It’s the Christmas season: a time to bake cookies, watch crappy Hallmark, Lifetime, or ABC Family movies, and stress over Christmas lists, hoping upon hope that I haven’t somehow forgotten someone or something. It’s a season of joy, but a hectic, bustling season, a time when days fly by and to-do lists only get longer, students only get crazier, and pants only get tighter.
Since becoming a parent, Christmas has also been a time when I attempt to steer my family away from the inevitable commercialism and make the holiday about something other than Santa Claus and presents. We try to spend time together, to think carefully about what we can do for others, and to keep the focus on the birth of Christ.
During this season, my adult Sunday school class has been engaged in a study of what Christmas meant to Mary. A couple of weeks ago we spent some time discussing whether we thought Mary really thought of her newborn child as the Son of God, the savior of all mankind. We wondered if she understood what she was signing up for, that she would have to watch her child go through a living hell and eventually die in agony. When did she come to the realization that although she brought him into this world, she could not protect him or stop his suffering?
As the one former Catholic present, the group looked to me to answer their questions about the elevated role of Mary in the Catholic Church. I’m no scholar, so all I could think to say was, “Of all the humans in the Bible- other than Jesus, obviously- she was hand-picked for the most important job there was. She had to give birth to a child and raise him knowing that in the end he wasn’t really hers.” Or something like that- I’m probably improving my wording in hindsight.
As I said it, I realized how true this statement is for all parents. Our children are not ours. Unlike possessions, they cannot be stowed away for safe-keeping, though our greatest wish is to protect them from pain. The life of a mother is a life of fear completely unlike any fear experienced prior to becoming a parent. The fear of what others think of me, the fear of failure, the fear of all the possible things that might cause me physical harm- a vicious dog, a stranger on the street at night, a reckless driver- none of these compare to the fear that at some point my children may be the ones to experience pain or hurt at the hands of another.
From the moment my oldest daughter was born I sought to control her environment and make the best possible choices for her well-being. Breast-feeding as long as possible. Organic baby food. A consistent schedule. As she grew, I struggled (and still do) to enforce discipline so that she would learn healthy boundaries and have positive social interactions. I encourage creative play, limit screen time, moved her to a new pre-school that I thought would better suit her precocious nature. I’m attempting to follow suit with her sister, though let’s be honest, the second one has it a little better than the first.
But when it comes down to it, as much as the thought terrifies me, there is only so much about my daughters’ lives that I can control. Today happens to be the anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. The mothers of those twenty little boys and girls probably had done everything in their power to bring their children up to be healthy, polite, smart. Perhaps, at this time of year two years ago, these parents were even struggling with some of the same holiday-related issues that I am having: Why does inundating my children with presents have to be what makes Christmas “magical”? How can I get them to think of others? How can I make it special for them without losing sight of what Christmas is actually celebrating?
We can agonize over every choice we make that deals with our children. We can, and should, take precautions to teach them how to keep themselves healthy and safe. But our children are not ours. In Sandy Hook, these parents’ beloved babies were senselessly ripped from them in an event that none of them could have foreseen or stopped. Even if we get to keep our children and watch them grow into adults, we are going to see them hurt. Despite our fear and watchfulness they will fall down stairs, burn their fingers on the stove, have choking scares with food that we could have sworn we cut into pieces small enough to swallow. Other kids will be mean to them. At some point they will feel that they aren’t pretty enough, or smart enough, or athletic enough. They will get their hearts broken. They will move away from home and call us when their car breaks down or their purse gets stolen or they didn’t get the job they really really wanted.
The lesson I need to learn from all of this is that while I make dozens of parenting decisions each day, the most important questions are these: Was I present for my children today? When I go to bed tonight, can I at least say “I did my best”? If an unthinkable tragedy were to befall our family tomorrow, could I find peace in the thought that my children knew I loved them, not from the foods I put in their lunch or what time I put them to bed, but from my words and actions?
Christmas is no doubt a time of miracles, when angels speak to the lowliest among us and the world’s greatest king comes in the form of a baby boy. But for me there is also the miracle of time spent with my children, my greatest gifts, and that is a miracle that I will try to treasure fully, without letting fear or worry get in the way.