Is Parenting Beautiful or Brutal? Or Both?

Parents tend to fall into one of two camps: those who believe there is nothing that needs to be redeemed about parenting, and those who believe there is nothing that can be redeemed about parenting. We need a third camp…


Photo Credit: intransit via Compfight cc

Last night, my kids tortured me.

Oldest Son had had a particularly intriguing day in Social Studies, where they’d debated the genetic engineering of fetuses. He didn’t care if it could result in increasingly flawless human beings—he’d rather be himself than be perfect. I agreed with him, and some part of me—a very tiny part, the part of me with energy, the part that’s been gradually shrinking during a decade of parenting—loved the discussion.

But mostly, after a long day, it was like fingernails on the chalkboard.

And Youngest Son, knowing pumpkin soup was awaiting him at the dinner table, buried his head so deeply in a book he could pretend his ears were blocked when called to eat. The truth is, I didn’t care if he ate or not. But dinner was the first domino in a long line of them: packing lunches, doing dishes, taking out the garbage, baths, pajamas, bedtime books, and at least a handful of commands to get back into bed.

When he finally came, he took one look at the soup and said he felt dizzy.

I was too angry to empathize.

Youngest Daughter, on the other hand, came right to the table. And promptly knocked over an entire glass of water. I didn’t yell. I was too tired for that, too. And getting up for a towel seemed to require a monumental effort. So, for a moment, I just stared at the expanding puddle, running toward the edges of the table. She decided to help by blowing against it.

Towels work better.

As I soaked up water, I decided they were conspiring to ruin me. I imagined them commiserating on the bus on the way home: “Okay, I’ll overwhelm him with extraversion, you infuriate him with lack of respect, and you demoralize him with mess.”

I felt like I had switched camps in an ongoing battle in the parenting blogosphere:

The first camp—where I usually reside—sees children as a gift, and a fleeting one at that. In Camp One, we talk about being with our kids, paying attention to the moments that won’t last forever, and loving them tenderly for as long as they’ll let us. I love Camp One. There’s truth in it.

But last night, I defected to Camp Two.

Camp Two parents are dedicated to utter honesty about how difficult, painful, and exhausting parenting can be. They take solace in finding other families who are aren’t Instagram-ready, either. And you know what? Kids are exhausting. There’s truth in Camp Two, too.

Then, however, I saw the light.

Three of them, actually.

And it made me want to start a third camp.

I was doing dishes, staring mindlessly out the window, when three points of light crossed my vision. It’s dark where we live, and my kids had agreed to take out the garbage together, so no one would have to venture out into the blackness alone. They’d found flashlights to light the way. I cranked open the window and listened to the little lights in the driveway. They were chattering away, having fun and enjoying each other.

And the chatter was still exhausting.

But right then, I couldn’t blame the exhaustion of childrearing on a conspiracy or lack of respect or puddles on the dinner table. Right then, my kids were beautiful, loving each other well and serving the family together. They weren’t exhausting because they were bad; they were exhausting because they were kids. Turns out, raising three human beings is exhausting because it just is. So, as three little lights bobbed back up the driveway, I knew I had a choice: deny the mess of parenting or succumb to it.

Or redeem it.

We need to remember everything in this crazy life—including the really good things, like parenting—eventually gets messy, and redemption of the mess is our reason for being here. And, as parents, we need a space where we can ask ourselves, “What is the mess of parenting trying to redeem in me?”

Right then, I knew exactly what parenting was trying to redeem in me.


When my kids wear me out, I blame them for my fatigue, as if they are doing something wrong. But they like to talk, and who can blame them? They don’t like pumpkin soup, and who can blame them? They try to pass the ketchup and make a mistake and create a lake on the kitchen table. And who can blame them?

Right then, I knew my blaming was wearing me out more than my parenting.

And I wanted to be done with blaming altogether.

I wanted to be done blaming my kids for being kids. But I also wanted to be done blaming my wife for not loving me perfectly. Done blaming people for being human. Done blaming schoolteachers for being overwhelmed by a broken system. Done blaming the undertrained cashier for not knowing how to ring up the lettuce. Done blaming the lost guy at the light for not knowing which way he wants to go. Done blaming myself for deciding I’m not going to blame anyone anymore and then slipping back into doing it again.

Redemption ripples. It starts in one place and it spreads. It consumes whatever mess it can reach and then lights it up from the inside out.

What is the chaos of parenting trying to redeem in you? Will you deny it? Or give up on it? Or start transforming it, so it can start transforming you?

I hope you’ll join me in Camp Three.

But if you want to stay in Camp One or Camp Two?

I don’t blame you.

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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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22 thoughts on “Is Parenting Beautiful or Brutal? Or Both?

  1. Love this post. Wish I had articles like this when I was raising my children. Now I have grandchildren and great grandchildren. But I miss my children as little ones. I see through my grand and great grandchildren what I missed.

    • Mimi, I just had a conversation with someone this week about how grandparenting is a second chance at all those things you didn’t do as well as you wanted when you were a parent. I hope you can enjoy those new little ones!

  2. As a mother of three boys, I am right there with you. I love my kids to pieces, and they are GREAT kids. I see motherhood as a sacred calling.

    And yet, after an exhausting day at work (with other people’s kids!), sometimes I just want to curl up on the couch and tell everyone to just leave me alone.

    There are days when I cherish every minute with my boys. And other days when I smile and nod and listen and nurture and count the minutes until bedtime.

    What is the chaos of parenting trying to redeem in me? I’m going to ask myself this question today. I don’t have a quick answer. I like to think that my perfectionistic tendencies have already been squashed out of me a hundred times by these boys…”it is what it is” I tell myself as I leave our dirty dishes piled up in the kitchen sink morning after morning. I’d love to come home to a clean kitchen, but geeze, getting three up and ready for school and fed and out the door by 7:30 so none of us are late? Yeah. It feels like a game of “Survivor” every day.

    But there is grace, too. I’ve already prepped waffle batter for homemade waffles today. And I’ll make bacon. Homemade waffles and bacon on a Wednesday! i love surprising my boys! 🙂

    • This is awesome, Marie, and it does sound like parenting has already done an awful lot of work in you. Sometimes it’s okay just to sit back and enjoy the fruit (or waffles) of that! : )

  3. My insides were churning as I read this. Because I remember those days. When literal writing on the wall, spilled koolaid and fights over a toy were the daily issues. Those days were good. Today I deal with a daughter who cuts herself. Today my son won’t stop smoking pot. Today my relief was that my daughter isn’t pregnant, but my young teen is sexually active. Today parenting is a battle, one I was not prepared for. The days or moments full of light are rare. I pray for survival not sanity. Enjoy where you are. It’s not that bad.

    • There are so many things in kids’ lives when they are small that we delight in and worry over and feel overwhelmed by. You are right to point out that there is a whole new brand of worry, overwhelm, and shrinking delight that can come with our kids going through scary times as teens and young adults when we can no longer catch them from a tumble. Mary, I hope that you are reaching out to get the support you need while you navigate the path you are walking with your kids. You are there for them so that they are not alone; and you can benefit from the same kind of compassion for your own journey at their side.
      You and your family will be in my thoughts.

  4. As a parent of adult children, I am learning to redeem my mistakes when they were younger by giving myself grace so I can pass that grace onto them as they parent. It’s never to late for redemption, is it?

    • Exactly, Ginny, and that is an absolutely beautiful way to redeem regrets from the past. Thank you for that.

    • This is lovely, a resounding ‘yes!’ from us, with launched kids and Littles still home. Never too late for redemption of all things, and God’s timing is good, even when it’s hard to wait!
      Beautiful 🙂

    • Well, gee, thanks! I was just talking with someone yesterday about how that which eases our loneliness is what we experience as love. Sounds like my writing has done that for you, and I’m glad to be normal and more unlonely with you!

  5. I felt moved to forward this piece to my daughter and son in law who have a one month old..I feel compelled to encourage them with things like this. I hope that my “layering” on of insight (from others, not my own lest I be a meddler!) will help them as they all grow together. This is a new season for me as a brand new grandmother. I am really kind of shocked over the amount of love and connection I am feeling for this precious new one. I want to remember this when she is at my home and making messes or keeping us up at night. I love how I was reminded that blame has no where to go but down..and no where very pretty! Thank you, thank you.

    • You’re welcome, Donna, and thank you for this phrase: “Blame has no where to go but down.” It’s pithy and wise and something I can hold onto as I continue to try to redeem that tendency of mine.

  6. I am the single mom of a single child and I’ve come to accept that parenting is exhausting if you’re doing it right (whatever right is in that moment). This post reminded me of Glennon Melton’s ( phrase that it is “brutiful”– brutal AND beautiful, which sounds very much like it fits with Camp Three!

    • You’re right! I recall reading that in “Carry On, Warrior,” and perhaps it was in my subconscious as I titled the post! Erica, I simply can’t imagine the energy it requires to single parent. The night I described in my post is the one night each week that my wife works and I’m a single parent for a few hours. But it’s hard to get my mind around extrapolating that out. I admire you.

  7. I’m sitting at the piano bench, after the one 7-year-old, who asks to quit lessons each week, fumbled through his lesson, holding his temper barely at bay, raced off. I decided to steal this moment to read your blog, before tackling middle school homework with the weary 13-year-old.
    Yup! Third camp sounds good! Yesterday, that same sturdy 7-year-old looked at me with perplexed eyes as I sang a favorite song, “I want to live with abandon…” He interrupted, “Why do ya wanna live with a bandit?” Funny, but the balancing act between freedom and boundaries in our children must be the same for us, like his cute misunderstanding, and your words of no blame. One step at a time with a good dose of forgiveness and grace no matter which camp we’re in keeps the journey steady and joyful.

  8. Parenting is close to my heart. I have raised and continue to raise a 22 year old young adult, a soon to be 19 year old teenager, and a 10 year old. It’s been beautiful if one can rise above the tired moments. Recently I found a new style that has a 90% almost guarantee of enjoying parenting.It’s working marvelously. It sorts out mum, dad and every child, and brings calm and fun.

  9. I, too, am a single parent of an almost-teen. It’s very challenging because my son is not only special needs but almost a teen and going through emotional and physical changes, albeit small, that will increase. It’s so tiring, but then I read your post and have to remind myself that I need to appreciate the whole process and not blame. It’s easy to blame. “I could get more work done if” “I would be able to go do this fun thing if.” I have to be an advocate for his education and his emotional growth. I do feel more normal when I read your writings. Now I’m thinking less blame and more love and grace to redeem.

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