Parenting as Spiritual Practice

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Omega cofounder Elizabeth Lesser describes parenting as a spiritual practice with mythic twists and turns that offers opportunities to embrace change every day.

By Elizabeth Lesser

If you would like to be broken open—if you want to pursue a Phoenix Process of the highest order—I would recommend raising children. Parenthood is a clumsy yet majestic dance in the flames. When you parent you fall in love with a person who is always changing into someone else, and whom you know will leave you. Yet most parents will say that they have never given themselves to anyone as fully as they have to their children. Parenting is a career with the crazy-making job requirement of simultaneously surrendering to and letting go of someone you love, over and over and over again.

Parenthood is a never-ending journey down a wide river of worry and love. You get in that boat with your kids and you never get out. They get out—they build their own boats and row into their own destinies—but you stay in the original boat, always their parent, forever caring and forever kvelling (a useful Yiddish word that describes how parents express pride in their children).

Sometimes the act of parenting is an awe-inspiring adventure. Your heart expands to accommodate a vastness of feelings so tender and unselfish that you step boldly into the nobility of your true character. And sometimes parenthood is tedious yet unpredictable, demanding yet ever-changing: Just when you get the hang of sleeping upright in a rocking chair and changing dirty diapers, your child sleeps through the night and poops in the potty, and the job description changes. It’s a lot like the comedian George Carlin’s complaint, “Just when I found out the meaning of life, they changed it.”

So you go back into on-the-job training. By the time you have mastered communication with a tantrum-throwing toddler and become addicted to the warm, wet smell of your little one after a bath, he squirms away and goes to kindergarten. Now you have to learn to deal with play dates and social studies reports and parent-teacher conferences. And then school plays and Little League games, and friends and hurt feelings, and that shifting boundary between granting them freedom and giving them direction. Soon they are teenagers and there is no manual for that, so you take it one day at a time, difficult decision by difficult decision, and finally, if things go the way they ought to, your children leave home, they leave you, and they push off into the future.

Parenting in all of its stages is a spiritual path with mythic twists and turns. If your spiritual goal is to embrace life, moment by moment, in both its rapture and its pain, then parenting offers you that opportunity every day. Holy texts throughout the ages tell us that the truth is to be found between the seeming opposites in life—between your own will and a greater will; between limits and liberty; between the call to care for others and the need to care for yourself. In the parent-child relationship these concepts become supremely real. And you get excellent feedback all the time from a pint-sized spiritual master—your own kid—whose specialty lies in teaching you how to keep on loving even when you are tired, scared, confused, or pissed off. Isn’t that what every seeker is after?

At each stage of your child’s growth, you are given ample opportunities to use parenthood as a mirror. You get to see exactly where you fall short in the most graphic ways: Are you self-absorbed? Do you resist putting the needs of others first? Or do you err in the other direction—are you a martyr, a guilt-tripper, a codependent smotherer? Do you fear change? Are you impatient? Jealous? Comparative? Whatever it is that wants to be transformed in your psyche will be revealed as you parent. If you accept the challenge, parenting becomes a perpetual process of change and transformation—a dynamic experience of being broken open by love.