we all know where to turn for a remission of our inevitable sins.
So, Where Do I Go from Here?
Can I breathe a great sigh of relief and accept that any struggles my children have had because of their home of origin are part of their assigned package, just as mine were? And that when God gave us agency He knew perfectly well that I would make mistakes and they would make mistakes? I remember a priesthood blessing I received at the time of my divorce when I was lamenting what this breakup could mean to my children. The words were something like, “They will learn more and become stronger through this situation than they ever could have if you had been able to give them the perfect home setting you so desired.”
Why do I so often forget that message? Why have I so often reached down and taken the burden back onto my own shoulders, determined to carry it? The Lord is not only okay with the trials my children have had and are having as a result of the home they were raised in and the choices their parents made: He assigned them to them with perfect foreknowledge.
This Mother’s Day my goal is to celebrate the goodness of God, the goodness of being alive, the goodness of my children and grandchildren. In spite of, (or because of?) the difficulties they’ve experienced from my shortcomings and less-than-perfect choices, they are all wonderful people. They are growing, making progress, and learning from their trials. They are far smarter and stronger and more savvy than I ever was at their age. And my children have given me the most incredible grandchildren any grandma could ever wish for! I have much to celebrate, and I strongly suspect that you do too!