I rounded the corner of my final lap toward family life sure of two things: 1) Parents should be in control at all times, and 2) Children should never be allowed to emotionally manipulate their parents. Bolstered by a stack of books penned by some prolific Christian authors, I was convinced that this two-part theory (with enough nurture thrown in) would guarantee a happy home life.
But when motherhood finally met me at dusk in a little Ugandan orphanage, I furrowed my brow and curved down my mouth at how my expectations failed to fall in line. I had a degree in family studies, for crying out loud. What were these inadequacies and failures doing, showing up in the one area I was supposed to be good at? We finalized the adoption, and, despite all the parenting advice I’d taken in, I couldn’t control my son. A year went by, then another, and another. We loved each other deeply, but the Beatles were wrong—love wasn’t all we needed. I felt hopeless and defeated; he felt cornered and scared. I didn’t know how to get through to him, and he didn’t know how to trust me. We were at a stalemate: a very emotional, angry, brokenhearted draw.
And that is exactly where I was the night my husband discovered a man named Jean Vanier in a mediocrequality YouTube video.
Strength through Compassion
I walked into my husband’s home office after another tumultuous bedtime routine, my stomach swollen round with the growth of new life, to find him watching a video interview on his computer screen. Tears were running down his face.
“Watch this,” he urged as he ran it back to the beginning, for what I later would learn was the fourth time. I squinted as the bright screen invaded the dark room, and I listened to the founder of L’Arche talk about weakness.
Our only familiarity with L’Arche at the time was through the writings of Henri Nouwen, who was a priest in residence at a Toronto community for the disabled and those who care for them. We had never even heard the name of its founder, Jean Vanier, the man responsible for 147 such communities in 35 countries on five continents.
We sat in silence, mesmerized, as the aged man on the screen spoke of weakness as though it were a good thing—as though it were, in fact, the most precious gift we could offer another person and the key to profoundly gratifying relationships. The weakest among us—children, the needy—invite us to truly enter into the human experience through emotional honesty and the blessing of our own limitations. He wasn’t speaking of parenting, necessarily, but rather of simply being in the world. But we heard him loud and clear.
This man, I thought, reminds me so much of Jesus. To hear him speak was like listening to the Gospels come to life; he simply radiated the love and gentleness of Christ.
I was reminded of what Philippians 2:6–7 says of Jesus Christ: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself . . . coming in human likeness.” If Our Lord himself determined that power was not to be grasped, what was I doing grasping for it? If my highest goal as a parent was to model the ways of God for my child, it seemed undeniable that God was calling me to come to my son in human likeness. To come in shared humanity. To exercise compassion, which literally means “to suffer with.”
Communion, not Control
As my husband and I quickly became Vanierites (if there is such a thing), acquiring nearly every written work the man had penned, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of tenderness. Weakness, I was finally given permission to believe, was not something to avoid or repress. Weakness was the thread of humanity, vulnerability the very thing able to bind us together.
I became enamored with the fact that an infinite God deigned to become a human being, in all our smallness and limitations, to fully unite himself to the human experience. And in doing so, he modeled the way for us to commune with one another through understanding, gentleness, and hospitality of the heart.
In his book Becoming Human, Vanier explains communion like this: “Communion is at the heart of the mystery of our humanity. It means accepting the presence of another inside oneself, as well as accepting the reciprocal call to enter into another. Communion, which implies the security and insecurity of trust, is a constant struggle against all the powers of fear and selfishness in us, as well as the seemingly resilient human need to control another person. To a certain extent, we lose control in our own lives when we are open to others. . . . Communion makes us vulnerable.”
Being a good parent was never meant to be about control; it was meant to be about communion. Through Jean Vanier’s lens, I saw that motherhood was a calling to share vulnerability with my child, to open myself up, even through my own imperfections and shortcomings, to make an emotional connection with a human being I loved dearly. I couldn’t will him to obey and I didn’t want to harshly discipline him into terrified compliance. Our only hope was a shared weakness, one where I made space for his needs and he felt safe through my humility. Once we learned this new way to dance, things slowly—yes, sometimes too slowly—began to turn around.
I happily let go of the picture in my head of the fully competent, expert mother whom I had thought I needed to be. I started saying yes more and no less. I spent more time sitting beside my son and less time instituting time-outs that rejected him from my physical space. I began compassionately pulling us out of social events that he couldn’t handle instead of insisting he do things that made his anxiety skyrocket. I started seeing things through his eyes rather than my own, and he started to trust that I would.
Finding True North
Did I ever revert to grasping to control my boy? Of course I did. I still do, with all four of my children. But now I know how to find the N on the compass. When I stumble, I can get myself back on the track of compassionately guiding them through life because now I know how to find Jesus’ leadership in parenting. Thanks to Jean Vanier, I am no longer scared of my own inadequacies, but rather I am able to feel solidarity with all other human beings because of them.
I have found that my son’s weakness and my own weakness are really not so different at all: They are the very parts of us that make room for one another in our hearts. And when we turn our shared weakness into communion, we experience the incarnated Christ himself.