The symptoms are unmistakable: I've got Parenting on the Brain.
The cause of this progenitorial fascination is unclear to me. Was it the birth of my sixth son, and my concerns that he, too, will come to understand his father better than I would wish? Or was it the spectacle of his three older brothers focusing so intently on their alter-server training? Perhaps it was my eldest's recent forays into algebra—an event for which I found myself emotionally (and intellectually) unprepared. Or perhaps it was the recent celebration of my fourth son's fifth birthday—a celebration I was not expecting to take place for a number of years yet. (Can he really be five already? How alarming!)
Whatever the reasons may be, I find that nearly everything I have read, written, said, or seen in the past few months has drawn me back to the same insurmountably gigantic topic: parenting and its many pitfalls.
Last week, I wrote on the importance of explaining one's actions to one's children rather than simply leading by example. This week, I dug a bit further into the cinematic archives in an effort to avoid the topic, and came up with...more thoughts on parenting. Only this time, the film was Darling, How Could You!, an unjustly obscure gem from 1951. And the thoughts it provoked were not about the profound importance of speaking to our children, but about being present to them whenever we can, not just when wewant.
Based on "Alice, Sit-by-the-Fire," (one of J. M. Barrie's lesser-known plays), the film seemed innocent enough at first, telling the comical story of Dr. Robert Grey (John Lund) and his vivacious wife Alice (Joan Fontaine) as they return from an extended (and childless) stay in Panama and struggle to adjust to life with their three young children. Intensely unsure of themselves after their long absence, the two are more intimidated by the small, unfamiliar brood before them than by the host of dangers and deadly diseases they encountered during their time overseas. "I guess I've always been a husband sort-of-man," the doctor confides to his wife. "And now, suddenly, I have to be a father sort-of-man. You know something, dear? I'm a little afraid."
When the two eldest respond enthusiastically to his overtures, the doctor's hesitance gives way to relief and confidence. But his wife's attempts are significantly less successful. A trifle childish herself, she wants (and expects) to be loved by her children from the start, and when that does not take place, she grows dejected and petulant. To top it all off, the events of the night preceding their return have conspired to made Alice's task significantly more complicated than either of them could possibly realize.
Unbeknownst to the two returning travelers, their daughter Amy spent her last parentless night watching a performance of the overly adult "The Reckless Mrs. Rossiter" rather than the governess-sanctioned "Peter Pan." As a result of this confusion, Amy's head is filled not with the adventures of Wendy, Tinkerbell, and the Lost Boys, but with the details of Mrs. Rossiter's melodramatic attempts to conceal an affair from her husband. After assuring her brother that this experience has awakened her to "the seedy side of life," Amy mistakenly confuses her mother's interest in a long-time family friend with a Rossiter-esque infatuation.
Convinced that her "naïve but well-intentioned" mother must be rescued at all costs, she takes matters into her own hands; her utter lack of understanding is matched only by her confidence in her newfound (and unfounded) sophistication. Amy's amusing attempts to seduce the friend in question quickly give way to the charmingly transparent insistence that she is the real culprit and that her mother is entirely blameless. Equally bewildered by the absurdity of the situation and by the actions of a daughter they are only now beginning to understand, her parents (and the family friend) spend an uproarious evening sorting things out. While the eventual resolution may be a bit too tidy and a bit too cheerful for the hard-core realist, it is as delightful and family-affirming a finale as one could want.
The film's links to "Peter Pan" are striking. It wrestles with many of the same themes of maturity and responsibility, only this time from the perspective of the parents rather than that of the children. Deep down, Robert and Alice are more fearful of their own "growing up" than they are of their children's burgeoning adolescence. She wants to be "bosom friends" with her daughter rather than her mother, and he wants to be a husband without having to be a father. Both are afraid to embrace the joys and sorrows, the rewards and responsibilities that go along with parenthood—a fear best exemplified by their absence as the film begins, and one whose defeat is most clearly signaled by Alice's gentle reminder that her willingness to "settle down" is not something she has chosen for her husband's sake. Finally, they are ready to think of the children, which means they're ready to start acting like parents.
Despite the obvious growth of its subjects, the moral of the story remains a bittersweet one. The indefensible absence of the doctor and his wife from their children's lives and the struggles they faced to overcome the consequences of that absence is a sadness that will linger beyond their newfound togetherness. Precious moments in the lives of their young ones have been lost forever; those are moments Robert and Alice will never get back, no matter how earnestly, how desperately they try. They have set out to make up for lost time, but there is no "making up." Their unwillingness to be present for their children, temporary though it may have been, is something they will always regret.
There are many reasons for a parent's absence, some as selfless as the Greys' were selfish. The monetary demands of a family often trump the desires of its individual members, and many a father or mother find themselves forced to work long, debilitating hours to provide food and shelter for their loved ones. In these cases, a parent's absence is motivated fiercely and deeply by love, as is the attentive presence of a parent in happier circumstances. They are laying aside their own wishes and needs for the sake of those they love the most. That is true (and often-unrecognized) heroism.
But for myself, blessed with both a wonderful spouse and a steady job, there is no excuse for absence, or for the emotional distance that accompanies it. No excuse, that is, except the one offered by Robert and Alice in Darling's opening moments: fear.
Frankly, I'm afraid. All too often, I find myself looking at my children and wondering when an adult will appear—an adult equipped with the prudence and experience my boys need, and which I so clearly lack. In those panicked moments, the fear can be overwhelming; the desire to withdraw into the safety of one's self is an easy solution to the exhaustive obligation of parenting. That instinctive shrinking from responsibility, understandable though it may be, ignores both the good we parents do without realizing it and the grace God gives to us as parents. We have been given to power to serve as the most immediate, most formative forces for good in the lives of our children. But we can't be that force without simply being there in the first place.
It's alright to be afraid. In fact, it may even be healthy. But we can't let it be paralyzing. There is too much at stake for that.