If you've ever had the chance to meet your favorite author in person, you likely know the sinking feeling of dashed expectations. It's just so easy to build an image of someone from their words that's totally different from who they really are. Not so with Gary Thomas. He's the real deal. We met him in real life five years ago when we were expecting baby three. Not only were we not disappointed, we were blown away. He is just as humble, just as wise, just as kind, as you'd expect the author of Sacred Marriage and Sacred Parenting to be.
Meeting his wife Lisa last year completed the picture. Together, they are a model of what it looks like to have kids and do it well, for God's glory. It's our privilege to run this conversation with them about what it was like for them when they started their family nearly two decades ago. It's our prayer that their modeling—both here, and in Gary's books—will be an ongoing source of inspiration, encouragement and equipping as you start yours.
What emotional or practical hurdles did you have to overcome in order to start your family?
Well, for us we had to adjust to the knowledge that we had in fact actually started a family! Even though it was a surprise, we both had known that we wanted kids and we were thrilled.
A major hurdle was the fact that Gary was in the middle of seminary and Lisa was going to have to quit her full time receptionist job. Gary immediately signed up for an intensive Greek summer course so he wouldn’t have to take all of it the following year. This allowed him to finish the bulk of his course work right before the baby arrived. He added a full time job to his schedule and slipped back to being a part-time student, while Lisa worked up until two weeks before Allison was born. On paper it looked like a financially crazy time to have a baby, but it all worked out.
How did you build such a vibrant and strong family; where did you go for advice and encouragement?
We were so young and inexperienced when we started that we would have to say that it is only by the grace of God that our family is what it is today. Both of us have parents that have now been married for over 50 years, so the idea that marriage is permanent was definitely a part of our upbringing, and a heritage and stability that we are enormously thankful for. However, there were areas of family life that we wanted to do differently than our families of origin.
A lot of our inspiration and how to advice came from watching families that seemed to be doing things right, and from reading books and a Christian family magazine available at our church, and listening to family radio programs like Focus on the Family. I (Lisa) also took baby and toddler classes offered in our community that were really helpful. Most of the time during those early years we were in survival mode and we were maybe not as purposeful in our parenting as I wish we had been.
Lisa, did you have any unusual cravings during pregnancy?
I craved anything citrusy. I ate copious amounts of grapefruit and oranges through all three pregnancies, and with the final one I added chocolate to that list.
What surprised you most about becoming parents?
Gary: From the moment I first laid eyes on our baby girl, I experienced emotions I never knew existed. Life changed for me from that moment. I was ready to sacrifice on her behalf to feed her, fight, if necessary, to protect her (up until then I was, theologically, a pacifist), and eager to raise her up to follow God. I was instantly changed, and see my life in two epochs: before becoming a parent, and after.
Lisa: I was the youngest of five and never much into babysitting so I did not have a great deal of experience with kids and almost none with babies. So I guess I was surprised by how much of it came to me instinctively and how much I enjoyed just spending a day with my baby. I was also surprised by how much time one little infant could take up. Finally, since our oldest spent a good deal of her first year crying I was surprised by how easily frustrated and upset I could become.
What do you miss most now that you’re nearly empty nesters?
Gary: Everything. I just like little kids—their clothes, the funny way they say things, the cuddling, the wrestling, the playing, spending time together, watching the world of wonder in their eyes… Not to mention, as a writer, I REALLY miss all the funny anecdotes I used to open books and talks.
Having said that, I very much enjoy now having an adult relationship with my kids, and seeing them develop into mature men and women, so I wouldn’t want them to stay young forever. I just want them to get married and provide grandkids.
Lisa: The transition has been gradual so that has helped. We homeschooled each of them through 7th or 8th grade and then they attended high school. The oldest went to a university just an hour from home and came home frequently the first year. This year has been the biggest change with Allison coming home less frequently and our son being an airplane ride away. I miss knowing all of the details of their day. I miss just hanging around chatting. I miss cooking for more people. From their younger years I miss having them all curled up by me while I read to them, watching them act out wildly creative play scenarios, and being able to take them on all kinds of enriching excursions without having to consult their schedules!
How has having children, and having them grow older, affected your marriage?
Lisa: We are so different from each other in so many ways, so having kids allowed us to have shared goals and activities and interests. We’ve been able to appreciate each other's strengths and styles in parenting. Watching Gary parent makes me thankful that he’s the father of my kids! As we hit this new stage of marriage we’re looking forward to having me travel more often with Gary and finding more things to enjoy together.
Gary: I feel like in some ways I’m getting my wife back. As a mom, she was necessarily involved in so many lives that she simply didn’t have as much time or energy to devote to me. She was thoughtful about this, so I didn’t notice it as much as the kids were growing up, but now that her schedule has been freed up a bit, I’m noticing more attention and even care. And I have to say, it’s been nice.
How has having children affected your relationship with God?
Gary: It would take a book for me to answer that question. Oh, wait; I already wrote one: read Sacred Parenting!
Lisa: First of all, being a parent has caused me to have complete and utter dependence on God. I don’t think I could do this without knowing that there is one who loves them even more than I do and is helping them to grow up into who He wants them to be. Without that dependence on God and being able to pray, I would live with a lot more fear and worry and would probably try to be more controlling. I would also have a lot of guilt for my parenting failures. Second, seeing how much we love and delight in our kids opens me up to the possibility that God really does love and delight in me.
Gary, when did you have time to write when the kids were young?
When they were sleeping. Up through Sacred Marriage, 90 percent of my book writing was done while everyone else was asleep. I’m a big morning person, so that helped. Sometimes, I’d get up in the middle of the night. Since I had a full-time job early on, I didn’t want to miss out on family time in the evening, so my books were written early in the morning on weekdays, weekends, and vacations. Once I became a full-time writer, that was able to change, as I could write during the day and still see them.
What advice would you give a couple considering starting a family?
Lisa: Well, the Bible says “Blessed is the man who fills his quiver” with children so that’s a good mindset to start from. Having kids IS a huge blessing. There are so many more resources out there now to help parents with their parenting, so I think that should alleviate some of their fears about being a good parent. Having kids will confront your selfishness big time, but consider that a good thing.
There is usually not a perfect time to start a family (when all of your travel urges have been satisfied and the finances are in good order, etc.) so don’t wait for that. On the practical side, consider babysitting together for friends or siblings’ kids and see what kinds of child raising issues this brings up. Talk about what family life looked like growing up. Read books. Work out how to live on dad’s income. Just go for it!
Gary: I agree with everything Lisa just said. At a recent conference, a young man said he was afraid he and his wife were too impatient and selfish to have kids. I said that sounded like a good reason to start a family—unless he wanted to die selfish and impatient. We grow as we take on new challenges. God has ordained that most of us get married and raise kids. Biological reasons or disabilities may prevent some from part of that, but for those of us who can, I believe becoming a parent is surrendering to God’s design for our lives. And being surrendered to him is the only place I want to be.
Gary Thomas is an award winning author whose books on marriage, parenting, and the Christian life have become worldwide bestsellers. Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? has now sold over 300,000 copies and is changing the way the church thinks about marriage. In addition to his ten books, he has spoken in 48 states and six countries, had over 150 articles published by numerous national magazines. He and Lisa have three children, and live in Bellingham, Washington.
(Incidentally, Gary and Lisa's part 13 of The Interviews circles us back around to our first interview of the series: MckMama. Apparently we're not the only uberfans out there. She's blogged about Sacred Marriage more than once, and about meeting Gary and Lisa during her infant son Stellan's recent hospital stay in Boston.) You can read her family-making wisdom here.