The Rise and the Fall of Parenting

I woke up at 4AM, startled from sleep by the feeling that I needed to go check on my 11-year old son.

He’d hit his head the previous afternoon and our doctor had diagnosed him with a mild concussion. When we’d returned home my son went to bed almost immediately, which the doctor assured us was the best thing. But as a parent, when your children go through trauma and you are in some way reminded of their fragility—you find yourself fearing the worst, even if those feelings are unwarranted.

So there I was at four o-clock in the morning, shaken awake by the sickening thought you never imagine you’ll have as a parent: Go make sure he’s breathing.

I turned the handle on his door as quietly as I could manage and pushed it open just enough to peak my head through, but couldn’t see him clearly in the darkness. I slid my body through the half-opened doorway and inched little by little on tiptoe, staring at the swirling mass of sheets for signs of movement. Not wanting to wake him, I stopped myself a few feet from his bed and leaned forward there in the darkness, stilling myself so I could look closely—until finally I saw it:

the rise and fall of his chest.

I exhaled and whispered an involuntary prayer of “thank you,” and stood there watching him for a few moments; noticing how quickly he’s growing, thinking about how much my life has been so beautifully altered by his presence, and remembering how difficult these years are. I was gripped by the cocktail of gratitude and sadness that moms and dads know well.

Before you’re a parent, no one prepares you for the way you will rise and fall with your children—how you will feel every bruise, celebrate each victory, share every fear. You aren’t told how bittersweet the journey watching them grow up will be; the joy you will feel when they change and reach new milestones, yet how you will simultaneously grieve the smaller version of them that leaves as they do.

You don’t live vicariously through your child, but a bit of your heart can’t help but soar or break as you see their lives unfold. You understand that you can’t shield them from pain, but you try like hell. You know their struggles will be their greatest teachers, but you wish they could learn a less painful way. You realize that they will fall many times before they fly—and there’s no easy way to witness it.

There in the dimness I watched my son’s chest rise and fall, and was grateful to be able to have another day with him. We aren’t promised more than that anyway, even when all seems perfect. With today I will gain 24 hours of the young man he is becoming, and lose those of the little boy he used to be.

There will be moments of both jubilation and grief as this happens, but this is life and it is parenting; the joy and the despair, the breathing in and breathing out, the rise and the fall. 






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30 thoughts on “The Rise and the Fall of Parenting

  1. As a parent I understand that feeling. You want them to be safe and secure but you know that they can’t live their life in bubble-wrap and under your wing all the time.

    They will have to learn to take journeys and navigate by themselves. They need to be able to walk to places without getting into trouble or lost by themselves.

    They will have to risk injury to do athletics, marching band, cheerleading, and so on.

    They will have to learn to handle situations themselves, independently, but have a safety net in case they can’t handle it themselves.

    They will have to learn to ride the train and bus and read bus schedules on their own.

    They will have to learn how to change a tire, check fluid levels, and fill up their cars.

    And we must give them an environment to do that, free from the most danger.

    We must let them make mistakes and learn from them.

    We must let them do what they can and know what their limits are the hard way.

    Our children will need to be taught how to be considerate, compassionate, competent, and independent so they can grow up to be adults with these qualities.

    • Robin, So very well said, and then when they grow up and away, you start again with the grandchildren, and you marvel at how lucky you are to get this journey. Peace and Love,

      • Hi Kathleen. I notice parents will talk about when their children entered the world, how little they are, their first steps and words, the constant trips to the doctor for this shot or that medicine, their first days of preschool, their first days of elementary school, their first bicycle ride without training wheels, and so on,

        That didn’t happen with me. I adopted my wife’s son. He was 10 when we married, we started adoption procedures when he gave the go ahead at 11, and we finished the process at 12. I am not sure I did right by him but me entering the picture changed his life for the better. He got baptised and all of that, but he considers himself a Pagan, which is OK by me. It took him awhile to grow up but he is on his own and successful. I just feel there is a distance between us, but there is a lot of pain there too.

        • Robin, I would venture a guess that he is grateful for you, whether he is a pagan or not. As a child of a divorce I know how damaged we can become and it takes time to put all that behind us. We tend to be very careful about letting people get close, but I would like to believe that I am a living example of someone who managed to put it all behind me. By the way, that distance you talk about, had that with our oldest for some time. He was a challenge growing up and when he left for college, he left. Still saw him and all but there was a distance not just in miles. Now he lives next door and his son has spent as much time here as home, so eventually they grow up. I used to tell him that no matter, we would always be here and when he needed us we were. It takes some longer to grow up. Peace and Love,

  2. Eternal gratitude for capturing exactly how being a parent impacts our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined. You John are a needed voice in these challenging times, grounding us with your wisdom and compassion about issues that truly matter.

  3. As the father of four beautiful children,(age 41, 32, 29 and 11), I’m here to tell you that these feelings never change.

  4. I am not a parent but I was blessed by this. Your children are so very fortunate to have a father who loves them as there are Entirely Too Many children in this world who don’t.

      • Clearly, either your parents didn’t know how to parent or they did and you have rejected their wisdom. Someone with a good ethical grounding would never say anything as unnecessary and despicable.

    • I agree with Gloriamarie Amalfitano. If only all children had loving parents, but the truth is, many do not. It’s heartbreaking.

  5. “thinking about how much my life has been so beautifully altered by his presence,” what beautiful words, I would have loved to have heard this from my parents, I’ve felt that I was a burden and now they’ve passed.

  6. Parenting: the hardest job on the planet, fraught with reasonable expectations, disaster, joys, frustration and elation; no pay, no time off, 24 hour workday. You will be judged and appraised by strangers, by friends and by your mother. (The Mother’s Curse really does work: “May you have a child JUST LIKE YOU!”) You will have to learn a new set of skills with every advancement the child makes, from diapering a newborn to dealing with a surly teenager. You will make mistakes and fear for permanent harm done. Even when your child has left your home, you will worry and care and pester them to wear a sweater when it’s cool. No health insurance, no overtime pay, no vacations. And NO TRAINING.

    Who would actually sign up for a job like that? Until you actually hold your child in your arms, looking at them for the first time…you don’t have a grasp of the reality this new person is going to cause you. You can imagine it, you can talk about it with friends who have children or your mom…but you do not KNOW it. That starts on the first night home, when you peek into the baby’s crib to make sure that they are still breathing. (You’ll do that again the first night they sleep all the way through.)

    Parenting: the most rewarding, most meaningful job you’ll never apply for, but will have it thrust upon you when you choose to make a Mini Me.

    I loved being a hands-on, completely interactive Mother with both of my children. I miss those little people–but I am so proud of the adults they have become. And I have been rewarded by my children having children, so now I am not just a Mom, I am a GRANDMom. If I live long enough, I might even be a GREAT GRANDMom, like my Grandmother was.

    And sometimes I call them, just to make sure they’re still breathing.

    • Ms. GC, I would only add this …

      A person could also go for adoption as a viable option as well as natural child birth. That you do apply for … but beyond that, it is still utter madness and incredibly thrilling.

  7. Dear John Pavlovitz:

    I’ve sometimes wondered about a parent’s thoughts as they hold the lifeless body of their child after a US bombing raid on Yemen. Or Afghanistan. Or any of a dozen other countries.


    • I imagine it is a hollow emptiness, gdd.

      I imagine it is the same hollow emptiness the parents of the victims of suicide bombers in Basra, Baghdad, Beirut and Tel Aviv feel. The same as Charleston, Tampa, Nice, Manchester, London, Boston, Paris, Brussels and Berlin.

      I imagine they all wonder ‘Why? Why my child?’

      I imagine numerous parents of child who were victims of gang violence are right there along with them as well.

      I imagine it doesn’t matter so much who killed their child as that their child is gone forever ~ their departure so sudden ~ so much more they thought they could share ~ so much more they thought they could look forward to … and now all that is gone.

      I imagine some grow to hate. Others forgive. Others probably never get over the numbness ~ that sense of utter powerlessness to save their child’s life.

      The human mind is surprising resilient though and figures out ways to cope with the pain – defense mechanisms. In too many cases the parents must pick up their lives and continue on ~ jobs to go to, other children, or parents, to care for, other people who need them to not fall apart. So they go back to their lives with that huge hole ripped open inside and do they best they can ~ I imagine.

    • Sadly I too have thought of the same. May be one of the many internal reaaons behind why I still dont feel ready to have some of my own.

      • Badhon, from the many people I’ve talk to on the subject –

        No parents are ever absolutely ‘ready’.
        The world will never be in the perfect place.
        You are never in the precise economic position you think you need to be.

        One of the best signs of a good parent is understanding you aren’t ready, you don’t know everything you need to know and what a huge challenge parenting is. You need to teach your child so much and know they will teach you some things too. You will be surprised by how terrifying and uplifting parenting can be.

        I’ve known too many people who would make wonderful parents decide not to because of so many of the above factors … and worry.

        Still … it is a heck of a challenge.

        Peace be with you and yours.

        • I was 34 when I got married, & had my first child. I actually felt ‘ready’ & my husband did too. [I had a good mother, so I just copied her. ] I quit my editing job and devoted myself to my husband & babies. It was fun and fascinating, very rewarding, & surprisingly exhausting. Who knew?

          I have to say, I did not buy into the ‘parenting panic’ that I saw many young parents struggle with. [I didn’t buy any of those products that they push on you. ] I bought a cheap stroller, and that was fine. Our ‘toys’ were blocks, books, kick balls, sand buckets, then fishing rods, surfboards & skateboards. No ‘video-games’ at our house. (till they were 14). I was fine w them playing at someone else’s house.

          For me, ages 0-18 were ‘easy’, doing all the needed things, time, love, attention, discipline, schooling, etc. (maybe boys are easier?)

          My biggest challenge was ages 18-21 when the ‘kids’ no longer had a ‘normal’ schedule. They thought they could treat our home like a hotel with room service and they slept til noon. [I had to tell the housekeeper, ‘skip those rooms please’.]

          Seems like a lot of parents were fine with the revolving front door at 3am. Not me. I couldn’t sleep & I thought it was disrespectful. The problem never went away until they moved out. [And then they came over for dinner w/ a friend or two, a lot –that was great!]

          …thanks for letting me reminisce. [ I feel very grateful that I got to be a Mother. Previously, I was a typical 70s Feminist, and didn’t even want to get married or have children.. . I was wrong indeed. ]

  8. I pray for your son’s quick and full recovery, Pastor John.

    Next step … wait until he hits that growth spurt. Wait until one day, your child, your son, is staring you straight in the eyes and suddenly you go “where did all the time fly?” {Mine’s 13 and just one inch away.}

    Rejoice in his happiness and comfort him in his sorrow. Children learn the freedom of emotions from their parents.

    Take comfort in that you have taught your child to be strong in their convictions, brave among both their friends & enemies, and truthful to authority. Sons and daughters both.

    Life is NOT fair yet that is no excuse to not working for a fairer world.

    Do not let a burden pass from you if you can bare it even for a short time.

    Always do what you can for yourself and only ask for help when you truly need it.

    There is nothing wrong with not knowing, only not admitting to that ignorance.

    If you hold Love as a piece of artistic glass sculpture which captures and fragments light in an endless display of beauty … it will break, fracture and fall to pieces. If you treat Love like a mud-ball ~ warm and gooey, sometime inconvenient and sometimes hard to admit as being yours, but that Love can take a beating and always comes out the same as the first day it came into your life ~ wonderfully yours.


  9. Wow, this was such an accurate and beautifully spoken description of how we all feel as parents. God bless

  10. My broken record, Thank you John for putting into beautiful words and sentences my journey. I have two sons, 54 and 47 and have been blessed with two grandsons, 22 and 14. For all the trials and tribulations getting them to adulthood, I would not change or give up any day. People told me, but until I held these babies in my arms, I had no idea. Then people would tell me, if you think this is great, wait until you hold that grand baby. I thought no it can’t be better than this, ah but it is. I have been privileged to be these peoples Mom and Nana and it is the best thing I have ever or will ever do. Then wonders of wonders, they live close so I have been able to be wonderfully enmeshed in the grandchildren’s lives, our home is a second home to them. And I still watch the rise and fall. Life is good. Peace and Love,

  11. Wow John
    Great to hear all ok and you survived the sudden exposure to panic.
    This is a feeling everyone who has ever had to deal with children, loved ones, Elder Care.
    The What If Clause
    The Feeling or sixth sense that I need to be sure, check in , check up on .
    Being a parent or RMO , Authority Figure , You never have the luxury of just forgeting about it and going back to bed, or going on with what ever is happening .
    This Feeling is a parental Gift to make us accountable to take care of what God has given us to be in charge of .
    Be the One, who is always ready to jump in and fix, repair, troubleshoot the what if’s of life .
    Great to hear you responded in a loving, careing parental way.
    Just like our heavenly father is always there when we call out to , or cry out for help, our loving, caring father waits to hear from his children.

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