There's a reason being a parent is tiring, and it is directly related to why it's so fulfilling.
Every morning when I leave for work, my two boys are in the kitchen making themselves comically enormous pancakes. My wife taught them in a desperate attempt to keep their appetites in check without waking her in the pre-dawn to cook piles of food for them.
When I arrive back home for lunch, the kitchen drips with puddles of milk and every counter is coated in flour. Dirty measuring utensils are chaotically scattered alongside forks whose handles are sticky with syrup. Somehow, the butter has the perfect indentation of a child’s thumb in it.
Eventually, sometime in the mid-afternoon, my long-suffering wife will pry herself away from homeschool teaching duties to round the children up and stand guard while they clean their mess. I admit that, occasionally, I have a bit of an outburst when I come through the door and see that kitchen. The other day my wife, knowing the house had ascended to a particular level of destroyed, said to me as I came through the door, “Sorry, I was going to make you lunch but then spent all morning yelling at the kids about what they did to the closet.” I gave her a look of sympathy. I never did ask what horrors they inflicted on the closet.
Over the years, it’s become abundantly clear how difficult it is to wrangle our six children all day and provide everything they need. For me, it isn’t that bad. Worst case scenario, I quickly eat lunch in an untidy kitchen and go back to work in my peaceful, quiet office. My wife, meanwhile, cleans the kitchen, makes a grocery list, teaches the toddler to use a toilet, runs a biology lab, and fixes the dishwasher.
What I’ve realized is that, even though the tasks of my work and vocation as a priest (I am a former Anglican priest; now a diocesan Catholic priest) are interesting and fulfilling, they are more narrow in scope than my vocation as a husband and father of a family (and far more narrow than my wife’s vocation as a mother.) My training and education were all for one specific task — to pastor a church. Having learned ancient languages, the art of rhetoric, management skills, and basic counseling techniques, I’m fitted to aspects of my “day job” fairly well. However, if I had to suddenly start changing the transmissions in cars, cattle farming, or giving investment advice, I’d be completely unequipped.
I love being a parent, but I’d be lying if I said that I’m highly enthusiastic about every aspect of it at every moment of the day — or that it isn’t exhausting. There are days when Daddy needs to go on a run by himself or close the door to the bedroom and watch the football game alone for a few minutes.
I’ve often wondered why parenting is so exhausting. Why is it that my wife has a hunted look in her eyes some nights when I come home? Popular opinion might have it that parenting, especially if one of the spouses is a stay-at-home parent, is tiring because it’s less fulfilling than a career outside the home. Ultimately, it’s exhausting because it’s so unimportant.
Recently, however, I was reading What’s Wrong With the World, a collection of G.K. Chesterton essays in which he says, if we think this way about parenting, we have it precisely backwards.
Chesterton, who never had children of his own, says he pities parents the hugeness of the task. “Babies need not to be taught a trade,” he writes, “but to be introduced to a world.”
In other words, a parent isn’t simply training a child for a future career. That would be simple. No, a parent is showing a child how to live a life, hopefully with great joy and happiness.
The sheer breadth of virtue, knowledge, and skill required is overwhelming – marine biology, physics, optics, philosophy, theology, sports, cooking, morals, manners, hygiene, kindness, patience, wisdom, prudence, and on and on. But then Chesterton points to the heart of the manner, as he is wont to do: Parents, he writes, are, “shut up in a house with a human being at a time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t.” Parents will know what he’s talking about … the constant stream of questions, the curiosity, the way they stretch their wings to fly, their attempts to tackle tasks for which they are entirely unqualified – it’s like trying to parent a whirlwind or a stampede of horses.
Spending all day with the kids isn’t dreary or boring. Quite the opposite, it’s almost too exciting, for one never knows what’s around the next corner. Children gallop wildly to see what’s over the horizon, what secret whisper or hint of the divine might be waiting there. They’ll climb any tree or scale any rock and try to touch the sun. Spending the day with these little ones is more broadening than anything I could ever accomplish in the office. They’re always pushing their limits and, in doing so, often push well past mine. Chesterton writes, “I can imagine how this would exhaust the mind.”
If you’re a parent, you are everything to someone, and it feels laborious because the vocation is enormous. The times I tire of it occur only when I’ve lost this perspective, when my vision narrows down to the messy kitchen smeared with peanut butter or the boredom of playing yet another round of Go Fish.
But it’s when I remember how formative it is for my children and how they’re exploring a new, previously hidden world that I’m re-energized. I see it from their point of view and suddenly pushing my daughter on the swing becomes the most important 10 minutes of my day. If my arms don’t tire, perhaps I can push her all the way to the sky.