A Parent’s Love and Fear
July 1993

“A Parent’s Love and Fear,” Ensign, July 1993, 21

A Parent’s Love and Fear

I feared I’d failed as a parent. Then I found consolation—and compensation—in the Lord’s healing love.

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18.)

As I have reflected on the mistakes I made as a parent, it has been a challenge for me to separate love from fear. I love and admire my children, but I have feared for them over the consequences of some of my parenting. Nevertheless, the insight has pressed upon me that even though parents obviously have power to do their children much good, mothers (or fathers) do not bear the entire responsibility for the way their children turn out. How, then, in spite of my seemingly irreparable errors, may I as an imperfect parent enter into the “rest of the Lord”? (Moro. 7:3.)

I learned about fear in my growing-up years, during which my dear father suffered from alcoholism. Although he eventually embraced recovery, I came out of my family with many confused feelings. I found the Church when I was nineteen, and received much healing then, but many of my emotions continued to trouble me, and my problems did not yield easily to the gospel’s influence.

As a young mother, I had to struggle to be cheerful at home and felt that I was barely keeping irritability from leaking out. I was loving, patient, and appreciative, and often felt the Spirit, but I was also angry, guilty, driven, and afraid, not to mention perfectionistic and controlling. In the midst of this inconsistency, I often felt that I was clinging to a precipice by my fingernails.

Later I observed that if we don’t learn peaceful feelings in our childhood homes, we may struggle to possess them when we reach adulthood, when we become marriage partners and parents. We may look continually for compensations for our childhood losses, often in the wrong places, failing to take seriously the Lord’s words from the scriptures and come to him for specific help. I learned that the significance of spiritual rebirth through the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel is that we can mature spiritually in spite of family imperfections, we can receive healing under his guidance, and we can gain abundant compensations for our deprivations.

But in those earlier days, I struggled with three powerful emotions: fear, guilt, and anger. After some nineteen years of motherhood, my children seemed like enemies, I was a workaholic, I felt I didn’t love anybody, and I had no idea where to go for help.

About one o’clock one morning, while waiting for one of my teenagers to come home well past the agreed-upon hour, I hit my lowest point of despair. After crying out from the bottom of my soul for help, I was clearly impressed with the words, “Go home.” The next morning I arranged to fly to my parents’ home in Ohio, where my father had recently completed a rehabilitation program for alcoholics. Leaders of the program extended help to all members of the alcoholic’s family.

Thus began a period of new insight and healing. I attended an orientation program for children and spouses of alcoholics. I read books on being a child of an alcoholic, I talked to adult children of alcoholics who had become counselors in the rehabilitation program, and I prayed without ceasing. I learned that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is fully sustaining.

Another thing I have learned is that many people who do not come from alcoholic families suffer from distress similar to mine. Apparently, when a child comes from a home where she has experienced insufficient support for one reason or another, she may carry some emotional confusion into adulthood.

In such persons, fear, guilt, and anger can reach alarming proportions. Fear comes from the child’s awareness of the uncontrollable nature of a fearful environment, of overwhelming negative forces surrounding her. Guilt and profound feelings of inadequacy arise when she is unable to improve her family’s situation or to fix what is wrong in the environment or in another person, no matter how hard she tries to be good. Not knowing the source of her guilt, she may carry it all her life. She often feels too sorry for something she has done that is really not that serious. Her anger may come from her deep frustration, pain, deprivation, and resulting self-pity.

A fourth problem follows in the wake of the other three: she may feel a need to control others and manipulate events in order to feel secure in her own world, to hold her world together—to make happen what she wants to happen. She may enter adulthood with an illusion of power and a sense of authority to fix other people, though she has had little success at it. (This may not be a desire for unrighteous dominion as much as an anxiety for the “right” things to happen.) She thinks that all she has to do is try harder, be worthier, and then she can change, perfect, and save other people.

When I first realized that all these emotional difficulties characterized me, I nearly drowned in an ocean of guilt. I was stunned by what I thought I had done to my children. Talking to the counselor from the rehabilitation program, I inflated every feeling of guilt and fear. The counselor saw my distress and gently but firmly told me that I couldn’t do anything for anyone else until I got better myself; that I first must focus on getting well and quit “fixing” anyone around me.

I memorized the “serenity prayer”: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” I used to think that if I was worthy enough, worked hard enough, and exercised enough anxiety (which is not the same thing as faith), I could change anything. But my power and my control were illusions. I could see that my emotional survival required that I turn my heart and mind over to the care of a tender Heavenly Father.

It was my own spiritual superficiality that was making me sick, and only profound repentance, a real change of heart, a much deeper planting of basic gospel truths would ultimately heal me. I sought the Lord, and I began to feel his guidance and comfort. I remembered his words: “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me, ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5.)

This complete surrender to God was new to me, even though I had been a diligent Church teacher for several years. Godly knowledge, lovingly imparted to me by the Spirit, began deeply healing me, gave me tools to live by and new ways to understand the gospel. I understood the Lord’s promise: “If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know … peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal.” (D&C 42:61.) What had seemed so hopeless and complicated now seemed much simpler. Here are some peaceable things I learned that helped me live in greater harmony and love with my family:

  • Although we bring personal weaknesses to our parenting that may provide real opposition for our children, we do not need to feel that all is lost. We remember that our Heavenly Father knows the end from the beginning. (See Abr. 2:8.) He knew beforehand the ignorance, the failings, the confusion, the spiritual infirmities of each of his children—including those who would become parents. Knowing all these things, the Lord prepared the gospel plan and allowed us the experiences of mortality, with certain compensations and blessings and talents available within the child or along life’s path that would help the child as he or she struggled with opposition. God provides ample opportunity to learn and recover from the opposition. (See 2 Ne. 2:11, 15; Ether 12:27, 37.)

    Some of the learning experiences we undergo may cause us heartache. But fortunately, divine growth can be the outcome of the pain and opposition in anyone’s life.

    As in my own experience, many of us carry from our childhood some consequences of our own parents’ spiritual infirmities which we unwittingly visit on our children. Of course, these imperfect family conditions are a function of a fallen world—an imperfect world of ignorance and weakness. Yet in its imperfection, this world provides a perfect learning environment for this phase of our eternal development. Perhaps this is one of the most important views of life to learn—that this life consists, among other things, of tutorials designed to give us experience, to develop our divine nature, and to draw us to the Lord Jesus Christ, our Master Teacher. It is clear that parenthood was designed as much for parents as for children.

    I don’t want to diminish the fact that a mother can do much good for her child. Rather, I want to raise the question, Why do we learn many valuable parenting lessons after it is too late to incorporate them as fully and effectively as we would like to? Perhaps because it is never too late, really, in the eternal scheme of things. It seems that when Mother gets better, it helps others in the family to get better—no matter how old they are.

  • What a child chooses to do and be in life is a product of a unique reaction involving his personality, his agency, and his environment. Thus some children from the seemingly best environments have serious problems, while others from deprived environments sometimes display amazing maturity and resilience.

    Children, as they grow, become independent agents, responsible for what they do with the opposition in their lives. I mentioned earlier that although children are born to imperfect or even emotionally sick parents, they have God-given compensations; that is, they have counterbalancing character traits, spiritual gifts, blessings, or solutions that present themselves as the offended child grows. Part of God’s miracle is that often these very children break generations of troubled family patterns as they get well and help provide healing for others in similar situations. Truly these children have sacrificed to help others. (See D&C 132:50.)

    But as solutions for the family become apparent, we may find ourselves in a difficult situation: Feeling that we have produced trouble in a child’s life and thinking we know the solution for that child, we want to undo the trouble. We offer him our best solution and want him to apply it right now. It is very frustrating to realize that we generally cannot undo the trouble as soon as we want it undone; nor can we apply the same solution to every child.

    We learn that no child of any age can be forced to accept solutions he doesn’t want. A child may even prefer the trouble to the solution. Parents can pray for readiness in a child but must wait for that spiritual readiness to come to the child. As we learn divine patience, we come to understand our Savior’s love more and more.

    In the meantime, it is helpful to remember that as they make mistakes and live with the consequences, our children gain experience. (See D&C 122:7.) In an ultimate sense, they exist in a safe universe overseen by an omnipotent and loving God on whom nothing is lost.

  • No mother, not even a sick or troubled mother, can deprive her child of the celestial kingdom. Salvation is each person’s own responsibility, not his mother’s, father’s, or family’s.

    We parents may give lip service to the principle that each person is responsible for his or her own salvation; but in the same moment some of us may be filled with terrible fear that we have failed our children irreparably, and that because of our mistakes, they will not be saved. It helps to remember that our children’s salvation does not rest solely on us. Parents are just one component (though a powerful one) in a multifaceted plan. (See D&C 68:25.) How grateful we are that restitution can come in the parent’s healing process. How we cherish God’s correction and tender forgiveness when our mistakes seem beyond repair!

  • With all our hearts, we hope we will not cause suffering. But when suffering is inevitable or has occurred already, we find solace in the knowledge that people learn lessons in such suffering. We all have the right to suffer, which can help propel us toward God and teach us some of life’s most precious lessons. Indeed, there are some lessons that only pain can teach, and if we try to remove all pain—especially the pain of consequences for sin—we may be unwittingly thwarting a divine purpose.

    So we learn to be wiser than we have been and to go in a direction we had never before thought to go. We learn patience and faith in the unfolding of an individual plan for each of our children, admitting that we may be “[seeing] through a glass, darkly.” (1 Cor. 13:12.)

  • What if the wayward child never returns? A parent can agonize over that question. She can storm the gates of heaven. She can cajole and teach until her children are sick of her and the gospel; she can reproach, plead with, and threaten them. And then she learns: Her love must be governed by intelligence, patience, and faith, not by overanxiety that can block the Spirit’s workings in her. (See Jacob 4:18.) Maybe that’s why the Savior of the world reminds us, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10.)

    It is very hard to let go of that agonizing knot in the stomach that urges us to take all of the blame and to beat ourselves mercilessly. But if we are going to learn godliness, we must redirect the energy we give to our anxiety over another’s choices. We do not perfect others with our fear, or even with our love; rather, we perfect the principle of love in ourselves.

    Indeed, our children may feel something unwholesome about our love if they sense too much anxiety in it. They may feel they are being manipulated by our so-called love. Consequently, they don’t receive it as love. Perhaps they are right. It may be more like fear at one point, or hurt pride, or anger over failure to control, rather than love. Our children must see that our personal happiness in applying the gospel to our lives is not dependent on their conversion. We can be happy with or without that condition. Thus, we must take care not to try to manipulate them with our unhappiness.

    Do we love our children more if we allow our grief over them to destroy us? Do we love them less if we allow them their agency and maintain a degree of our own serenity? Can we actually free ourselves from the tyranny of our grief? If we are going to be Christlike, we must realize that our loved ones are independent agents; we must get used to others often rejecting our best gifts.

    As I think about serenity, or the Lord’s rest, I consider these scriptures that have been helpful for me:

    • “May God grant unto you that your burdens may be light, through the joy of his Son. And even all this can ye do if ye will.” (Alma 33:23; emphasis added.) If we will cast our burdens on the Lord, as he invites us to do, we will find relief. In the past, I have liked thinking that my anxiety was a measure of my spiritual sensitivity or my love; but I have had to admit it was neurosis, lack of faith, or any one of a host of problems.

    • Mormon observes that those who have sufficient hope in Christ can “enter into the rest of the Lord”—in this life. (Moro. 7:3.) Does that truth exclude those of us who have errant loved ones? I have learned that my rest in God is not dependent on others’ choices or opinions, even my children’s.

    • “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” (D&C 6:36.) Prayer has brought many a wiser parent, and then even her wayward child, home again.

    • “Pray always, and I will pour out my Spirit upon you, and great shall be your blessing. … Yea, come unto me thy Savior.” (D&C 19:38, 41.) There is a tremendous amount of our Savior’s grace that can be tapped for our families if we will learn how to gain access to it.

There is a God; there is a plan. There is an attentive Savior who will lead us if we let him. There are divine solutions to each of our most distressing dilemmas.

“All things work together for good to them that love God.” (Rom. 8:28.) All things. May we cast the fear out of our love; may we love with serenity.

  • M. Catherine Thomas teaches Gospel Doctrine in the Pleasant View First Ward and is first counselor in the Young Women presidency of the Provo Utah Sharon East Stake.

Illustrated by David Linn