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Good Parents, Like Saints, Are Not Born. They Are Made!

Susan Rutkowski, MDiv
Pastoral Minister of Family Religious Education and Social Justice
October 28, 2022


All Saints’ Day is November 1st. In religious belief, a saint is a person recognized as having an exceptional degree of holiness, likeness or closeness to God. But, too often, saints are portrayed as heavenly “goody-two shoes” with no human failings. The truth is, many of the saints made mistakes in everything from relationships to prejudice to substance abuse. They didn’t become saints because they were perfect. They became saints because they let God transform their imperfections. It’s their humanity, not their sanctity, that teaches us.

Ultimately, the road to sainthood involves struggle. As a single and married woman, I looked to the life lessons of the saints, but when I became a parent, their experience of human struggle resonated with me even more. Their practice of growing in virtue while suffering and rejoicing in everyday life inspires me and gives me courage.

The most striking parallel for me is surrender. Saints practiced, learned to give up their own will, and subjected their thoughts, ideas and deeds to God’s will. I think each parent/guardian has a “conversion experience” in surrendering to the will of another. For me, it was the first time I had the energy to entertain after giving birth. I was excited to cook dinner, decorate the table and choose a playlist. The plan was to get everything done during naptime. But this day was different. Every time I tried to put my baby down, he screamed. I tried everything to get him to sleep. Why couldn’t I do this? I wanted to entertain! Didn’t he understand my needs? Finally, I succumbed to the inevitable. I surrendered…to the moment, to the universe, to the tiny scrunched up face. Once I “got it,” there was peace. Ordering pizza for company just has to do sometimes.

At the heart of surrender is humility and empathy. Grounded in prayer, saints have a great ability to be present to others. This requires regulation and working on your own “stuff.”  Twenty years ago, I remember reading Richard Rohr’s words: “If you don’t process your anxiety/anger/wound, you’re going to project it onto someone else.” Teaching your child to tolerate frustration is a key life skill. And to teach that skill you have to hold your child’s distress without yelling, “You’re making too big a deal out of this!” The lesson from our saints of genuine accompaniment – of “you’re not alone” – cannot be overrated.

Any love relationship we are in – with God, our family and friends, our life partner, our children – will have conflict. Love is not devoid of conflict. In relationships, rupture and repair refers to the breaking and restoring of connection with one another. Saints experienced both intense connection with God and intense desolation (the dark night of the soul). Theirs were journeys of rupture and repair. Their brutal honesty with God teaches us that God is not fragile.

Similar to divine fragility, parental fragility is a hot topic in the parentverse these days. The days of not uttering any criticism of your parents is out. Hearing your child’s feedback about how you messed them up is “in.” If you can hear it, the honest feedback allows you to re-work, re-wire, re-frame failed interactions. Somewhere along the way, we realized that the child/parent relationship is all about rupture and repair like any relationship. When I trip on my humanness and make mistakes, especially as a parent, I am reminded by the saints to be confident in my love relationship as a humble participant, which allows me to listen, make repairs, re-connect and revive the relationship.

Parenthood, like sainthood, involves struggle. With prayer, patience and humor, good parents, like good saints, are not born. They are made.