“What Can I Give Him, Poor As I Am?” Parenting When I Feel Inadequate

I remember vividly the drive home from the hospital after our first child was born. My husband Rob, a native Chicagoan with a lead foot, drove like a retiree down the highway. Rather than changing lanes to maneuver around other cars, he stuck conservatively to the right lane. We rode in silence, no car ride banter or radio music to distract him from the road. When a car zipped by us, Rob proclaimed exasperatedly, “Now I know why they have those ‘Baby on Board’ signs!” Our car carried precious cargo; new responsibility weighed heavily on our shoulders.

There’s nothing like having a baby to make you feel inadequate and underprepared. Many times Rob and I asked ourselves, “Who put us in charge?” While we jumped through hoops to achieve pre-approval for a home mortgage, our children all arrived without pre-authorization or a single user’s manual. I’d read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and we’d attended Lamaze classes. Nevertheless, early on, we discovered that, though God had appointed us custodians of these little lives, we had a whole lot to learn about parenting.

As our four children eased out of diapers and daytime naps, Rob and I enjoyed a few years of lull where our parenting skills seemed to catch up with our children’s development. But when our kids became teenagers, I began to feel a growing sense of inadequacy, that old familiar feeling of being underprepared. I read parenting books and consulted wise friends, but many times (especially since Rob’s unexpected death) I’ve felt my skills insufficient for the task before me. When I come to parenting, I often feel like I come empty handed.

What Can I Give?

I imagine Mary felt a similar sense of inadequacy when she held the infant Jesus in her arms in that animal shelter behind the inn. It had been one thing to carry God’s gift to the world within her womb, quietly and intimately hidden away. Now, she must bear him about in her arms, teach him to walk, help him grow as he became the One who had been foretold to her. Had God really put her in charge of this little life?

And then, to hear the ancient Simeon’s words, “And a sword will pierce your soul too.” What lay in store for this precious newborn? All of her impulses to protect and provide felt inadequate to the task. She was just a poor girl from Nazareth. What did she have to offer the Messiah? What could she give?

We’re told little of Jesus as a teenager, but we know he was in all ways like us. As an adolescent, Jesus woke up each morning to discover his body changing much as our teenagers do. One day he felt like a boy, another day an emerging man. Hormones and emotions marked his journey to adulthood just like they do our children’s. No doubt, as Jesus grew, his parents often recognized their inadequacy and felt their unpreparedness. The longer they were parents the more they realized how much they needed to learn, how little they had to offer, how much they must rely on the wisdom of Jehovah to guide their steps.

I suspect there were many days where Mary wistfully remembered when, in the words of Christina Rosetti’s Christmas hymn, “a breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay” were all she needed to provide to be considered a good mother. As the world grew hostile toward her beloved son, no doubt, Mary longed for that night long ago when “a stable-place sufficed,” when life felt simpler and she felt more equipped for the task of parenthood. As he hung on a Roman cross, as she wrapped his broken body in linens, the questions Mary had asked in Jesus’ infancy probably echoed in her mind again. What did she have to offer to her son, the Savior of the world? What could she give?

All I Have to Offer

For many of us, the holiday season prompts similar questions of adequacy. We look at our checkbooks and wonder what we can afford to give this year. We see our children’s Christmas lists and long for the days when a new rattle or stuffed animal (or better yet, the box it came in) satisfied all desires. We easily fall into the trap of wanting to give our children the things we missed out on, as though our own scarcity could somehow be soothed by another generation’s abundance.

We look beyond the material to our children’s hearts. We long for them to know the Savior who has come in lowliness to give us all things. But many days we aren’t sure how to do this “parenting a teen” thing. What can prepare us for the task of shepherding these lives? How do we point our teenagers to Jesus in ways that will form their faith for a lifetime? What of substance can we really give?

As I wrestle with these questions at the holidays and on ordinary days, Christina Rosetti’s beautiful words from “In the Bleak Midwinter” speak to my heart. They remind me of what I can offer my children by recalling for me the only thing that God asks of me. Rosetti writes:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

When I consider my inadequacy before God, I stand undone. I cry with the tax collector, “Have mercy on me, O God, a sinner.” If I am honest, I have nothing to offer. All of my righteousness is filthy; all of my good works are tarnished and spoiled by sin. I am destitute, impoverished; I stand with empty hands.

What a miracle, then, that the One whom heaven could not hold has deigned to give himself to me! In unconditional love, God not only calls me child but heir to all he possesses. In the light of this glorious truth, my inadequacies fade in importance. My lack of preparedness is no longer a handicap. My security is not found in what I give. This freedom opens up my generosity. What can I give him poor as I am? I offer up joyfully the one thing I possess — my heart.

As my children grow and change, I work hard to improve my parenting skills. I read articles and listen to child development specialists. No matter what I do, though, my inadequacy will inevitably reveal itself. I cannot be all and give all to my children. The daunting task of parenting will fill me with anxieties and insecurities. It is, after all, a really big job.

It is in these moments especially that I must remember what my children need most — my presence, my whole heart devoted unselfishly toward their flourishing. As I parent my teenagers, I must begin with the same self-sacrificing love that Jesus modeled in his gift to me.

I must return over and over to the truth that God’s abundance will provide for their every need, an abundance that fills in all the gaps and overflows in their lives.

This spirit of abundance begins with me. This Christmas, the best gift I can offer my children is my own heart given to God. I bless my children each time I trust that it is Christ’s poverty that has made me rich, that his fullness replaces my inadequacy and guides me when I feel unprepared. This season, “what I can I give Him: give Him my heart.”

Clarissa Moll (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is author of Beyond the Darkness: A Gentle Guide to Living with Grief and Thriving after Loss. She is the host of Christianity Today’s “Surprised by Grief” podcast, and her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, RELEVANT, Modern Loss and more. Clarissa engages with readers on Instagram (@mollclarissa) and at her website (www.clarissamoll.com) where she offers a monthly newsletter of support and encouragement for people experiencing bereavement.

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