This Saturday is Tolkien Reading Day, so it’s time for my annual look at what one of my favorite authors can teach us about raising other people’s children. This year, I’ve been thinking about how to stay optimistic in the face of all of our and our kids’ challenges. Finding that optimism is the one challenge that may be universal among all of us who are parenting non-biological children.
There’s no doubt that being a foster or stepparent is a difficult job. Even with lots of goodwill on all sides, we all are going to make a lot of mistakes. And, unfortunately, we often don’t have goodwill on all sides. Kids may reject us, biological parents may complicate our lives, and/or we will react to those situations in really stupid ways.
Our situations are particularly complicated when our kids come to us after suffering trauma. If we are stepparents to children whose biological parent died or is estranged, they will view us through the lens of that trauma. If we are parenting foster kids, they may just consider us part of the same system that took them away from the parents they love and want to be with. No matter how our kids come to us, their trauma will affect their development and place frustrating limits on their ability to accept our help.
It’s those limits and the mistakes I make that always bother me the most. Of course, I worry about my kids and their decisions that I think are bad(poor?) and certain to make their lives more difficult. But what keeps me up at night is wondering if my interactions with them are just making things worse or, at best, just not making any difference. I always expect that somehow I should be able to have just the right reaction to help them overcome their challenges.
Of course, that’s not realistic, but knowing that fact in my head doesn’t keep me from feeling that I have failed my kids on a regular basis. I describe my book as telling the lessons that my children have taught me over the years. On some days, I thought that a more honest description would be the mistakes I made. On those days, it was hard to keep trying.
It’s with that backdrop that a passage in The Lord of the Rings first jumped out at me many years ago. The dialogue occurs early in the book, when two main characters are discussing the quest that will form the spine of the work. The wizard Gandalf says, “[D]espair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”
The ruler of the elves responds, “The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
I found great comfort and inspiration in those words. We can’t despair over our ability to help our kids, because we do not know “the end beyond all doubt.” True, we often don’t see any benefits from our presence in their lives, but we don’t know either what is going on behind the scenes or what the future holds for them. We can’t deprive them of whatever benefits they might see in the future.
We have to accept the fact that there are no guarantees about what relationships we will be able to build or that we can help our kids overcome their trauma. But, regardless of the outcome, our work, with all of our flaws and mistakes, is worth doing. The only guarantee is that we will fail them if we don’t try to help.
More important, we can help our kids just as much as, or better than, anyone else. Stronger and more wise people won’t necessarily do any better with our kids than we will, and it’s doubtful that they will love them any more than we do. Our quest “may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong.” We may feel some days that ours are the “small hands” trying frantically to do big jobs. Our hands, however, can end up being the ones that “move the wheels of the world,” or at least the course of our children’s lives.