Blessings come in all shapes and sizes, though it is not always easy to see them.
Family life is certainly a blessing, one that comes in all shapes and sizes. For our family it currently involves five children, 6 years old and under. According to modern standards we have a “large” family or, as most people tell us, we have “our hands full.” However, we don’t have the “big white van” that many of our friends have, so compared to them, our family is “average.”
In any case, having a large family, specifically one with small children, is a blessing that is not always easy to see. Here are five spiritual lessons we have discovered in raising five children. They come to mind today because the Church used to celebrate on this date the feast of St. Margaret of Scotland, who is hailed as a patron of large families.
One of the first lessons that any parent learns when taking their child home from the hospital is how their life has been forever changed. Personal wants and desires almost always come “second” to the new addition to the family.
When that number is increased to five, there is hardly a moment spent at home that is “yours.” If you do want a moment to pursue a hobby or even read a book by yourself, parents have to tag-team and take turns as child-wrangler.
It can seem distressing to some to have such limited free time, but this is a good thing. It means that we are less likely to become selfish. We are forced to become self-less, to empty ourselves out for our children.
It is not easy, but in the spiritual life, it is what unites us most closely to Jesus Christ, who emptied himself completely on the cross.
2. Lead by example
Another lesson that we have learned is that our children are always watching. They see us, watch us and listen to every word we say. They follow us much more closely by example, than by our words.
This means that we have to be more conscious of how we live our lives and to deliberately practice virtue. If we slip up, our kids will notice and will immediately start to imitate our mistakes.
What makes this even more important in a large family is that once the oldest child decides to follow our faults, every other child will follow after. Which brings up a connected lesson, the power of anger.
3. Anger trickles down to everyone
Before having children I rarely was angry. It surprised me how much my own kids can frustrate me and make my blood boil. As much as I try to control my anger, there are always times that I can’t hold it in any longer and the volcano erupts.
What happens next is obvious: everyone else in the house becomes equally angry. As parents, we control the mood of our household and if we burst in anger, we shouldn’t be surprised to see everyone else around us (including our spouse) become infected by our emotions.
So I learned the important lesson that while our kids will imitate our virtuous example, they will more readily imitate our sinful example. It reminds us that we are all called to be saints and we shouldn’t take that call lightly.
4. The power of story
In raising children it is amazing how much they hold on to stories. Every story we read to them and every story they watch on television impacts them. They intuitively want to be part of the story and quickly assign themselves in the principal roles.
This challenges us as parents to increase in our children an ability to be a part of the great story of salvation. We need to teach them how to be the person God created them to be and so play their role in the bigger picture of the world.
This lesson is highlighted when raising a large family as not everyone can be the lead character in a story. Each person has their place and we can’t become jealous of other people’s gifts and talents. Which leads us to the final lesson.
5. Everyone is unique and unrepeatable
Having a large family has helped us greatly understand the simple fact that not everyone is created the same. No matter how hard we try to make robot copies of ourselves, our children are unique. We have five children and each has their own gifts, talents, desires, likes, and dislikes. Additionally, each has their own temperament and deals with situations differently.
This has helped us see the world in a new way and realize how each person contributes a unique voice to the world and how that voice should be heard in all its uniqueness.
Indeed, God has created us unique and has a specific plan set apart for each one of us. We are not meant to be mindless drones of a slave-driver, but a sub-creator, helping the Divine Artist create a beautiful tapestry that will only be revealed in all its glory at the end of time.
In the end, our job as parents is a difficult one, but even if we fail to live up to our standards, God gives us the grace to get back up and try again. Pope Francis recently wrote on Twitter, “I thank God for parents who strive to live in love and keep moving forward, even if they fall many times along the way.” Whether we have a large family or not, as parents we should keep moving forward in the firm hope that God is at our side every step of the way.