Shortly after we moved into our house, our neighborhood finished adding sidewalks. As summer turned to autumn, we marveled in the sidewalk’s meandering progress. Since having my first son, every process involving machines and manpower has become nearly as fascinating to me as it is to him. My son slowly pushed his wagon to the top of the driveway, looking on in wonder as if this path were being made just for his newly-walking legs. As he toddled along, with purple sidewalk chalk clutched in his hand, we watched workers use string to plot the path. Sometimes I found him buried under the blinds, watching workers make the forms that would be filled with concrete. He leaned out of the burgundy carrier on my back, silky hair damp with summer sweat, to see the excavators. To our delight, the sidewalk slowly stretched further through our neighborhood. Now, we love to watch backpack-laden children walk by on their way home from school or see runners getting strong as they race by our house.
I often find myself thinking, “This is exactly the life I always wanted.” And the sidewalks are an important part of it. As a little girl, I dreamed of growing up in a neighborhood with homes nestled close to one another. We lived in a secluded area, and I was jealous of my friends who could walk to one another’s houses. I longed to know our neighbors. One evening as my husband and I looked at potential homes, the chilly March sun was setting, and children’s shouts echoed around us. The realtor said, “This house has a different feel than the last one. You can tell it’s more of a neighborhood feel.” I took a breath of relief, of certainty. We now live in that house.
We love this neighborhood—smelling our neighbors’ grills and learning the names of the dogs (Echo the Dalmatian, Cooper the Golden Retriever, and Sandy the mutt). But one day, it hit me that my children may take this for granted. In fact, they may wish they had a childhood like mine with acres of woods and fields to explore. Or they may wish we had lived near their cousins. Or, if my son’s current obsession continues, he may wish he had grown up right beside a train track.
I often find myself parenting the little girl inside of me, trying to fix the gaps and heal the wounds of my own childhood. This is why cool, summer mornings make me feel like I should take my kids on a walk and teach them the names of trees as my mom did. It’s why I hate sending my son to his room alone when he’s upset because I remember sitting in my room after stomping off, wishing my mom would come comfort me.
I often parent as though I can sift through my childhood, letting the good spill back into the pail like soft sand with all sorts of new treasures while simply discarding the bad, the hard, the ugly.
Last year, I found myself doing this sifting as we considered preschool for our son. He was reluctant to go, and I wasn’t sure it was the right thing for him. But as I analyzed, I kept coming back to myself. I remember feeling so homesick at preschool (though my mom assures me I usually enjoyed it). Did going to preschool help me work through my homesickness or did it add to the insecurity? And would my son—so similar to me—be harmed or helped by going to preschool? My mind went in circles, and ultimately we decided to postpone sending him, but I never felt fully convinced about how I had made the decision.
I once read that most of us are excellent parents to the wounded child inside of us—the child that we were. That stopped me cold. I should be parenting the children in front of me rather than the one inside.
At a high school graduation I attended, in the midst of all the “Thank you, Mom and Dad” speeches, a young woman stood up and said, “Mom and Dad, I forgive you for the divorce.”
That sentence changed me. It stuck with me.
What will my kids have to forgive me for? What will they wish we had done differently? What will I one day want to apologize for? So often these questions come from fear—fear of messing up.
I am always afraid of that.
It goes like this: I decide I don’t model taking time for myself but then feel guilty when I do. I wonder if it is better for my sons to get the life experience of going to the grocery store or whether they would be happier in preschool during that time. I wonder whether I’m making enough effort to help them try new foods, giving them enough social time, or teaching enough independence. I wonder whether my hasty words or failure to make my sons bathe each day will have permanent repercussions.
I wonder what they’ll say on their graduation day about the habits we instilled. Or about the ones we forgot to.
My husband taught me a life-altering physics lesson that summer when the sidewalk was built. We were on an evening walk after a day of watching sidewalk progress. We had watched a man use a tool to make impressions every few feet or so. My son traced his finger along one and asked why those gaps are there. My husband said, “Those are construction joints. They are so the sidewalk can expand—can experience stress—without cracking.”
I think I audibly sighed in relief.
I’m not intentionally leaving gaps in my sons’ lives. But whether I mean to or not, there will be gaps—things they will wish we could have done differently, experiences they will feel like they missed out on, ways I’ve hurt them.
But as I look back over the gaps of my own childhood—the big ones and the smaller ones—I see something important: these gaps have often allowed me to expand without cracking. In many cases, even my parents’ biggest mistakes have given me more empathy. That’s not some forced silver lining on a cloud that wasn’t that dark to begin with. This empathy—more so, this understanding of how I acquired empathy—has allowed me to expand without breaking, to become a place where others might find hope and a pathway, rather than a broken or bitter shell.
In my own life, these gaps are the thin places, weak and transparent, but not cracked. They have allowed God’s grace to shine in my life in a way I never would have expected. They’ve ultimately strengthened me, teaching me how to forgive and accept forgiveness, how to give grace.
No matter how well we parent, there will be gaps—some we choose and some we don’t. But I hope my boys will see—just as I do—that the gaps often let in God’s light and grace the most brilliantly, like the spring light filtering through the green leaves and splashing onto the neighborhood sidewalk.
Guest post written by Heather Tencza. Heather is married to her college sweetheart, and they live in Georgia with their two little boys. She writes because it keeps her from talking too much (sometimes). She has been featured on several sites including Mothers Always Write and blogs at www.heathertencza.com. You can also find her on Instagram.