The Eternality of Parenting

“We’re going to invite you as an audience to address the reality that we need to be mothered and we need to be fathered. Whether we have children, whether we have a partner. We need to be mothered and we need to be fathered. And equally, we need to mother and father,” begins Dr. Dan Allender in this week’s podcast episode, “The Eternality of Parenting.”

We all have a deep need to be loved and to belong. Our parents are meant to be the first people to meet this need, but they are not always able to do so perfectly. We all have wounds from our childhood, and these wounds can continue to shape our lives.

As we grow into adulthood, our fundamental need for love and belonging remains constant, even as we develop the ability to care for others. Recognizing this truth allows us to delve into the profound intersection of being both a parent and a child, as we continue to navigate our personal journeys of growth and healing.

Join Dr. Dan Allender and Rachael Clinton Chen as they share personal stories of their experiences with being parented, parenting, and even grandparenting. Together, they delve into the profound concept of “The Eternality of Parenting” and its impact on our lives and relationships.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: We’re going to invite you as an audience to address the reality that we need to be mothered and we need to be fathered. Whether we have children, whether we have a partner. We need to be mothered and we need to be fathered. And equally, we need to mother and father. We need to have those categories richly and deeply in mind as we’re engaging one another. And I would say even more so at times, we need to sibling one another. We need to befriend one another. And these categories, even when they’re in concrete, clear relational structures called a family, we also have to engage the reality that no one, no one will be mothered as they were meant to be nor fathered. So we’re in both a very important topic, but also one that has far less conversation than I think we could be in. And so, mom, I’m wondering what you’re thinking when you bear the incredible privilege of two beautiful stepsons and a beautiful, beautiful daughter. So as we step into this parenting conversation, which really is the eternal need, the eternal privilege, but also the eternal reality that parenting never stops. So tell me what you’re beginning to think as we step into this, rather, shall we say, very intimate topic for you at this point.

Rachael: Yeah, it is very intimate and it all feels very fresh and very tangible and embodied and new, right? I mean, I’ve been a stepparent now for a few years, so I’ve certainly been parenting. And I would say even before that, we’ve talked about this, I’ve been mothering for most of my life. So it, there’s some reality. I mean that it turned out the eternity or eternal reality of parenting is like, yeah, that actually feels very true. But I would say I’ve been referring to this season of birthing a tiny human and who’s now eight months old as is a holy breaking. It is a holy breaking. And I don’t know if we talk about that reality of parenting enough, and it’s a holy breaking from the very minute there is life growing. So I’m grateful to start with that reality of needing to be mothered and fathered always. But I would say in this season, this strange paradox that in order to really parent Evelyn well, to parent my stepsons well, I need so much mothering and fathering. So I’ve never felt more of a need, especially in the newborn season. I just was like, man, if I could be surrounded by a village of women right now who are just mothering the crap out of me, that would feel like maybe that would give me enough to pour myself out in the ways that I am needing to pour myself out and to hold onto myself in the spaces where I am being exposed in ways that feel, again, a holy breaking. There’s such a holiness to it, and there’s such breaking to it.

Dan: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is not what you wish often to say to a newborn, well, let’s put it a parent of a newborn, that this stunningly beautiful child will break your heart and expose your deepest failures and transform your life in some degree of what could be called redemptive ruin. But that’s what I hear you saying. Holy breaking. Babies are so beautiful. I think when we had a chance to meet Evie face-to-face instead of over zoom, I mean, we were all just literally watching her exist and captured. We could have sat there for hours and we did to just be enraptured. So to be in the presence of fire, to be in the presence of water moving and the presence of a baby, you, you’re in the presence of a kind of taste of eternity. And I think as glory as that is, we don’t want to tell the other side. And that is it’ll break you. And not just in the newborn era.

Rachael: No. No. Cause I’m like, we have an emerging teenager, we have a preteen. I’m watching all of you who have adult children. I’m watching my parents, parent adult children. We’ve talked about this on the podcast. No, it never ends.

Dan: No. And the moment, even if it’s illusory, the moment you have a sense of what it means to be a good parent in this particular era moment in that child’s life, damn it, they age, which you want them to do. But nonetheless, it opens up the reality that the parenting of the two-year-old is not the same as, I mean, this is so obvious. And yet the notion that we’re the parent consistent through every era.

Rachael: Well, and I think I can say being in the first year of life, how much parenting and the needs for parenting change from newborn to four-month-old to six-month-old. I mean, we’ve talked about this because Evie started crawling at six months. When there’s mobility, what, and I think you’re right. The minute you feel like, okay, we’ve got this, we know how to do this, the topography changes, the contours change, the landscape changes, and the little human changes, and then you change. And it’s just a constant learning curve.

Dan: And from my standpoint, if it was, ok, I got arithmetic, I get multiplication, I get division, et cetera, which frankly I never really did, but let’s presume I did. So you go from third grade and you have a kind of curriculum process that you can’t do the fourth grade work until you do the third grade work. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s not that you’re just building ongoing skills that just need a little bit of refinement in the next era. Every era opens up, from my standpoint, something about your unhealed parts. So not only is the child demanding legitimately that you engage differently, but actually there are things happening within you with regard to, that the parenting exposes our unhealed parts. And so what’s needing in that fourth grade to sixth grade or seventh grade to ninth grade or beyond is every era opens the door to what is now further intensified, clarified, exposed, that’s still needing to be addressed. I think if that I’d had any clue if anybody had even just said those words out loud, even if I dismissed 99% of it, it would’ve been so freaking helpful.

Rachael: Yeah, it is. I have to say it is really helpful because I am grateful that I’ve had that sense. And it’s still brutal. It’s, I knew all this was going to be true, but I still underestimated what it would feel like, what would be exposed in me, how much healing is still needed. Because it’s, it’s not just, oh, well one, it’s like I’m watching my child that is fearless. She’s fearless. She is fearless, and I am not a fearless person at all. That’s not my story. That wasn’t my story at her age. I see you shaking your head. I am very courageous. I’m very courageous. I can own that. And maybe without terror and trauma, I would’ve been more fearless, I guess. I know it’s a redemptive thing to witness her, but the amount of cortisol that’s flooding at all times and the intensification of my hypervigilance to try to keep her safe, especially now that she’s mobile, and I think we talked about this, so this sense of I am not going to burden her with my anxiety, and yet I need her to know the world is a dangerous place.

Dan: Well, let’s slowly move through this. I’ve seen pictures. I have enough story of your life to be able to say you have lived a ferocious and intense and passionate life, particularly on behalf of others. But in that for countless reasons, you also had to bear a lot of cortisol, a lot of stress biochemicals. So in some ways, your courage is even deeper than those who seem to be fearless because you did have profound fear, but you also had an incredible ferocity of engaging that which was contrary to goodness and with a deep desire to seek goodness grow, whether it was within your family, within the church, within your friendships, within the… so you, you’d have a hard time differing with what I just said.

Rachael: No, that feels true, I receive that.

Dan: But your daughter is not going to bear your anxiety. Because you have created a different world than the world that you in one sense came to being in. So if that’s accurate, then in some ways you’re, you’re going to war that she doesn’t feel more anxious.

Rachael: Yeah. And maybe have to deal with my envy that, right? Because we haven’t even talked about throwing envy in there and in this kind of parenting journey. But it’s just, I think what I hear you saying is there’s so much of us that with those unhealed parts of us, I will never do A, B, or C. You’ll never lack these things on. I remember you saying one time in grad school, look, your kids are going to go to therapy. All right, you’re not God, you’re not perfect. They’re going to go to therapy because of your failure of love, but may it be so that they don’t go to therapy for the same reasons you did. And so I’ve often thought about that and I’m like, oh, but that’s going to be the funny, the humor of God that Evie will probably go to therapy of for my mom just never let me suffer. She’s always trying to comfort me. And so it’s like I’m having to grow my resilience and it’s okay that she cries sometimes and I can let her sleep in her crib instead of contact naps. Which again, that’s a whole other thing. But it is that funny place of, in some ways trying to react to places I still want healing. I can almost go to the other extreme and then feel like a terrible parent when I can’t prevent my child from suffering.

Dan: Yes. And one sense there is not a parent listening, or if you’re not a parent, you need to know that there’s not a parent listening that does not at some deep level say, I would give my life to make sure you are not in heartache or in pain. And on the other hand, if you expose my failure of love, I’ll kill you.

Rachael: It does. I see your notes here and I’m dying laughing. You will feel loved. You will be happy, you will feel grateful, or I’ll kill you. And it’s like how often that’s playing out. I mean, I think I’ve said that on you. I’m trying to give her Tylenol or do something and she is like in your face, I hate this. And I’m like, why child? Why? And in this moment, I feel so exposed. I mean, again, the frame is I am sleep deprived. There’s like a whole, there’s a lot going on. I have stress biochemicals, I have hormones, all the things, but I also have a tiny human being who’s rejecting my help, rejecting my care, rejecting my love does not feel gratitude. And I would love to say in those moments, I’m like, oh, this is just a tiny human, not personal, but you know what? It actually feels deeply personal in those moments.

Dan: And that tiny human, I have non-tiny humans, and Evie is less than a year, eight months, and my rather physically present, capable, ambulatory, articulate, having jobs, adult children, they’re not going to take aspirin for me either. And that reality of this process of every eon, era, neither want to say every literal year, but there is a sense in which again, they’re exposing both what I have not done well, but also what was not done well with regard to my own being parented. So again, this strange reality of I am a father and I need to be fathered, and I was not mothered well, and I need mothering and I need to be a mother and a father. I need to be the presence of God who is neither male nor female. I need to engage and be engaged and order to have this kind of reciprocal interaction. And on other podcasts have talked about the reality that my children, my daughters, my son and son-in-laws have mothered and fathered me just by how they parent. Seeing good parenting anywhere, but particularly with one of your children. I would never have been prepared for how nourishing it was for me, but also a sense of I’m receiving something vicariously. Now, I also say, my son-in-laws have fathered me, directly. My daughter-in-law and my daughters have mothered me, and it is good. If it is a demand, then yeah, we’ve got some problems. But I think we failed to see that the universe, the reality of the creation God has made is reflective of God’s presence as both father and mother. So why would we not presume as he has made water that we are thirsty? And in the same way that he is father, he is mother, of course, we need to be fathered and mothered. And so it gets even better and harder to think in terms of these, I’m meant to be exposed, but I’m also meant to receive.

Rachael: And another place of receiving that I feel like has been really true for me is watching my parents grandparent. And I know that’s like, that may not be everyone’s experience, but I feel like I’m getting reparented by my parents in ways that they probably have deeper capacity for than they maybe did when they were really young and had four small children and starting out in careers in life and just learning a lot about themselves. So watching them with my niece and nephews and now watching them with my daughter and my sons has been a really powerful vicarious form of parenting. Sometimes I have to be like, Hey, what about when I was a kid and you didn’t let me, we didn’t get to all the snacks we wanted. So it, it’s, there wasn’t like papa’s game room wasn’t like nobody says no in this room. I mean, just the funny things they do as grandparents that they can do because they’re not parenting at in the front.

Dan: So when we begin this process of saying, look, the eternality of being a parent and needing a parent is such an intersection that most of us have not let ourselves say, what do I need that I did not receive from my mother or my father? And what is it I’m meant to give as a mother or father to my children, whether they’re eight months old or whether they’re 42 years old. And I think just frankly, having that question before you, is such a gift because it does open up this frame again of what am I needing to see and engage with regard to now my grandchildren’s lives. When Gus, who is now five, when he was four, he is an incredibly playful, wise, and articulate young boy. And I began to name for myself what would it be like to be four years of age? I’ve dismissed that because that’s the age that my father died in an auto accident, and my mother and I were in, and I’m like, it’s easy, even after having my own children before and realizing, oh, a four-year-old is quite cognizant, often quite verbal, able to name reality in ways age appropriate that you would never really expect. And having again, my four-year-old grandson naming things about me, about our relationship. We were going to have a dance party. And five minutes in, Gus looks at me and he goes, you are really awkward. Papa, you move so stiff, try this. And he’s sort of teaching me how to dance. And having a four year old name, you’re an awkward old white male, cisgendered, I’m going, is it humanly possible that age four, I knew a whole lot more than what I think? So I think having that privilege that our children are meant to be parented by us, but our children are exposing not just our failures, but actually what it might have been like to be in that age. And yet most of us have made something of either an articulate or unspoken vow. I will never be like my mother, my father, and often we’re not. It only means that we bring other forms of harm and goodness. So I think being in that position to say, already, what are you learning about the nature of what you need and where you have failed as you deal with this stunning little wild, fierce, Evie.

Rachael: I would say, I mean. Oh goodness. One thing that I notice in her, and she did it even this morning when I was feeding her, there are many times throughout the day where she looks at me and now she can say, mama, and she says it real sweet, mama, mama, mama. And she’ll look at me with a question, do you like me? Is what it feels like. She’s asking, do you see me? Do you delight in me? Are we okay? Are you paying attention to me? If I’m in a conversation? She screams in frustration if she’s not a part of it. I think you got to witness that when we saw you. But there’s something about parts of me that just want to be delighted in, not just want to be, like have my basic needs met, but just long for delight and to be joined in that way to play, to have someone want to play with me and delight. And I’m wrestling with that in our work life right now. And what does it mean to want to be delighted in the communities you’re a part of and not just tolerated or appreciated for what you do, but just genuinely enjoyed? And I think because she’s so little, it’s she just asks for it as much as she needs. And I think to realize even though she gets so much delight that there’s still a question in her heart. And so to honor the question in my own heart and that I need abundance, I need an abundance of delight. I do think where I feel the most failure, and this is so vulnerable to talk about because I mean, I love being a mom. I am so happy and there’s so much joy and the ways in which I have to contend with the cortisol flooding and the way for me when I flood cortisol, it brings up a lot of rage. And because I’m so acquainted with that from some of the adults in my life, it is just brutal. When I, again, I’m filled with rage. I’m not enacting it, but to feel, it feels exposing to be feeling toward this constant disruption and interruption of a plan. You’re trying to clean something, you’re trying to finish a thought for work. You’re trying to accomplish some very simple task that takes you so much longer to do because someone is interrupting because they have needs or they want to play or they want your attention, or they want to be on you. We’re in peak separation anxiety mode. And so I think the parts of me that just still need a lot of comfort and care that this is not a matter of life and death, but it feels like it’s a matter of life and death, and I actually feel a lot of sorrow about that. I’ve actually had to make space for grief, that there’s just still a lot of fragmentation in my body. And when I’m not able to soothe Evelyn quickly or immediately meet a need, I feel so threatened by that It is literally a fight, flight or freeze response. And so to know that there are unhealed parts of me that still feel terror if I can’t like soothe or what chaos is going to break out if I can’t accomplish these things, even though it’s different with the baby. So that’s been really hard.

Dan: Oh, it’s such well said in that sense of you spent a lot of your life soothing others, and yet here more than any other world, you need a comfort to be able to offer comfort and, and in the midst of the young parenting experience of exhaustion, but also not just the fact that you’re up a lot and you’re not having regular sleep. I’m not saying that that’s like anything other than that’s huge, but you have the weight of the future in a way that, yeah, that feels true too as well with adult children, they’re established in their work and career, but there’s disruption in all of their lives. Things are not easy in any of their lives. And being able to hold worry, hold it and not allow it to in some sense, shape how you pray, let alone yeah, speak. I mean, my children know that… One of my kids said to me at one point, I know you are always in a chess match virtually in every endeavor, already, sometimes two or three moves ahead of me and it exhausts me to have to think about having to play a conversation with you. And I’m like, oh, and I literally groaned. And they’re like, oh, yeah, yeah, but do you feel what I’m feeling? And I’m like, yeah. And he goes, no, you’re not exhausted. You feel sad. So what would it be like to engage a very bright man who’s very articulate, who’s also incredibly opinionated as to how things ought to be? I feel like I’m almost always at some level a constant disappointment. But if I differentiate, can you bear it? And I’m like, oh, good god, child too much. You think too well, and you’re articulating exactly what would be a war if I had to be parented by me. So I think something of that realm of being able to go, now can I enter that without the ferocity of my own contempt and judgment versus being able to, in some sense own, it’s broken. It’s also beautiful. They’ve been able to learn how to think very well, critically. And yet I had such deep conversations with them at a very young age. And in a way that was like, I don’t know if I ever had a conversation that had any depth ever with either of my mother or father. I think that’s where that I will not leave my children abandoned to the banalities of pointless, thoughtless, empty conversations, and then I create my own version of hell for them. And so holding this intersection of grief and honor simultaneously a broken and beautiful of the people that I would die for, and yet as we put words to and laughed at one level as they name the reality, there is something in me that’s, I’m still called to be a parent now and has a parent to engage attunement containment, but here the keyword is repair.

Rachael: And I think that’s, that’s the call to a very real resilient humility, right? Because there’s almost this part of me, even though I know better, that’s like I’ll only have to repair a couple times on that one thing, and then we’ve got it, right. Yeah. And I do hope that there are places I continue to grow and heal and change and not just a, oh, I’m sorry that I’m like this, but you just have to kind of deal with me. But a genuine repair. But it’s so vulnerable, so vulnerable, it’s all vulnerable because we haven’t even talked about just the terror of how fragile life is and how scary it is when you love people and you would give your life for them that you can’t actually control reality. Oh, so vulnerable.

Dan: And again, we think of death as the utter unnatural child dying before a parent. I mean, that has a war that I don’t think any parent can ever escape, especially with things like fentanyl, will your adult, I’m sorry, your adolescent children be given opportunities for entry into just like two realms. Pornography and drugs, of course, where drugs may have been dangerous before. We’re talking a level of danger that is incomprehensible. So the reality of how much energy you bring to warning to trying to keep safe, and yet knowing that really good parents with really good kids have faced that mortal terror. And yet as well, just the realities that come, you have an adolescent, and to not tell his story, I’ll not going to tell my grandson’s story other than to say, this is such an era. I look at parenting today, and I just say literally, thank you, Jesus, that I’m not raising children in the era of phones, iPhones, or whatever, let alone in a realm in which one misuse of a pill that has fentanyl could literally mean their life or death. So the threat feels much higher today than I think it felt for me and certainly for my parents. So the reality of we’re inviting one another to the reality that you have to surrender without demanding control and that you have to stay connected to your children without the confidence of the outcome, that you could do everything brilliantly. And there have been significant folks who have moved away from goodness and life, even though they had great parenting. So I think some of this is such a human reality, and I come back to how are you finding mothering in our day? How are you finding fathering in our day to be able then to continue to engage your three children?

Rachael: I think one, I feel very fortunate to be doing it with Michael and having a partner who is just very kind and very curious and engaged. And we laugh a lot because there are so many moments that we genuinely are like, what are we supposed to do here? What are we supposed to do in this moment? This is not in the handbook. And actually there’s not a handbook. So I think there’s a lot of just having to not revel in your human-size-ness, but at least acknowledge we are human size. And I think a lot of the things you said we’re navigating things we didn’t have to navigate as kids. So we don’t actually have a lived experience to draw on. I didn’t have an iPhone when I was a kid. I didn’t have access to the internet when I was a kid. I didn’t… just so many of the things that they have to navigate with their brain, let alone just their personhood and relationships with their brains and the ways it’s shaping their brains. So I think, again, I’ve said this, but I humility, we have a lot of humility and a lot of curiosity. They are full on humans who have personalities and wills and desires, and they are different than us and they’re different than each other. So in the same way, we have to be curious about each other and understanding each other. We have to move toward them with the same posture, even our eight-month-old who is letting us know who she is and how she feels about things and what her needs and wants are. And I think in that humility, wanting to hear often, how did this impact you? How did this engagement impact you? How did my presence impact you? I’m not the most stable, I’m stable right now, but I’m much more, my emotional range is a little more robust in this season than maybe my older kids are used to just with a newborn or an infant and a body that’s still healing. And so trying to have conversations around the impact of that, and in some ways, getting to know a new part of me that actually was very present when we first got married because my whole world had changed. And that was a little traumatic even as it was really good. So I think with the older kids being able to have honest conversations and really hear from them, we do a lot of work on at attunement, containment, repair, what does honor look like? It developmentally appropriately, but also what are the right boundaries and how do we talk about those and negotiate those? So it is a constant learning curve. And like we said at the beginning, in some ways, acknowledging that we are on a journey in a landscape that is shifting and we’re growing, they’re growing. The world has changed in the past three to four years. We are in a different world than we were three years ago. And so I will say my need and dependence on God has grown significantly, just desperately needing to hear from God and know God is with us. And that in these moments that can feel so isolating and alone. And I think calling on community, calling on the mothers and fathers in our midst, whether those are people younger than us, our own age, older, taking in the mothering and fathering of our community and letting them mother and father, our children too, and and all of the above. So.

Dan: Huge, huge. Again, I think there’s this interplay between vicarious, which we’ve underscored, and I don’t think we make use enough of watching any good parenting, whether it be in a TV show, whether it be watching one of your children, parent one of your grandchildren. It’s will you take in goodness. And I think part of that is difficult because no one’s parenting us at that point, and we are coming closer to, oh, that’s what delight is, right? I’ve watched my daughter-in-law Elizabeth, engage one of her children with a level of kindness and calmness that is just like, I can walk away from that going, oh, that tasted so good, but it wasn’t given to me. And so that sense of, can I still not take it, but can I receive it and allow it to settle in me? And I had a good friend say to me, because I was talking with him about one of the struggles I had with one of my children, and he said, you’re finding some significant complexity in this moment. I’m like, yeah, and I don’t know what to do. And as you put it, well, and there doesn’t really offer any manual to know what to do. And he said, and I told him a bit about how I’d handled it, and he said, it seems, well, I love how you fathered your daughter in this moment. And then he said, and have you asked God to father you in the way you were fathering? And it was one of those sentences where I’m like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And he could see my face and he stayed in it to say, what you offered, do you need? And I’m like, oh, yeah, I need, and it goes, you’re not going to find anybody are you? Who is really going to know how to father you particularly well? And I’m like, that’s probably true. So what does it mean for you to ask the father to parent you in how you parented? And I found myself furious. You’re asking me to want what I’m not sure that I actually believe God will give or give in away that actually will touch something of this unresolved unhealed parts of me. So I think that’s where even when you say your need for God, I’m like, yes, yes. Oh, don’t talk about this. Let’s just leave it as a nice little spiritual truism and throw it out as a sop. But when you actually get down to it where you know need a mother or a father, can you risk feeling unparented again by God to ask for what it is you most deeply desire?

Rachael: Yeah. I had a really sweet moment that I’ll keep this brief because I know we’re coming to a close, but when Evie was maybe three weeks old and already in her short three weeks of life, even though I had literally been feeding her constantly whenever she was hungry and had more than enough, I had an oversupply. So I had more than enough was just so, what’s the word? She was so ferocious in her need and almost acting like there was scarcity. And I was just holding her and just speaking to her, there is abundance here for you and you can keep coming back and what you need there is more than enough for you. And it was just this moment of really genuinely feeling the Spirit. Say, if you feel this towards your three week old daughter, how much more do I have an abundance to give to you? So why are you coming to me as if you can’t even get a 10th of your need met? Like you’re asking too much when you know what you’re saying to your daughter? So I do think that those places where we need we, that God parenting are very real and they are very scary.

Dan: What we are to give. We are meant to receive and what we are offering we need to become. And only in the presence of being able to wrestle with that core question of, is there enough? When scarcity feels like it is the reality of life and whether you have enough money, whether you have enough X, Y, or Z, there is something in your very being that is voracious that feels unsatisfied, and the idea that our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. That Psalm 23 opens the door again to that question of, can we go word and verse by verse to ask, is it true? And will we receive what truth we are being offered in that as a sweet ending to be able to say, parenting is eternal because our parent is eternal.