How do you live the Christian life? Or, to take a specific example, how does a married couple with young children live out grace in their new family?
We all know what a dysfunctional family looks like. We’ve either experienced it ourselves or have seen it in others. But for those of us trying to live out a non-legalistic spirituality, what does a grace-filled family look like?
In Grace in Practice, Paul F. M. Zahl has some insights into the “problem” of having young children.
The problem is this: the new child becomes for the mother the number-one priority of her loving, rather than her husband, at least in the first stages. The father is relegated to number two. The mother now has two competitors for her best and deepest self. Who will win? (p. 152).
Love is practical. It involves doing concrete things for your neighbor. Hence, it takes time. And there’s only so much time to go around. So choosing whom to love becomes a real issue. Loving one person often means not being able to love another. You have to choose.
A baby is one of the neediest creatures on earth. It demands all the mother’s time. It takes, takes, and takes, and gives nothing back. Which, for Zahl, makes babies an illustration of one-way love:
The child is the embodiment of the human being to whom love is entirely one-way. There is no relation more redolent of grace than the love for the child that emanates from the mother. The baby gives nothing back (p. 152).
(That might be too strong. Even small babies give something back, if only in a smile or coo.) In any case, the young mother, who only has so much time and energy to love, must concentrate it all on the baby:
The mother understands that she “has no choice” in her mothering. It is a complete commitment (p. 152).
The mother understands that. But does the father? Not always. Instead of understanding, he can begin to feel resentful:
The father may feel “out in the cold” as the child starts life in “the sunshine of your love” (Cream). The jealousy of the father is suppressed. The poor man hardly knows where these militant feelings are coming from, except that they are somehow related to feelings of sexual frustration. The mother knows she is doing right by the child, and she may become oblivious to the pressure cooker who used to be her husband. She may sense there is something wrong, but she barely has time or physical energy to pick up on it. The incessant needs of the child are powerful. They are urgent and unending. All she wants is her husband’s physical help to do the job, as well as his listening ear. He, on the other hand, begins to regard her as obtuse, as well as unavailable physically (pp. 152-153).
Zahl says this dysfunctional situation can easily get worse. The children can permanently become the mother’s first love (instead of the husband), while “career can be more and more the father’s first love” (p. 153).
The pattern is familiar and it continues. This little child can pry husband and wife apart. It is the observed order of things. The wife resents the man, especially if he ploughs all that male energy into his job. The man resents the wife because he is no longer number one (p. 153).
Theologically, what has gone wrong is that husband and wife have judged each other by some law (little “l” or big “L”):
The cause, theologically understood, is always the same: some form of judgment, some accusation from the law. In the case of little children, the man judges the woman for putting him second, and the woman judges the man for being unsympathetic and un-self controlled (p. 153).
But all the law does is accuse. It cannot heal or give life. So what can the married couple do? Instead of law and judgment, what they need is grace towards each other. For the father, it means loving the mother with one-way love, just as she is loving the child with one-way love:
Grace is the man stepping back from his self-absorption and focusing his entire loving on aiding his wife. He comprehends the importance of what she is doing. He also understands that it will not last forever and that she will come back to him (p. 154).
And eventually, when the children are older, he will be able to enjoy them, too.
She, on the other hand, has not forgotten that her husband is a physical being. That is what he thinks about a lot of the time, although he would deny it if you asked him. When they get away, very occasionally, for a little trip together, she realizes that for him it is all about sex. For her, it is all about time to read quietly and debrief him on her life, with him as that attentive listener for whom she longs (p. 154).
So instead of getting angry, frustrated, and more distant from each other, the husband and wife see each other for what they are, for what they need, and for what they’re respectively struggling with. And they let grace have the last word:
He forgives her for being a mother, and she forgives him for being a man (p. 154).
The healthy thing is for there to be one-way love from husband to mother, and from mother to child:
[T]the mother requires one-way loving from the father as she seeks to love from one direction this needy person who is able only to receive (p. 152).
If you have young children, is any of this familiar? I bet it is. If you see this pattern emerging, then recognize it for what it is. Having children is not easy. Neither is being married. With the pressures of young children pulling husband and wife in different directions, you need grace, forgiveness, and one-way love to make the family whole.