Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
“To me be as it pleaseth God,” she said,
“My soul shall laud and magnify his holy name.”
—The angel Gabriel from heaven came, traditional Anglican Advent carol
In the early months of the pandemic, locked down with my young children in a too small city row house with no real backyard to speak of, I found myself losing my patience, something already in short supply, much like milk, diapers, and grocery delivery slots. And I wasn’t just getting exasperated—I was yelling.
Even as I was doing it, I felt the shame of losing control, the shame of not being like one of the TikTok supermoms who were taking advantage of this historic moment to film themselves joyfully homeschooling and sewing masks for healthcare workers at the same time. I judged myself, harshly, for not being able to force down the fear and anxiety and resentment (sweet Lord, the resentment!) and anger and frustration of that time, and mostly I judged myself for taking any of it out on my children.
Even though I knew deep down that these internet representations of perfect parenting were only one highly curated view into the complex chaos that is life with small children during a crisis, they were so attractive. They offered a vision of the sort of maternal peace we find in iconography of the Virgin Mary, the stuff of Christmas carols-—the new Mother, meek and mild, serenely smiling down at her perfect child Jesus.
Not yelling even a little bit.
Why couldn’t I be *that* kind of mother?
We don’t spend much time considering the years between Mary’s “Yes” to the Angel Gabriel and the adult Jesus. We only get one story about a young Jesus, in the gospel of Luke, where he stays behind in Jerusalem unbeknownst to his parents. After three full days of travel, backtracking, and searching, they find him teaching his elders in the temple. As for Mary’s response, we are told only that she questioned 12-year-old Jesus, asking why he would make them search for him and create such anxiety. His response is to gently rebuke both his parents and point toward his future ministry. Mary kept all these things in her heart, and then the gospel moves on.
As the pandemic lockdown stretched on in my city, I realized that I needed help. The ways I had learned to parent weren’t serving me well with my own children. Late at night, after everyone in my household was asleep and my paid work was done, I started looking for parenting resources. My gateway to what I eventually learned was called Gentle Parenting was through Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Child. I read the book, practically breathless as she painted a calm, serene picture of parenting as deepening the relationship with one’s child, rooted in delight and love instead of frustration and attempts at control. Dr. Markham described the parenting goal of shaping a child into a confident, contented adult with strong values including respect for themselves and others.
At its essence, the Gentle Parenting approach focuses on emotional connection and mutual respect as the foundation of parenting, mostly by remaining in control of our own adult emotions in order to be the steady, calming presence that our children need. It requires consistently holding boundaries, and a focus on natural consequences rather than a system of rewards and punishments.
It is this deemphasis on direct punishment that brings the most criticism from those who, like me, were brought up in a more traditional parenting style—the kind where the parent-child relationship is a rigid hierarchy, reminding children that they are small and powerless while adults are big and powerful and in charge, keeping everyone in their rightful place. That sort of parenting is attractive because it means total control, obedience without question. But getting there is usually achieved through shame and fear, backed up by threats emotional or physical.
In that way it’s a lot like the approach of an occupying force, subjugating those who would fight for their freedom. The sort of thing that gives rise to the Magnificat and Messiahs.
At the heart of Gentle Parenting is making peace with how each of us was parented, then shifting our approach to our own children based on that. It means setting aside those things that did damage, replicating what was most powerful and empowering. On this Feast Day of Joachim and Anne, parents of Our Lady, I wonder how these two parents whom we know absolutely nothing about parented their own child, destined to become the Theotokos. I wonder how they connected with her, provided her with a foundation of love and support, and helped kindle in her the strength and the confidence to say yes on that fateful day.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.]