Practicing Parents

Overcoming a Parent’s Guilt: Parental Self-Care and the Bible

~by Horace McMillon

“Train up a child in the path of the Lord and when s/he is old s/he will not depart from it.” Coming up in the African American Church at the time I did, this was one of the go-to verses that nearly everyone had memorized and was often quoted. I believe at the verse’s best and highest use it is a declaration of hope. That if we just stay with it and train our child up in the Lord, somehow, someway we can trust that everything will turn out alright in the end one day, if not immediately. For many parents going through difficult times with their children this verse has no doubt been an encouragement to them to hang on and hang in. Redemption is on the way. Unfortunately, I am not one who falls into that group of parents. I am part of the group that often feels that verse as more of an accusation than declaration. So many of us hear the verse this way: ‘If your child is acting up or not on the right path, you have clearly not raised him/her right. Children that are raised right, do right.’ I don’t believe one needs to have grown up with this verse to know the guilt of parenthood. Having children and raising a family is the biggest endeavor most of us ever take on. We pour our all into it. When things don’t go right, or are children hurt or struggle, or when our children hurt others, we can help but blame ourselves. I should have… I wish I had… I wish I hadn’t. I don’t know what else I could or could have done.

Just a few days ago, my mother talked about her guilt. (This surprised me a little bit because none of us have ever been in serious trouble and are leading full and productive lives.) It turns out that she and her peers, who are now in their late 70s and 80s, often feel regret for the ways things have turned out. They think of the efforts they made in civil rights, in integration and desegregation. They think of the way they struggle to give their children the things they never had, to open up opportunities they were not yet able to even dream of. They think of all the blood, sweat, and tears they put into raising my generation. And they, many of them, feel no small measure of guilt at the way things have turned out for their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. My mother is able to comfort herself in two ways. When she looks at us, we did not come out quite as she had hoped. But we did come out ok. The next piece of advice my mother passed on to me about her and her generation’s dealing with guilt is this: When it’s all said and done she and they know they did they best they knew how to do in that time and under those circumstances. Therefore there is no reason for guilt.

My mother knows how I am sometimes hard on myself and my wife and our parenting efforts. She knows how hard she and her friends have been on themselves as well. She and they now content themselves with the reflection that they did in their time and under their circumstances. Even more generously, though I know we have not raised our children as she would have, my mother pointed out that Monique and I can really say that we are doing everything we can and know to raise healthy and well-adjusted children into adults. There is no reason for guilt. Our best effort, in light of the totality of our circumstances, is the best any of us have to give. So now instead of leaning on the “Train up a child” passage, which more and more I believe was a declaration of hope rather than a statement of fact, I lean more on another phrase that was popular when I was coming up: “Let go, and let God.” In other words, we do the best we can with our children. We trust them to the care of a loving God who will never leave or forsake them, even should they chose to make their beds in the place of the dead. This is how I release my guilt. I do the best I can and trust the rest to the care of a loving God. In the meantime I hope that I will be able to say as my mother says now, “They may not have turned out exactly as I hoped, but they did turn out ok.”

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