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October 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 4 · pp. 26–31 

Parenthood Is a Noble Calling Too

John Regehr

Any vocation is limiting. Robert Frost said that in simple eloquence when he spoke of “the road not taken.” Whatever we choose to do at any one time requires that we lay aside other interests and abilities for that time.

That principle holds for larger vocational choices as well. When I decided in favor of theology I put aside my interest in music, in farming, and in woodwork. I can take courses in lathe-work later, if I so choose. Choosing to follow a call means to limit oneself. Most of us will never be in a vocation which utilizes all of our abilities, or satisfies all of our interests. Every vocation, therefore, is limiting. We simply can’t do one thing if we’ve decided to do something else.

It follows, then, that when we think of fulfillment for our lives, we do not think so much in terms of finding a work that challenges all our skills, but that we seek to do something that gives profound meaning to our existence. Such meaning can probably be found in any of a dozen areas of our interest and ability.

Meaning, then, will not come so much from tapping a particular skill, but, at one level, from the way our activity ties us in with people and the larger world, and, at another level, from the way in which what we do becomes the working out of our obedience to God.

All of this relates directly to parenting as a vocation. Of course it is true that if a couple chooses to be parents (or if they become parents before they make the deliberate choice) they will put aside, more or less temporarily, some of the interests and abilities which they could develop and use to their own satisfaction and for the good of others. However, that kind of limitation would hold true for any vocational choice the couple might have made. Since fulfillment comes not so much from using all of our tools as from using with meaning those we choose, it follows that fulfillment can come as readily in parenting as in any vocation outside the family.

A teacher worked with “normal kids” for a number of years, and {27} then went into training for “special education.” Certainly the specialized work with variously handicapped persons is more limiting than her earlier work, but she says now that she would never go back to the other. So the limitation of scope and of contact has not reduced the sense of meaning which she derives from her work. It would seem that meaning grows more from the nature of the self-investment than from its breadth.

The temptations which some persons experience in regard to having or not having children is not unlike those which Jesus endured in the wilderness. The world “out there” seems so large and inviting. At some distance there seems to be so much more glamor and glory in the vocations that tie into the systems of this world than there is in the confines of a family. Some actually hear the call to parenthood as the call to take up the cross and die daily. Nor is that entirely unrealistic. But, then, Jesus chose that way too, and the more restrictive way of obedience to the more profound calling proved in the end to be the way toward the healing of the world.

Of course, there is drudgery in parenting. There is in any vocation. It is here that spouses have a responsibility to spell one another off to allow one to distance himself/herself from parenting duties. It is here, too, that the extended family and the church community have obligations. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, and their substitutes in the Christian congregation can provide times when parents can come out from under the burdens for a while. Parents need to be on guard lest their freely chosen restriction to be parents does not become the experience of a cage. Then, certainly, other vocations gather luster. Love for one’s children does not remove the need to be away from them from time to time: ten minutes here and there, an hour now and then, a half day once in a while, a week-end every 3 or 4 months.

But the church has more obligation than that. Recognizing the restricting effect of the choice of parenting, and recognizing that such a calling leaves dormant significant abilities and gifts, the church must encourage parents to keep their other gifts of ministry alive. Knowing that they are appreciated in the larger community will help parents deal wholesomely with the occasional feeling of being caged into their family.

It seems that even very ordinary work has glamor when it is somehow tied into this world’s system. Hans is working at a centre for retarded children. He is convinced that some of these precious little ones are less developed than they would be if they had received much love and patient teaching at their level. Hans was excited when he reported to us that he had been able to help some of these children to stop, or at least reduce, their drooling, and that they carried their heads higher because of the accomplishment. It is not impossible that Hans will refine his “techniques” {28} and then write an article that will find acclaim among people helpers. The irony is that what he will have found to be helpful in producing such growth in these children, is exactly what ordinary homes are expected and equipped to do.

The story Jesus tells about the judgment at the end of the age speaks pointedly to this issue.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

The nature of the investment is not dependent on the kind of currency used. Whether the need was food for the body or freeing for the soul is not important; it was a real need that was met. Therein lies the meaning: self-investment in persons for their sake at the point of their need. This is the parenting task: food, drink, clothing, care during illness, release from fears and other bondages. “The least of these” may well be our own children.

The validity of parenting as a vocation is reinforced when we look at what parental neglect can do. About mid-summer in 1979 children began showing up in the Sally Anne soup line. By December of 1980 these numbered about 40-45 per day. If rescuing them is a noble vocation, then certainly preventing the need for rescuing is equally noble.

Slide presentations are shown around the country of the home where Mexican children are housed and nurtured. The impact is even greater when those children make a personal appearance in their bright costumes and tug at our hearts with their dark and dancing eyes. Here and there people of faith hear a call from God to invest themselves in these lovely children, God’s children. But if God now calls persons to bring order into those disordered lives, then surely those who gave them birth missed hearing the call of God to provide and maintain for them a well-ordered life.

We validate the calling of medical and social work personnel who mend broken bones, burned skin and bruised spirits, all of which result from parental neglect and irresponsibility. If this is a calling from God, then surely so is the call to the parents to provide love and care, guidance and discipline, protection and healing. {29}

So far we have spoken of the call to care for children who already have life. Whether by choice or not, they are here among us, and God intends for them to be provided for in all respects. To this he calls.

In our day it becomes possible for couples to choose when to have children, or whether to have children at all. It is not unusual to hear young women, both married and those yet single, say that they do not want to have children. A young woman spends a week-end with her nephews, and slumps with a sigh when they leave, “Whew! No wonder parents need a week-end off. I don’t want children. I couldn’t handle it.”

Tim and Tina are a young couple. They were childless, and were therefore free to do what they wished. They took skiing trips, and enrolled in College courses. They were free to take trips to the Arctic or the Amazon. The world invited them, and nothing impeded. Then Tina became pregnant, and their world caved in.

There were some creative forces at work with that young couple. At one level, the overt surface level, they were revelling in their freedom. Yet when the woman began to sense her desire for children, and the husband refused to cooperate, she schemed the pregnancy. When the man discovered what was happening, he was initially and verbally intensely angry. At another level he was proud, and proved to be a very caring father. When the second pregnancy occurred, he barked outside, but yielded inside. It turned out that it was the initial deceitfulness which caused the lingering ill-will, and not the children themselves.

Without a doubt the call to parenthood is woven tightly into our fabric. Despite the adolescent yearning for freedom to range the earth, there comes with a little more maturity the drawing to some “place” to make into a home. God’s earliest mandate to “be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it,” comes to us not only as words from outside, but also as a call from within our being. In recent years some have wondered whether the earth is not already full, and whether the mandate to procreate is outdated. I am not here suggesting that the world is like Paraguayan buses, in which the largeness of people’s generosity always finds room for more. There is certainly validity in making decisions about how large our families are to be, or how much life the earth can support. My concern here is that we not silence the calling through a disobedience which grows from selfishness and a distorted sense of freedom. If we violate the calling, we destroy ourselves. If we discount the calling, we will relegate life to the shallows. Jesus’ words regarding those who have become eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:11-12) refer to celibacy, not to childless couples.

Those words of Jesus, however, are necessary to keep us from {30} distorting this native calling to parenthood. Though the drive to procreation is native to our humanness, biological procreation is not necessary to give one’s life meaning. Meaning comes from the investment of ourselves in the lives of others, whether they are our biological children or not. Personal distortion and attrition come from keeping these others (whether they are our biological children or not), out of our lives because they get in the way of our selfish enterprises.

Robert and Rhonda have been married for nearly a decade, and have been unable to achieve a pregnancy, so they begin to look at alternatives. Adoption seems unacceptable, since a child from another set of birth parents may turn out to be less clever and less beautiful than their own. So the couple looks for other places to find meaning. As they chase their little pursuits, they discover that their own relationship is becoming thinner. Finally they agree to open their home to a child who does not have the privilege of one. And gradually, life recovers its meaning, and their relationship recovers its warmth and depth.

Thus it is not the birthing of children which is necessary to give life meaning. Those who are single and/or childless also know the deep satisfaction that comes from being participants in the Kingdom of God. But selfishly refusing to have children when within the marriage that calling perceived, is disobedience toward God and a violation of our humanness.

There is, then, a calling prior to pregnancy. It is the calling imbedded in our being. The call to functional parenthood begins with the pregnancy, not with the birth. The “one flesh” which the two have become is already a reality when it is first enwombed. To resist this reality, and to resent it, affects the child already before birth, whether the resistance and resentment come from the father or the mother. As the child responds to the mother’s laughter, or compassion, or anger, before he is born, so he is affected by the parents’ wish that he were not. It is thought that autistic children may well have heard the message, “Don’t be!” prior to their birth.

The call to parenthood is a call to both the father and the mother. Already prior to the birth their relationship affects the child. And following the birth the nature of their relationship determines the sense of safeness and the quality of affection which the child experiences.

It is not so much a matter of whether the father provides the traditionally masculine input, and the mother the feminine, but whether both the nurture and the discipline, the caring and the confronting, the listening and the instructing, are done in balance. This will require the couple to be complementary. Such complementariness can happen both {31} by temperament and by choice, a choice determined by the need of the moment.

Since the call to parenting is so unrelenting and irrevocable, it follows that both the mother and the father need some time out of the harness (even when the yoke fits—Matt. 11:30). The parents need to give each other mini-holidays from time to time, during which time the one parent carries the full load alone.

But even when they are in harness together, the tasks of parenting are best not divided into male and female responsibilities (other than lactation, of course). Diapering and cuddling can be done as skillfully and as lovingly by the father as by the mother. And the mother can be firm as well as gentle.

The call to parenting is issued more widely than to the biological or adoptive parents. The call to the rearing of children is a call issued to the larger family, and/or the larger Christian community. Here, too, the functional calling begins with pregnancy. The welcoming of the child happens already in the celebration of the earliest announcement, and certainly of the birth itself. In this larger community is to be found the support that enables the parents to do their best, including giving them time out of the harness. But this larger community is much more directly involved in the “parenting”. Here is found the larger complementariness which provides for the child the larger context in which to see himself and find meaning in his experiences. Thus our children’s children are our children too, as are the children of those in our congregation.

The call to parenthood issues from God, our creator, and is communicated to us through our humanness and our sexuality. This call, though it is strong, is so subtle that we may recognize it as a call before pregnancy. Some of us are so dull of hearing that we don’t perceive the call until some time after the birth. The call to care for the child becomes unmistakably the call of Jesus once the child is among us: “I was hungry, and thirsty, and strange, and naked, and sick, and caught, and you took care of me” (Matt. 25:34-36). That call is not optional: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do to me” (Matt. 25:45).

John Regehr is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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