The Meaning of Parenting

This past weekend I went to a retreat center, without the family. I got a chance to walk in the woods without having to stop and examine each and every banana slug I passed. I read all evening. I slept through breakfast. But what I most enjoyed was having long hours where my thoughts could wander freely. I kept imagining my daughter's voice calling, "C'mere Dad. Watch this!" But it was only the gurgling of the creek beside my cabin.

I read a book by Victor Frankl, a psychologist who survived world war II in a Nazi concentration camp. His tales of horror were interspersed with his ruminations on the meaning of life. Survival of great suffering, he concluded, depends upon a person having a strong sense that his or her life is uniquely meaningful. Although nothing could ensure against a sudden trip to the gas chamber, those prisoners who felt their survival was esstential to someone else were more likely to endure. For some, a special relationship to God gave them meaning. For others, it was the chance of reuniting with a loved one. For Frankl himself, the driving passion was to write a book that might offer hope to people in despair. Meaning is found, Frankl states, "when we have forgotten ourselves and become absorbed in someone or something outside of ourselves."

While parenting is full of trials, there is no comparing it with Frankl's concentration camp experience. Still, a clear sense of the meaning we hold for ourselves as parents may be helpful to us in enduring the tribulations inherent in our role. Parenting clearly requires that we forget ourselves and become absorbed in the needs of our children. I think of all the sleep I lost caring for a baby, the thousands of diapers I changed, the endless games of Crazy-Eights, and all the miles of cross-town traffic to and from this or that class or birthday party. There must be some meaning for me in all of this, or why would I put up with it?

Of course we all love our children. But what unique perspective does each of us have that gives us the energy to go on when we are past the end of our rope? Is there something special about your child that no one else understands like you do? Is there something you really want to teach them, some special wisdom you have to impart? Is there a dream you have of what your child may become? Are you hoping to correct a wrong you suffered from in your childhood? Where is your passion in being a parent?

My own passion is to be close to my child in a way that my father never could. His role as breadwinner separated him from his children, and his training as a man made him uncomfortable with emotions and closeness. From deep within me comes a desire to claim that as a father I can be as deeply bonded with my daughter as any parent and child can be. It is in my parenting that I am trying to become the kind of man I want to be. Part of all that I do for my daughter, I am really doing for myself. I am proving to myself that I can feel, that I can care, that I can love, that I am human.

If my daughter knows of my selfish motives, she doesn't seem to mind.

© 2008, Tim Hartnett

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Your children need your presence more than your presents. - Jesse Jackson

Tim Hartnett, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Santa Cruz, CA. He specializes in Individual Counseling, Couples Therapy, and Divorce Mediation. He can be reached at 831.464.2922 or through his website:

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