The first time we read Tony Woodlief talk about his life with four boys in the Wall Street Journal, we thought, now this guy gets what it means to be a dad. Little did we realize the journey he'd taken to reach that point.
Today, in our third mentoring interview, author and columnist Tony Woodlief shows what becoming a parent can do to your heart—to tickle it, wreck it, restore it and elevate it. We hope his story lifts you as much as it lifted us.
The homes that we grew up in were plagued by sexual abuse, mental illness, violence, and drug use. We didn't know the first thing about how healthy homes look, or how to parent responsibly, but we were pretty sure that we weren't qualified to be parents. It took us quite a while to realize that if you wait until you're ready, you'll never have children. Since then we've learned that most of the people who are convinced they're ready simply don't know enough. Which is fine, because parenting is by its nature on-the-job training. Parenting is also a glorious leap off a precipice, which is why you need to hold on tight to each other when you jump. And quit waiting, because it's never not going to be scary.
Did your wife (or you) have any unusual cravings during pregnancy?
She craved the usual foods, sweets, peanut butter, and so on. I am not by nature a very empathetic person, so it surprised me that I got nausea when she had morning sickness. I wasn't surprised, however, when I found it easy to pig out with her. As a result we both put on pregnancy weight, only she's been more effective at getting rid of hers.
What surprised you most about becoming a parent?
The fear. I would endure anything before seeing harm come to one of these little ones. We lost our first child, Caroline, to a brain tumor when she was three years old. It was a horrifying, painful illness that slowly destroyed her body, and all we could do was administer painkillers and wait for the end. Since then I really struggle whenever any of my children gets sick, because it dredges up memories of those nightmarish months while we watched our daughter die.
What’s the most annoying toy or children’s show/video that parenthood has brought into your life?
We're tyrants when it comes to videos, so nothing gets watched in our house unless we approve of it. It took us a long time to get our parents and other relatives to respect our desire to give our children toys made of natural materials, as opposed to colorful plastic junk. That's an easier sell now that they're finding all these toxins in children's toys. We also refuse to allow most toys that make their own noise. Entire generations of boys got along fine making their own car and gun noises, so there's no reason to put all this irritating, battery-powered electronic nonsense into toys. All it does is truncate their imagination.
How has having children affected your marriage?
We probably wouldn't be married right now if not for our children. There comes a point in some marriages when you face the reality that you both would probably be happier without one another. These children remind you—or at least they should remind you—that marriage isn't, as Gary Thomas rightly notes, about your happiness. The Perfect Marriage fantasy is a lie promoted by secular society, and too often parroted in subtle ways by churches. Your marriage is an institution of sanctification, and children are the natural fruit of that God-ordained path. And the secret is, the greatest happiness lies along this path of self-sacrifice. You will definitely have more opportunities for immediate gratification if you remain childless. And you will also never know the fear that only parents can understand. But you will experience the greatest joy, too, which springs from a self-sacrificing love that draws us closer to one another and to our God. This is why the early Church—and the Eastern Orthodox still today— would not marry people unless they intended to have children, because marriage without children is like wearing flip-flops to a marathon; you aren't really serious about the race.
How has having children affected your relationship with God?
I never really knew the depth of love until I had them. Parenting cultivated a fierce love for others— both for my children, and for my wife who has suffered and rejoiced along this path with me. I'd read plenty about the love of our Father for his children, but I never really grasped that until it hit me like a thunderbolt that His love for us is a boundless passion, because we are His children. We parents would go straight into Hell to save our children, which is exactly what God did for us.
What have you learned through the highs and lows of starting a family?
A friend sent me a note after he heard about the death of our daughter. Inside he had written a single word: "Endure." We would all do well to meditate on that word. Parenting is perseverance if nothing else. Just hold on, because light comes even in the midst of darkness. Rejoice as well, because those times of happiness and bonding with your children are a foretaste of heavenly communion.
When do you find time to read, blog, and write as a parent?
I tend to write the hardest things—the parts closest to the heart, that you can only get at by opening up a vein and bleeding—in the dark early morning. I usually write my essays and funny stuff over lunch or in the evening. I don't know why it works out that way.
What advice would you give a couple considering starting a family?
You aren't ready, but do it anyway. You aren't good enough, but falling into the midst of it is the only way to get better. You're going to make mistakes, which is why God sends them to us with such forgiving hearts. Forget about how it will affect your lifestyle, or your career, or your other selfish pursuits, and choose the path of greater suffering and deeper joy.
Tony Woodlief's essays have appeared in World magazine and the Wall Street Journal. His memoir, Somewhere More Holy, will be published next year by Zondervan. You can order his highly entertaining Raising Wild Boys into Men: A Modern Dad's Survival Guide from The New Pamphleteer.
To read the other awesome interviews in this series, please click here.