Growing up, I thought that I could only experience the spiritual in religious places like churches or in solemnly recited words of prayer (and only when I was perfectly well-behaved). Once I became a parent, however, my four children taught me that the sacred can surprise me everywhere, often most intensely through the joys and challenges of family life. Parenting is a crash course in all the spiritual themes like gratitude, grace, forgiveness, suffering, and love. I am learning that God meets me right in the middle of my imperfect, often messy life as a mom, in my vulnerability and struggles, and in my embodied experiences. In fact, my body itself carries the story of my spiritual journey as a parent, as I imagine yours does too.
For example, my reconstructed left Achilles tendon, severed during a rare family soccer game one spring break, reminds me that parenting constantly asks us to stretch beyond ourselves in new ways. For me, this stretching has looked like learning to be more present in the moment (slowing down to listen to my daughter’s latest teen friend saga), depend on others for support (it’s actually ok to ask for help!), and practice playfulness more (Scrabble anyone?). These new ways of being are still a struggle for me as a responsible, independent, and efficient first-born.
Our children invite us not only to experience greater love and spiritual awareness, but to see ourselves more fully as well. My chipped front tooth reminds me of my capacity for anger, harsh judgment, and harmful words. I remember the terrible family dinner when, overwhelmed by our squabbling kids, I violently bit down on my fork, damaged my tooth, and furiously cursed at everyone. As parents, we quickly learn our limitations and imperfections, and we come face to face with our need for forgiveness and grace.
At the same time, we can also recognize the goodness and capacity for sacrificial love in ourselves. The stretch marks on my body after four pregnancies and countless years of nursing babies tell a story of nurturing, intimacy, and sleepless nights. At our best as parents, in those moments when we are authentically connected and lovingly attuned to our children, we draw from a deep reservoir beyond ourselves and mirror a sacred and unconditional love.
Raising children allows us to discover the sacred in new ways, in the practical, embodied reality of our family lives. Most of the time parenting doesn’t feel very holy, of course. Sometimes it just feels like survival, as any mom or dad trying to get through sibling rivalry, morning mayhem, bedtime power struggles, or adolescent mood swings can testify. Nevertheless, our relationships with our children inevitably transform us in powerful and lasting ways, if we are open to being changed and becoming more conscious.
What has helped me grow on my journey of parenting has been learning concrete tools and a framework to build safe and loving connections with each of my children. The Imago Dialogue, with its emphasis on deep listening, validating, and empathizing, has enriched my family relationships, as have parenting classes in positive discipline through a local organization called PEP (the Parent Encouragement Program). Finally, a regular practice of meditative, prayerful time in silence grounds me and prepares me to embrace the conflicts and opportunities my children often create.
While we may not be able to prove it scientifically, the greatest transformation on the spiritual journey of parenting actually happens in our hearts: they are expanded and stretched through the giving and receiving of love and the daily practice of virtues like forgiveness, gratitude, self-control, grace, and acceptance.
I invite you to reflect on the following questions:
- What stories does your body tell of your spiritual journey as a parent?
- How have you felt stretched in new ways?
- How has your experience of the sacred or God evolved through the ups and downs of parenthood?