The beauty of invisible parents

[Note: There’s a wide acceptable margin between absent parents and helicopter parents, wide enough, I believe, that we can all find a comfortable place to do what needs to be done for our kids. Parents who aren’t there and parents who hover incessantly around their kids are equally irritable to me, and both probably do some degree of damage.

So it was with that perspective that I received an email from my sister today. Like the white envelope Christmas email I wrote about before, this is one of those things that is difficult to verify. But verification misses the point entirely. The message is both good and compelling, and well worth repeating. I’ll be interested in your reaction…]

It all began to make sense, the blank stares, the lack of response, the way one of the kids will walk into the room while I’m on the phone and ask me a question. Inside I’m thinking, ‘Can’t you see I’m on the phone?’ Obviously, not!

No one can see if I’m on the phone, or cooking, or sweeping the floor, or even standing on my head in the corner, because no one can see me at all. I’m invisible. The invisible Parent. Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this?

Some days I’m not a pair of hands; I’m not even a human being. I’m a clock to ask, ‘What time is it?’ I’m a satellite guide to answer, ‘What number is the Disney Channel?’ I’m a car to order, ‘Right around 5:30, please.’

I was certain that these were the hands that once held books and the eyes that studied history and the mind that graduated sum a cum laude but now they had disappeared into the peanut butter, never to be seen again. Going; Going; Gone!

One night, a group of us were having dinner, celebrating the return of a friend from England .. Janice had just gotten back from a fabulous trip, and she was going on and on about the hotel she stayed in. I was sitting there, looking around at the others all put together so well. It was hard not to compare and feel sorry for myself. I was feeling pretty pathetic, when Janice turned to me with a beautifully wrapped package, and said, ‘I brought you this.’ It was a book on the great cathedrals of Europe . I wasn’t exactly sure why she’d given it to me until I read her inscription: ‘To the child rearer, with admiration for the greatness of what you are building when no one sees.’

In the days ahead I would read– no, devour– the book. And I would discover what would become for me, four life-changing20truths, after which I could pattern my work: No one can say who built the great cathedrals – we have no record of their names. These builders gave their whol. lives for a work they would never see finished. They made great sacrifices and expected no credit. The passion of their building was fueled by their faith that the eyes of God saw everything.

A legendary story in the book told of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was being built, and he saw a workman carving a tiny bird on the inside of a beam. He was puzzled and asked the man, ‘Why are you spending so much time carving that bird into a beam that will be covered by the roof? No one will ever see it.’ And the workman replied, ‘Because God sees.’

I closed the book, feeling the missing piece fall into place. It was almost as if I heard God whispering to me, ‘I see you. I see the sacrifices you make every day, even when no one around you does. No act of kindness you’ve done, no sequin you’ve sewn on, no cupcake you’ve baked, is too small for me to notice and smile over. You are building a great cathedral, but you can’t see right now what it will become.’

At times, my invisibility feels like an affliction. But it is not a disease that is erasing my life. It is the cure for the disease of my own self-centeredness. It is the antidote to my strong, stubborn pride.

I keep the right perspective when I see myself as a great builder. As one of the people who show up at a job that they will never see finished, to work on something that their name will never be on. The writer of the book went so far as to say that no cathedrals could ever be built in our lifetime because there are so few people willing to sacrifice to that degree.

When I really think about it, I don’t want my son to tell the friend he’s bringing home from college for Thanksgiving, ‘My Parent gets up at 4 in the morning and bakes homemade pies, and then she hand bastes a turkey for three hours and presses all the linens for the table.’ That would mean I’d built a shrine or a monument to myself. I just want him to want to come home. And then, if there is anything more to say to his friend, to add, ‘you’re gonna love it there.’

As a parent, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be seen if we’re doing it right. And one day, it is very possible that the world will marvel, not only at what we have built, but at the beauty that has been added to the world by the sacrifices of invisible women.

[Add’l note: Turns out this was written by bestselling author, performer, and motivational speaker Nicole Johnson, who performs this as a one-person drama at many women of faith conferences. It’s full title is The Invisible Woman: When Only God Sees. If you’re interested, you can read an interview with Nicole. ]


  1. I was struck by the thought a couple days ago (and this rings truer as my kids will grow older):All the stuff that I do that seems really cool blogging, being a mini-celeb on some social networks, and knowing lots of other people who are doing even cooler things, my kids will not think what I do is cool in the least.Which made me ashamed to realize that all the stuff my parents did that they thought was so cool, I thought was rather lame.Were my parents really lame when I was a kid? Or have I maintained my level of coolness throughout my life, possibly even gaining as I grow older? Or will my kids think I’m a total dork, because I’m trying to imitate what the “young people” are doing?

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