There are arguably a lot of things you can and should do for your children. You should teach them about God. You should teach them to be kind to others. You should make sure they get a great education, teach them to be independent, endow them with a great work ethic, teach them how to manage money…and the list goes on and on.
But the absolute best thing you can do for your children?
Love your spouse.
And loving your spouse is not a nice, feel good phrase. It means sacrifice. Loving your spouse literally means laying down your life for your spouse day after day, for the rest of your life, as Christ laid down His life for you.
As Servant of God, Father Flanagan once said,
Isn’t sacrifice the real measure of love? Genuine love in married life comes only to two people who are mutually and supremely unselfish.
There is no greater gift you can give to your children.
That’s right. Love your husband even if he tends to be insensitive and careless. Love your wife, even if she can be controlling and a bit of a nag.
Love is a decision. It is an action. It is not merely an emotion.
Love is not about a bitter martyrdom. It’s not about actions that rest only on the surface while we allow our hearts to harden and rot on the inside. Love is about reframing our thoughts toward the good of another. If anything, it is a martyrdom of grace and generosity – of extreme care and consideration that pours forth from heart, mind and soul.
We must always assume the best, always give the benefit of the doubt, always go the extra mile. Not only to be kind, but to think kindly.
As Bishop Robert Barron has said many times,
“Love is to will the good of the other as other.”
Love is not about me. It is not about my feelings. It is about my spouse. God has ordained me as a wife for one purpose. That is, to help my husband get to heaven. And by virtue of that union, together it is our calling to lead our children there as well.
As Christians, we are called to be Christ to the world. Where is that calling more important than at the center of our own world, in our own home, with the person closest to us? The one with whom we are united as one until we reach the end of our earthly journey?
There is a great line in the movie The Sound of Music, shortly after Captain von Trapp and Maria are married, when Max, a close family relative, tries to get Maria to change the captain’s mind about allowing his children to sing in a festival. While Maria supports the idea, her husband has just made it clear to Max that he is absolutely against it. Her answer?
“Max, I can’t ask him to be less than he is.”
Consider the beauty in that simple statement. Her response is not, I will talk with him. It is not, Sometimes he can be so stubborn. It is not a roll of the eyes. Her simple statement implies a solemn belief that God rests in the soul of her husband and that he is good.
Words to keep in mind when we are tempted to question our spouse’s actions or opinions.
What does all this love, honor and respect do for your children? It teaches them that love is an act of the will, rather than a fleeting emotion. When they see you treat your husband, your wife (their father, their mother) with great kindness in all circumstances, with respect no matter your mood, with great deference regardless of the demands of others, they learn that love is an act of the will. This enables them to learn to pay little heed to their fleeting passions and be mindful of using their own wills to love.
When they witness the love of Christ through the unwavering devotion of their parents – from their earliest days as they soak in the world, through adolescence, when they begin to question your decisions, and into adulthood when they begin to realize that life can present great challenges and complex choices – they will have built a foundation that will carry them through every storm. They will know their place in the world and will feel secure.
I know there are so many illustrations of this kind of love; but I’ll leave you with a personal example that has inspired me greatly over the years.
My husband was one of nine children. He grew up on a dairy farm in Northeast Nebraska, in a small farmhouse with four bedrooms, one bathroom and one corded telephone. There was a lot of work. And there was a lot of love. While they were growing up, a simple little plaque hung on a wall in the living room. It read,
The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.
My husband’s father did just that.
And the nine children who witnessed their parents’ relationship?
They have tried to follow suit.
In a world where 50% of marriages end in divorce, by God’s grace, all nine of their children are still married – to their first and only spouse. The longest marriage has lasted over 30 years and the shortest just under 20.
The example of love witnessed by these nine children has given them more than all the riches in the world could have possibly provided them. And by extension, that example has flowed through to enrich 36 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren as well.
Of course, I’m sure my in-laws would attest that they were not perfect. Even great relationships falter. As human beings, we will fall again and again. But through the grace of God we can seek forgiveness and begin anew. Marriage is about mercy. It is about perseverance. It is about a commitment to the pursuit of the good.
Regardless of the missteps and the mistakes, loving your spouse is still undoubtedly the BEST thing you can do for your children.
When I converted to the Catholic Church, my husband went through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) with me. In one of the early sessions, the priest asked each of us to tell him what picture came to mind when we thought of God. My husband immediately said, “My parents.”
His answer gets to the heart of the matter. By loving our spouse through good times and bad, we become a picture of Christ they will carry in their hearts forever. We enable them to invite Him into their lives with open arms, because He is as familiar to them as the love they witnessed between their parents day in and day out. And when the thought of Christ becomes as warm and comfortable as coming home, how can they not want to spend the rest of eternity with Him?
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