Love is not enough.

I was speaking with a colleague in church leadership yesterday in a wide-ranging discussion about where are hearts are these day (one of the reasons I do love my church community). We were speaking about the death of her dog, and what a big impact it had on she and her husband. And that led to parenting humans, and her saying that she was always unsure on whether she would be a good parent.

I told her she would and that she had all the qualities to be a great parent, because there are no skills to being a parent. The only thing you need is the ability to be in love. Because it’s not enough to love.

You can love chicken vermicelli at the local Vietnamese place. You can love Wes Anderson movies. You can love your niece. But parenting is about being “in love,” about the stretch and intensity and depth of feeling and concern that we often place on a romantic relationship.

Like those romantic relationships, being in love with your kids doesn’t mean you are blind to them; it’s the contrary. You see them very clearly. The good and the bad. The naive parts and the broken places. It also means that it can be hard to hold them accountable to what you see and what you believe.

The intimacy of being in love with your kids is easier when they’re young, when you loom so large in their world and they large in yours. As they get bigger, it gets harder. They develop alternate networks of approval and support, some of which may not align with your values and experiences. They yearn to strike out on their own—or just to strike out.

And that’s when you need to soften. Even then, you need to stay in love with them. Because they are not done growing, and you are not done parenting. This can be your final act of parenting: the last exhilarating fling before moving on to another way of relating, where you merely love them. Because at this point, if things are not going great, you start looking at the exit door, thinking this is when you can step away and they’ll figure it out.

Except they might not. And what’s needed from you now isn’t a listen-to-me or I-told-you-so. What’s needed is a who-are-you, it’s a tell-me-your-story-again. What’s needed is someone who can tell them what’s different about their story today compared to a year or a decade ago. What’s needed is that they know someone is paying attention. Someone in love with them.

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