I came to parenting a little backwards. I’d had not much intention of getting married, much less starting a family (“not my vocation,” as I’d often said), but I was enjoying getting to know Paul when in a phone conversation after our second date, he mentioned, almost in passing, that he had two children. Two. Children.
Okay, that pretty much was that. I remember pacing up and down the corridor in the apartment building where I lived (not much room for pacing in my studio!), and thinking, no, no, no.
God had other plans. Three months later I met said children—Jacob was five and Anastasia almost four—and a year later Paul and I were married. And I learned first-hand why parenting is not, but not, for the faint of heart.
Becoming a stepmother means walking into a house of grief. No matter whether the children’s mother has been lost through death or divorce, the loss is real and constant and the kids are not thrilled about someone being there in her place. Boundaries are tested. Decisions are second-guessed. Tears are shed. I felt that if God was calling me to do this thing, then I was going to do it the best I could—but he was going to have to help!
And he did. Those early years were tough years, I won’t pretend they weren’t. Later years were tough, too, though for different reasons. Jacob is now twenty-eight, Anastasia twenty-seven, and frankly these days I cannot imagine my life without them in it. Our marriage didn’t survive, but my parenting did, and in retrospect I am so grateful to have had the honor of helping raise these two beautiful young people.
I suspect many parents feel that same honor at the end of the day. And grandparents, too. It’s just what one does before that’s… tricky. There are hundreds of parenting manuals out there, and none of them offers a magic formula, a secret method for getting it right. Maybe there really is no one “right” way to parent. Are you too strict? Not strict enough? Should you allow them to read anything they want? Should you censor who they hang out with?
I know how difficult it was to parent my stepchildren through what might euphemistically be called a “normal” time; I cannot imagine it in the time of coronavirus, where the decisions you’re making are, quite literally, life-and-death decisions. What children crave as much as love is certainty: they like a routine, a schedule. They need to know what will happen next week. They have to be sure the blocks of their world will stay the same for the foreseeable future. And how can anyone promise them that—now? We don’t know what the next few weeks, or months, or years will bring; how can we communicate reassurance to our kids and grandkids?
When I’m feeling a little lost, I turn to the Church, because in the thousands of years of our existence, you can be sure there’s someone, somewhere, who has something to teach us. And in looking for parenting models, the most obvious choice are the parents of Our Lady: Anna and Joachim, the earthly grandparents of Jesus.
Like me, they were a little surprised by their foray into parenting. I had never wanted to have children; they were unable to have children; and yet by God’s design we all ended up doing his will. Joachim and Anna are not mentioned in the Bible, but other documents outside of the Biblical canon do provide some details. These documents outline some of the Church’s traditional beliefs about Joachim, Anne and their daughter.
One story says that, rebuked in the Temple for his fifty years of childless marriage, Joachim took his flocks and went to a high mountain, refusing to return home in shame. Meanwhile, Anna prayed in her garden. God sent the Archangel Gabriel to each of them, who gave them tidings of the birth of “a daughter most blessed, by whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and through whom will come the salvation of the world.” Each promised to have their child raised in the Temple as a holy vessel of God. The archangel told Joachim to return home, where he would find his wife waiting for him in the city gate. Anna he told to wait at the gate. When they saw one another, they embraced, and this image is the traditional icon of their feast.
This may or may not be exactly what happened. But what did happen, and this we know, is that they raised a young woman to fulfill her role in a story far bigger than their lives, to become the handmaid of the Lord and the mother of longed for Messiah. And while I expect they had as many bumps in their parenting journey as I did—it cannot be easy, bringing up a child when one is well into one’s grandparenting years!—they still kept faith. They still prepared her for what the future would bring. They had no way of knowing what that would be—just as we, today, really don’t know what the future holds.
But, trite as it is to say, we do know who holds the future. We know that God guided Anna and Joachim, just as he guided me, just as he is guiding mothers and fathers and stepparents and grandparents today.
The world is as uncertain now as it’s ever been. Our children crave stability, and we can give it to them. Not necessarily in the way we’d like to, but in a way that’s better, more profound, longer-lasting. We can give them the stability of a life in Christ, the certainty of the love of God, the protection of the Holy Spirit. That’s the best gift we can give our children, and the only certainty any of us ever really has, now or ever.
And… they do notice. On her 23rd birthday, Anastasia wrote me a letter, thanking me for giving her, among other things, the Mass, and a trust in God. But I knew that already, because I have the privilege now of watching how she lives. And that makes it all worthwhile.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Image: Dimitris Vetsikas for Pixabay