Is Parenting Beautiful or Brutal? Or Both?

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.

Blame.

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.