On Being a Child, a Parent, or Both – Steve Hirsch, UUCSS Member

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Today is August 9. By coincidence, yesterday was our son Isaac’s 28th birthday. Or, maybe it’s not a coincidence because when I was asked if I’d like to do a service this summer and I saw the date, I thought it was the perfect day to do one on being a parent.

There is one thing I remember very clearly about Aug. 8, 1992. Isaac was born at the now closed Bethesda Maternity Center. I think the most frightening moment of my life occurred when the Nurse Midwife handed the baby to us a few hours after he was born and we left with this new little person. We were responsible 24/7, 365 days a year, to clothe, feed, care for and keep alive a human being. There are no breaks, there is no vacation. He was our responsibility and we had never been parents before.

I used to travel frequently for my job, which meant flying across the country. The only thing I can think of that would frighten me as much as the idea of leaving the maternity center with this baby had frightened me, would be if I was on an airplane and the airmasks suddenly fell from the ceiling and dangled there.

Not that having a baby was dangerous to me, I worried more about things I had never worried about before. Dropping the baby was a big one. As far as I remember, we didn’t drop him or, at least if we did, he survived. But there were other things to worry about: Is he still breathing in the middle of the night? Why is he crying? Is something seriously wrong or does he just need a diaper change (AGAIN).

We all survived somehow, despite living with a child who needed much less sleep than we did.

Isaac became the center of our existence, the center of our hearts too. There was a huge revelation that happened to me when we brought him home. That was the realization that my parents must have felt the same way about me when they brought me home (I was also the first born) as I felt when we brought Isaac home. I felt like I had never understood how my parents felt about me or my siblings until I had a child.

If that was the first realization, others followed. One of the most interesting things about children is seeing how they learn. (That’s one reason I actually was a teacher for a few years.) Children are sponges for knowledge, for absorbing everything around them.

But being a parent, I learned as well.  When it comes to the old debate of nature vs. nurture, I had always tended to come down on the nurture side. Though children were blank slates, and at least slates gave some form to them as they arrived, nurture filled in the blank space.

However, I have mostly turned around on the nature/nurture debate. Both Isaac and Emily arrived with very clear personalities. And, while they’ve grown, I can only say they’ve become more fully themselves. Isaac was observant and thoughtful, Emily was always active and moving. They have a lot in common and some large differences, but they were themselves from the start.

One of their differences is that Emily has always been more of an optimist, a glass half full person. Once when she was very young, I was driving her and a friend to a park for a playdate and she leaned over, touched her friend’s knee and said, Today is going to be the best day ever.

Isaac is not only the glass is half empty type of person, he thinks the glass is half empty and has been poisoned as well.

Which is not to say that parents don’t have any effect on their children. I like to say, we can’t take credit for how our children turned out but we could have messed them up. I mentioned children being observant and absorbent. While they may arrive with personality, they learn a lot about how to interact with the world and other people from parents. Treating each other and others, including the children, with respect does a lot towards showing them how to move through the world.

And this, fortunately, allows me to bring in one of the UU Principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Emily and Isaac may not agree but I think Beth and I almost always took them seriously. We listened to what they thought from a very early age and spoke to them as though they could understand any concept that we thought they needed to know about.

The quote I began with is the famous first line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. When I read the novel in college, the professor who taught the Russian Novel course read that line and said it was wrong, entirely wrong. Every happy family is different. Every unhappy family is alike; there is always a lack of communication, hurts, wounds unspoken.

Maybe he knew what he was talking about. Or, maybe I haven’t lived long enough to find out if he was right or not, but I think there is a lot of truth to what he said.

Being a child is very serious business. Children don’t have any other frame of reference but what little they have lived through so far. If parents don’t take their children seriously, who will?

One of the biggest resentments I remember having with my parents is when they didn’t take me or my concerns or interests seriously. So, I took the business of Emily and Isaac’s life seriously but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t offer some perspective gained from having lived a few years more than they had. One day, Isaac came home from elementary school and announced that it had been the worst day of his life because he had dropped something on his foot and it hurt. I assured him that if this was the worst day of his life, he was going to have a great life because that day hadn’t really been all that terrible.

As I mentioned earlier, Isaac was the glass is half empty and poisoned type. As he grew up, I heard him use, if not the same phrases exactly, sentiments similar to ones that I had expressed when I was growing up. I think I was around 11 years old when I told my parents, in all seriousness, that my best years were behind me. Fortunately, I was wrong about my best years and I believe they tried to tell me that at the time.

At times I have felt like I was reliving some piece of my life but instead of being the child, now I was the parent. It was a bizarre sense of déjà vu. Again, it made me look at my parents in a new, more sympathetic light, as I realized that what I felt when I was young was not something caused by the outside world’s effect on me but was instead some inherent characteristic that Isaac had had the misfortune to inherit.

On the other hand, both of my children and I had the greatest good fortune to have another parent in the house. I know wonderful single parents who have great kids. I have no idea how they do it because being one of two parents has been a fulfilling but a time-consuming job.

Thankfully, I have been blessed to be only a co-pilot to Beth Blevins, who has done all the heavy lifting of being a parent. She is an incredible mom, as well as incredible person. She’s the one of us who could write a book on being a parent.

Before we got married, which was a long, long time ago, we both knew we wanted to have children. I don’t remember if we discussed in much detail how to raise children. It turned out that we both had similar instincts or beliefs on parenting. I think I’ve read that there are two great sources of conflict in marriage: one is money and the other is parenting. On both, we somehow have the same basic values which has made our lives and our children’s lives simpler and happier.

Let me close by saying one thing about families. There are no perfect families and we are not one. We have been more lucky than skilled as parents. One thing I believe is that Beth and I tried so hard not to make the mistakes our parents made, that we made succeeded in making different mistakes instead. Luckily, our children survived our mistakes and so did we.

Online worship gives us an opportunity to reflect. If you are joining us live, I invite you to enter your answers to this questions in the chat

If you are watching later, I invite you to take a moment to journal on this question.

  • Share a vivid memory from your childhood.