The Guideposts senior editor shares why life can be interpreted as a school of love.
Parenthood is the great leveler. This being New York where I live, Frances’ preschool enrolls kids from all sorts of backgrounds. At a parents’ meeting last night I was surrounded by people in finance, law and who knows what other high-profile jobs.
You would not know these people are professional high-flyers when they begin talking about their kids. The stories are all the same—tantrums, sleep problems, power struggles. A father in a crisp suit and gold tie told of being awakened at four-thirty in the morning by his five-year-old daughter, who was enraged Mom and Dad had dared dim the light in the hall outside her room. They turned the light back up.
Maybe that’s an extreme New York case, early emergence of big-city brassiness. But my basic point remains: the challenges of parenthood pay no attention to worldly success. Anyone, no matter where they’re from or who they know or how much money they make, can be a good parent. And anyone can be a bad parent. Most people are a mix.
Which means parenthood is also the great truth-teller. Workplaces can be, in a way, dehumanizing, calling forth parts of our true selves while obscuring others. You can fake it at work and get by. You can’t fake it parenting. Your best and worst qualities go on flagrant display. Even if you walk away from the job, withdrawing into work as many parents do these days, you reveal something profound about yourself. Having children draws you inexorably into real life. The stakes get higher. The spotlight shines brighter.
I often think of living by faith as a kind of school. The main subject is love and the longer you stick it out the harder the classes get. Starting out as a child you’re basically selfish. Friendship chips away at selfishness, relationships chip away some more. Marriage is like advanced placement. College starts with parenthood and graduation comes when the lessons of all these incremental acts of surrender culminate in an ability to love others truly and selflessly. To live as God means us to live, for others.
In that sense the truth parenthood tells is not who’s top student in the school of love—most of us are sadly mediocre. It’s the simple truth that we’re all students in the first place. That living for others is at once damnably hard and yet something we’re inexorably, mysteriously drawn to. If parenting is so challenging, why do so many people sign up for the class? Because deep down everyone wants what the school of love promises—a life freed from self-imprisonment, filled with a kind of love we are at once terrified of and incapable of living without.
Numerous studies show that parenthood in fact makes people less, not more happy. Setting aside for a moment the impossibility of defining “happiness” reliably and consistently enough to make such surveys worth anything, it seems to me the very question is misplaced. The point of having children isn’t happiness. Indeed the point of life isn’t happiness. It’s love, and real love, as any person of faith knows, is categorically different from whatever is meant by that shallow word happiness. (I’m not the only one who thinks so. Read the comments in the link above.)
As St. Paul says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” That’s not happiness. It’s real life. It’s hard. It’s exhilarating. And, like the challenges and rewards of parenting, it’s the only thing in the end that matters.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].