Integrity, Parenting, and Always Calling Daddy

A heartfelt reflection on raising kids who ask good questions, this one comes to us from parishioner (and writer) Jennifer Underwood. Originally published on Mockingbird.

I think that my strong determination for justice comes from the very strong, dynamic personality of my father…I have rarely ever met a person more fearless and courageous than my father…The thing that I admire most about my dad is his genuine Christian character. He is a man of real integrity, deeply committed to moral and ethical principles. He is conscientious in all of his undertakings…If I had a problem I could always call Daddy. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

What a thing for a son to say about a father, especially when the son is the great Martin Luther King, Jr. If my children were to grow to adulthood and feel just half of that about me, I would consider parenting a job well done. But it is so difficult, the integrity thing, and it has been on my mind so much lately.

MLK Jr and FamilyMy oldest son is eleven, and if you are a parent of a child around that age, when the challenges of parenting have transitioned from the perfunctory feeding, bathing, and clothing to the more philosophical and ethical struggles of a mind, heart and soul actively being formed into a true human being, you’ll understand what I’m talking about here. It’s the time when the questions from the back seat are no longer “Why is the grass green?” or “How many stars are there in the sky?” but “What is integrity?”

Integrity is not something you hear people talk about much anymore. Perhaps that’s because it’s a term that implies that there is truth in right and wrong and good and bad and people are drowning in relativism and are no longer comfortable with such absolutes. But I think that if you were to ask a random collection of parents, “Do you want to raise children with integrity?” the answer would likely be an overwhelming, “Yes, of course.”

Integrity is doing what you say you are going to do; it is fulfilling your promises; it is being in your actions exactly who you say you are with your words. Integrity is reliability; it is being the parent whose child says, “If I had a problem, I could always call Daddy.”

Easy, right?

Except that it is not easy. It is impossible.

With every new resolution to be who I say I am to my children, to fulfill my promises and do what I say I will do, I’m usually just one stepped-on Lego and one spilled container of chocolate milk away from regressing back into Bad Mommy. I tell my children that I love everything about them, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and then someone starts throwing macaroni at the cat and flushing Hot Wheels down the toilet, and I’m back to square one.

And when I fall asleep at night and I’m going over my day, I am full of self-justification.  Sure, I should not have lost my temper and probably could have handled that better, but they were out of control and I needed to lay the smack down, so it’s okay in the end. Maybe I was not modeling unconditional love, but if they would just listen to me for a change, I wouldn’t have to get so mad!

That restful sleep of self-justification lasts until about two in the morning, when my eyes pop open and my wheels start turning and I want nothing more than a complete do-over of the day. My heart hurts for the things I said and did. As they say in AA, it is my moment of clarity.

As the fog of my faulty reasoning lifts, I realize all of the ways in which I was wrong, and I see what I could have done better, and I just hate myself for all of my failures. How can I ever raise children with integrity when I fail at modeling it over and over again? And why can’t I seem to get it right?

And I remember that when I have a problem, I can always call on the Lord (Abba, Father) and I will be comforted. I am reminded that, yes, I am helpless, but I am not hopeless. For there is one who knows me to my very soul, who knew me before He ever formed me (Jeremiah 1:4) and I am not forgotten before God, miserable creature though I may be, for even the hairs of my head are all numbered (Luke 12:6-7).

Two in the morning serves a purpose for me. It’s my Romans 3:20 moment, “…through the law comes knowledge of sin.” I know the values I express to my children about who we are and who we should be, and I acknowledge my inability to live up to that standard. I know the mother I want to be and wish I were, and my shortcomings are glaringly obvious in the soft glow of my bedside clock. There is something inside of me that manages to not only make the wrong decision over and over again but also convince myself that it was justified. And the fact that two in the morning happens so often for me is a reminder that it’s not something that I, myself, have the ability to work out.

The realization that you are still and will forever be a perpetual failure, and it is only through the work of another that you are even able to hope to one day stand in the presence of the Lord, is the key to a good night’s sleep. For though I will never be the mother I wish I were, I find relief in the one who can fix me as He will, in His own time, and give undying gratitude for the covering of my failures and transgressions.

When I lose it over crushed up goldfish and forgotten homework and mildewing sippy cups that have been surreptitiously hidden beneath the folds of the couch cover, though I am still guilty of a lack of empathy and the loss of my temper (and, likely, numerous other things I fail to even acknowledge), I take comfort in knowing that it is beyond my control; the world does not operate according to my plans. It isn’t that I haven’t spent enough time “working on myself” or that I haven’t reached a new level of Mommy Zen through introspection or meditation or yoga at the local YMCA that will allow me to remain calm in the face of the adversity that can be brought on through the rearing of three tiny little beings. There is such peace in handing it all over to the only one who has the ability to fix me.

And maybe that acknowledgment is the key to teaching our children integrity. Rather than waving the golden banner of “this is how you should treat people” and “this is what it means to do what you say you’re going to do and be who you say you are” and then living a life mired in the very hypocrisy we are attempting to rid our children of, maybe admitting our failures and our imperfections is the true meaning of integrity.  Our narrative is no longer “be this; do that” and is instead the truth that no matter how hard I try, no matter how much I wish I were just what I want to be, I’m a mere human being, and I make bad choices too…a lot of them. The Lord is replacing my heart of stone, but it’s a work in progress and always will be.

My guess is that it will be as much of a relief to my kids as it is to me to know that, by the grace of God, I would not be held to an unattainable standard. Maybe that comfort will lead to the knowledge that, like Martin Luther King felt about his Daddy, if they ever had a problem, they could always call Mommy.

But their true comfort will come from the Father.