texts you don’t want to get from your son

August 30, 2013

‘I don’t mind that u weren’t at my poetry thing. Did u just forget?’This is one of those texts you don’t want to get from your teenage son.

Parenting is like leaping side to side around rocks and scrub as you hurtle up and down goat tracks at break neck speed on the high cliffs shrouded in mist. It’s mostly incredibly exhilarating and terrifying. Every now and then though, you leap the wrong way, stub your toe on a rock, lose your footing, catch yourself on a branch or take a skid.

In such times, you mostly have to pick yourself  up, dust off and keep moving.

My son has a wonderful love of the mechanics of language. Words and sentences, paragraphs and punctuation are to him what pistons, gaskets, gears and spanners were to his grandpa – the components of power, movement and going somewhere.

He was selected by his school to participate in a poetry workshop at the National Gallery of Victoria, in which students were coached in writing poetry in response to three particular works of art.  Their poetry was reviewed and some were further selected to polish their pieces and present them in live recitations at the gallery in front of the art works that inspired them.

He made it through to this level, with a poem based on John Brack ‘The Bar’. I love the dark urban work of Brack. I was so proud of him.

John Brack, The Bar

Between my partner and I we have embraced the principle of allocating tasks in the household according to skill, passion and gifting.  I cook all the meals. He does all the sorting, washing, folding and ironing. I do smiles and hugs and humour and fun. He does routine, getting us places on time, paperwork. I do hygiene. He does neatness. He does information transfer. I do communication and conversation.

It works.

So in this allocation he does all of the sporting activity facilitations, transport, arrangements, watching and cheering.

And I do all of the performing arts activity facilitations, transport, arrangements, watching and cheering.

My boys play lots of sport of various kinds, but  have shown only minimal and begrudging interest in music – and a little in theatre. I have much more weekend time to myself than my partner!

But here was a son reading poetry in an art gallery! Just my thing. I was so ready to make amends for all the hours of missed cricket and footy, soccer and athletics.

But he didn’t seem keen for me to come. He wasn’t sure what time it was on. No notice appeared. So sadly I accepted that I was not required, eager as I was. I understand that he doesn’t enjoy being made a fuss of. He’s a little bit me, after all.

Until the sms came.

‘I don’t mind that u weren’t at my poetry thing. Did u just forget?’



I had jumped the wrong way – emotionally I felt like I had smashed my ankle against a stone of stupidity and wobbled onto a briar bush of parenting prickles.

Hear the melodrama? After the first wobble of mama-guilt, I realised how compulsively easy it is as a parent to fall into the ditch of selfwardness, all the while thinking we are focussing on our kids.

The text from my son clearly said he had noticed I wasn’t there, but that he didn’t mind. This kind of ambivalence is hard for western 21st century parents to get used to. But it’s actually healthy.

We want to be all important, super parents of significance.

I know that I need to get used to it. I’m always going to be this guy’s mum. But being his mum, isn’t being the centre of his universe, or he the centre of mine.

Last night he stood in the kitchen while I washed the dishes and read aloud the poetry he is going to be tested on today. He needed some company to stick with the task of reading about 20 australian poems. And there I was. Mundane. Not focussed on him. Washing dishes.

This kind of ordinary alongsiding  is as important in parenting as being there for the big ticket events. In fact, maybe more so.

For those of us who think about the place of children in our faith communities, this is a key point.

How do we value our children?

With special events?

With focussed attention?

With ‘on the platform’ time?

There’s a place for all of tht. But imagine if that was the only time we acknowledged our kids?

If the only time I showed up for my son was when he was reciting poetry at the national gallery, or playing the grandfinal in footy, or giving the valedictory speech or singing a solo, the conclusion he might likely draw is that I am only interested in his high profile achievements.

This is not how mums and dads are called to love. We are called to love in the wee small hours of nightmares and wetbeds, the scraped knees, injured pride and tears of frustration in learning to ride a bike, the tedium of doing the shopping during arsenic hour on the way home from basketball training.

Next week my other son is going to be a hedgehog and a ferret in the school production. He has a few speaking lines. I cancelled my plans to spend a couple of months studying in Oxford between two significant conferences in Europe I’m attending when I found out he was in the play. I knew it wasn’t a lead role. I cancelled my plans, not to see him on stage, though I will do that with relish. But to be alongside him in the exhaustion of rehearsals, the anxiety of fitting everything in, the grumpy spats with his brother because he’s been peopled out by 6 hours of school and 3 hours of rehearsal. And in the laughter of ‘guess what happened today’ stories. Many people have been surprised by this decision when they have heard that it’s not a big role he’s playing, as if that is the unit of currency in exchange that I should calculate. It is not to be so. It’s something I believe in deeply, both from  a child development perspective, and also from a theological perspective, despite my episodic pangs of mama-guilt, and the constant seductions of our performance oriented culture. While initially people are surprised,  I think I’m probably not alone in knowing the life-giving goodness of this for our whole family.

I was in church recently  and three quarters of the way through the service the door opened and a little bunch of grade 5 boys and their leaders marched in. They waited as the song finished, and then took the platform, and proceeded to read some prayers they had prepared. They said Amen. The Minister thanked them warmly for leading our intercessions, and they left again.

I wonder what this means? How shall we exegete this process? Their prayers, though not inappropriate, were obviously ‘imported’ into the service. They did not arise as a response to the Word, read, heard and considered. They were disconnected from the sacraments celebrated and imbibed.

I have misgivings about this practice. Our children don’t need our attention only when they are in the spotlight. Doing the unusual thing.

They need our presence with them in the mundane. They need us to fade in and out with regularity – to be there, but not to feed our sense of being a good parent or church community, and not to feed their sense of being only seen when doing what is ‘important’.

We are in danger if our primary relationship to our children is as an audience. It borders on the voyeuristic and the unsafe.  Such ‘performance’ mediated interactions with children are dangerously prone to being self-gratifications for adults, parents, leaders.

Our Christology, what might be believed about Jesus, here is helpful and important. Jesus is no performer, superhero or talented prodigy to be watched and cheered. Jesus comes ordinary and lives amongst us. The incarnation bears witness to the value of being ‘together with’ regardless of any capacity to perform or do. In the primary revelation that we celebrate, Jesus just is.

Even the cross, which is a spectacle of the macabre, we discover is not just for observing. We discover that the cruciform christ is the one in whom we live, participating in his redemption for us, and for the suffering creation.  We can’t just stand back and watch.

We can’t just stand back and watch our children. Or the suffering of the world. Or the crucified Christ.


  1. Beth you write so well. and thank you for transitting the mama-guilt to the real issue out the other side. My parenting mantra has for the longest time been (and it is not bullet-proof or idiot-proof) that children desire not our quality time, but our availability. But over the years I have had to discipline myself to listed for the ‘weak signals’ as we OHS people like to call them: when children find it harder to ask or speak up.

  2. Thanks for being transparent and won to earth Beth. I love this article.

  3. Beautifully and wisely said, Beth. Thank you.

    • Thanks Simon. Lovely to have a reminder of your quiet alongsiding here too.

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