Read my latest article, “5 Spiritual Lessons From Parenting” for Spirituality and Health Magazine (July/August Issue).
Raising kids has a way of hammering home insights that are both obvious and always, somehow, slipping from our minds.
I remember when I brought my firstborn home from the hospital in August of 1998. He was born 8.5 pounds, which is bigger than the average baby, but to me he looked as perfect and fragile as fine chinaware.
In a portrait of three generations, my mother, me, and my son sat together huddled in the corner of my mid-renovation bathroom. It was there that I saw her bathe him for the first time in a faded plastic hand-me-down baby tub that she set on the floor.
I sat beside her, still in pain from the delivery and breastfeeding. I watched her tilt his soft head back, squirt a dollop of golden shampoo, and gently lather with warm water as she lifted and cleaned his every limb, finger, toe, crack, and crevice. The whole time I watched in enchanted horror, wondering when she was going to break his thin and limpy arms or put too much pressure on his head. But she bathed him with the confidence of an experienced mother. At first, I wanted to yell out orders, telling her to be gentler and more thorough—but I soon realized that she knew far more than me about raising children.
I was lucky to have my own parents’ intimate help in raising my kids. Like most expectant mothers, I busied myself with the anxious reading of as many parenting books and magazines as I could get my hands on, learning about love languages, psychological strategies for nurturing, child cognitive growth, sibling rivalry, self-soothing, omega-rich diets, micro bacterial diets, and coping mechanisms—yet despite all the research and endless resources, theory and practice are ultimately worlds apart.
Don’t judge yourself for needing to take solitary time to rest and gain the psychological fortitude to go on as the best person you can be.
Even with all the knowledge I gained from my reading, nothing could truly prepare me for the actual act of parenting, because parenting is not just a new chapter, but an ongoing journey, a lifelong learning process that enlightens you and tests your own understanding of what it is to be human and what it means to bring life into the world.
In the end, the majority of the outcomes of child-rearing aren’t in our hands. Thus, I am confident in admitting that I’m no parenting expert. Still, I do want to share some spiritual lessons that I learned and continued to relearn as I raise my three children, who are now all young adults.
They are eternal spiritual lessons that we encounter in any journey.
1. Give Yourself Some Slack
I used stress to power me through the days much of the time I was raising young children. I still can feel that stress ringing in my ears. Tiny hands that always managed to be sticky. Knotted hair. Food all over the table and highchair. Trying to find one kid without losing the two others. Screaming, constant screaming.
At the time, I was teaching full-time, falling asleep with tea in my mouth as I tried to work in my office after the kids went to bed. In those early years, I struggled immensely as a new mother. Secretly crying in the bathroom on particularly stressful days, I would wonder how long I would feel like this, how long it would be that I felt like a failure. After all the stress, I landed in the doctor’s office feeling sick and emotionally broken.
My doctor told me that I had an infection and prescribed some antibiotics. He also told me that my blood pressure was a potentially deadly 210. I soon realized that I couldn’t clean after my children, take care of the house, and make sure everything was all right at home and work. The constant fretting over my children was going to land me in a hospital bed. That is when I realized that I couldn’t do it all and needed to give myself some slack.
Don’t judge yourself for needing to take solitary time to rest and gain the psychological fortitude to go on as the best person you can be. Don’t judge yourself if you are not as perfect as you once naively envisioned yourself to be.
2. Find a Community
In general, in Asia community is prized over the individual, at least compared to American values. In Korea, women refer to female friends who are older as unni and men refer to female friends who are older as noona. Both words
mean older sister. Women call older male friends oppa, and men call them hyung, which means older brother. Younger friends are called dong seng, which means younger sibling. The Korean language itself signifies the essentiality of community.
In the West, it is time for us to emphasize community, especially when it comes to parenting—but also for any other life journey.
The community that we belong to is where we can share our struggles, joys, and pains and also ask for help. My community was the church. There were many young families at the church and it was a quick way for my three children to make friends, find playdates, and get hand-me- downs. For me, it was a place to find not only advice from other parents but also solace with other families.
Sometimes we just need to surrender and be happy with whatever we have done or left undone for the day. We cannot do everything. No matter how hard we try, there will be dirty dishes, toys all over the floor, chaos in the house, and tantrums and fights today and tomorrow. Difficulties find us every day. If we are practicing Christians, we surrender to our Creator. We allow God to shower us with grace and accept that whatever we have done is enough and that we are enough. As we surrender, we can take time to cry, rest, and sleep.
Other faith traditions come with a similar sense of being able to surrender, as do nontraditional spiritual practices.
As we surrender, we can take time to cry, rest, and sleep.
4. Take Time to Breathe
In most of the major world religions, God is understood as Spirit. In the Hebrew Scriptures, various books talk about ruach, which is breathe, wind, energy, and spirit. In Genesis, ruach is breathed into human beings by
Creator God to give life. God is breath. The Spirit which gives all of us life.
Parenting or any other journey can drain us and oftentimes make us feel as though the life is sucked right out of us. We just collapse at the end of the day, as we have no more energy left in us to even take care of ourselves. When we are drained, we need to take deep breaths, allow ourselves to recollect and relax. Being aware of inhaling and exhaling is being aware of God’s presence in our lives. As we parent, we need to practice taking deep breathes to relax and also to know that whatever and whoever we are, we belong to the Divine, however we might define that.
When my children were young, we used to read the Bible and pray together every night. We did this for about 12 years until they developed different sleeping hours and we just got tired of rounding them up every night. It sometimes became a battle to pray together. But it was a wonderful ritual. My children prayed for each other and my husband and I prayed for our children.
Just as we pray for our children’s safety, we pray for ourselves, to find the strength to best protect them.
Praying is a spiritual exercise where we reach out to God. Even though things may take a detour or even go up in flames, we continue to pray. Prayer not only works to change our children, but it also changes us, healing parts of ourselves we had no indication were even suffering. Different faith traditions have different forms of prayer and prayer practices. Diversity of prayer should be welcomed as we search for forms of prayer that resonate within us according to our own context and faith traditions.
Just as we pray for our children’s safety, we pray for ourselves, to find the strength to best protect them. We cry out to God and ask God to give us patience when we lose our temper, grace when we feel awful, hope when we feel at the end of our rope, and love for when we carry ugliness in our hearts. Praying will change us. But ultimately, praying will save us from our most challenging times, our most unendurable moments.
Every day presents challenges. Parenting doesn’t stop after our children leave our house. Parents need to keep adjusting and figuring out what our roles are as we and our children grow up. Korean elders will say that their 50-year-old daughter is still a child and that they still guide, take care of, and pray for her.
The roles of parent and child in the relationship may reverse; eventually the parent may become dependent on the children. Even then, the lessons have power: Give ourselves slack; find a community; surrender to the divine; take time to breathe; and pray.
Grace Ji-Sun Kim
Grace Ji-Sun Kim received her PhD from the University of Toronto and is Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. She is the author or editor of 20 books, most recently, Hope in Disarray; Keeping Hope Alive; Reimagining Spirit and Intersectional Theology. Kim is the host of Madang podcast which is hosted by Christian Century.
She is a Series Editor for Palgrave Macmillan Series, “Asian Christianity in the Diaspora” and has served on the American Academy of Religion’s Board of Directors. Kim writes for Baptist News Global, Sojourners, and Wabash Center and has published in TIME, The Huffington Post, Christian Century, US Catholic Magazine, and The Nation.
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