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Monday, October 31, 2011

Guest Post: Feed Me! Or, a Father Ponders His Fathering

Have a guest post for Modern Mormon Men? Both modern mormon men and women can submit guest posts via email. In addition to your post, please include a post title and a paragraph of introduction (on yourself) to run above the post.

John Landbeck is a husband, father, member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and attorney. He likes his life, wants his family to be happy and wants happiness for others, too. He trends towards long, lecture-like commentaries. After all, he is the child of a lawyer and an English teacher; he loves the English language, but loves best hearing himself speak it. John's personal blog can be found here.

My heart aches with longing and worry for the happiness and success of each of my children. The day before Stewart left for the Missionary Training Center, I tried explaining the mild trepidation I felt. He was about to pass completely out of my control, away from any continuing influence I might exert on him.

I know, intellectually, that he had really passed out from my control already. Years ago, if truth be told. He is a man grown, making his own decisions. Most of my children are really that old now, that grown. Legally, socially, and morally. The fact that I still pay some of their bills, and they do me the courtesy of including me in a dwindling number of their decisions prolongs the illusion that I have much to do with their actual living.

But in that moment with my son, I felt a great swell of melancholy, considering that my opportunity to instruct, inspire, lead, and direct was ending. I was full of the worry that perhaps I hadn't done enough. What if I taught the wrong thing? What if *by* helping him, I enabled his weakness? What if I hadn't tried hard enough to be encouraging? What if I have been *too* stern, crushing his creativity and agency?

The speculative what-ifs multiply, weighing heavily. I know, intellectually, that it's easy to psych myself out, and lose by simply giving up in despair.

I remember being the parent of small children and thinking it was hard, but looking back on it (and watching some friends who have young children), that's the wrong word. Parenting toddlers isn't hard, it's busy. Busy to the point of consuming. And feeling yourself consumed by something that you know isn't ever going to stop, that's stressful. But ultimately, all you lose is time. Those days, those years, they flow out of you, your kids survive and grow, and it's over. In almost every situation, small children and their pervasive needs are so easily met by the simple, brute force of spending time. The emotional pain then is worry at their fragility, at how easily the world could hurt them.

Parenting teenagers is hard. Statistically, older children make *far* fewer mistakes than younger children. But as they grow in age, the consequences of their mistakes multiply, increasing almost geometrically. When a two-year old spills milk, or has a tantrum, it is solved with a hug or a paper towel. They cry, you hold them, it stops.

But when a 16-year old steals a car, or an 18-year old tries drugs, or a 17-year old decides to have sex, or a 20-year old decides they’d rather go to school than serve a mission, or a 15-year old blows off a semester of school (ruining their chance to get a good scholarship) ... those things leave marks on a child’s life that never go away completely, no matter how good the child behaves subsequently. The emotional pain of the world hurting them is still there, but now, you also worry about the damage they do to themselves.

A parent’s heart aches, it just shivers from the sympathetic pain of such things, even when they are speculative. Some days, when I think about what is happening to my kids, what might happen next, I feel like I am juggling grenades. If anything slips, even a little, it’s going to all come crashing down and explode.

One day, we’ll look back on all of our choices, they’ll be clear in reflection. There will be a handful of moments that will stand out as the pivots for our eternity. Where we went to school. Who we married. When we said no. When we lied, or told the truth. When we stole something (or didn't).

The problem is that to me, ALL of the decisions I see in my kids’ lives look like pivotal moments. But kids resist adding the weight of destiny to choices, and reflexively insist that the decisions they make are no big deal. Getting all stressed out doesn't make it easier to make the right choice.

What I really, really believe is that I am right; all the moments matter. Those huge pivotal moments, they come as the result of a million other choices that we made that were just exactly right. They add up to the momentum of that one shining moment that in memory becomes that pivotal moment.

So I get it, I understand. My kids, they have to come to the understanding of consequence and responsibility on their own. If I could always steer them in the right direction, then they'd never really come to their own adult grasp of right and wrong.

It's cold comfort. The understanding of that doesn't make it any less painful to watch my kids fritter away time, or blow a big chance. The weight doesn't lift from my shoulders when they stubbornly go the wrong way. I feel great sympathy for Alma the Older, for how painful it is to have nothing to contribute but silent prayers that things will get better.

But I guess it makes it easier for me to not react immaturely. There will be no ultimatums, no angry threats of disinheritance. I will strive for the tranquility to quietly express disappointment, to calmly urge for greater respect, and to reiterate the promise that no matter what, I will always love them.

I will always welcome them. I will pray for their survival, and look forward to the day I can hug them when they are dealing with their own teenagers.

"Procrastination is one of the most serious human defects in all ages." -- Spencer W. Kimball

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