Today Julia my oldest daughter turned 18 in Guatemala.
They say time files, and I guess it does, I can remember like yesterday the day she was born. I remember holding her in my arms for the first time, before she was rushed off to an incubator for 10 days due to complications.
I can remember the love I felt in my heart looking at her, so tiny, yet so perfectly made. I can remember thinking that I wanted to give her the best I could, that she would never lack for anything, that all her needs and wants would be met.
I was 17, newly married, and had spent a large portion of my childhood institutionalized. From a young age I was required to work to support my family. I knew how tough life could be. We were 11 siblings, plus several step-siblings with us on and off over the years, we had food and clothes, but not much more. I still remember buying my first pair of new shoes when I was 15, right before I left home. They were LA Gear and cost $9.99 at Kmart. I was so proud of them and wore them till the soles wore out. My education was sparse and I was ill equipped for life.
Needless to say, I didn’t have much in my childhood. So, as a young father, I wanted her to have everything that I hadn’t had, and was willing to do whatever it took to give it to her. I worked long hours to provide for my wife and daughter. Getting up at 5 am to work 12 hours and then rushing home to spend the with my baby was worth it. No job was beneath me, not even digging ditches in the sewer. While I gave her love, played with her often and read her Bible stories every night. I was practically a kid myself, and trying to figure it all out.
I remember her first birthday party, it was a windy day at Lafreniere Park in Louisiana. We had a barbecue, invited all our friends, and spent way too much money on Fisher Price “Little People” toys. Thankfully they ended up being used by her 5 siblings that were to come.
We went all out. Looking back, I don’t think that there was anything wrong that, but it was more that I didn’t know myself what it was that really mattered in my child's life.
Things did not turn out the way I had planned it. I went from installing doors for home depot, to a job in tech support, to taking my family to live in Guatemala for, what I thought, was going to be three months of volunteer work.
She was three years and seven months old when we boarded the flight to Guatemala that would change our lives forever. Going to help some missionaries we knew for short time, turned into a life of service to orphaned, vulnerable and disabled children.
There is something about seeing others in dire need that can fundamentally rewire the way we prioritize our life. I still wanted the best for my daughter, but as time went on, I was no longer convinced that what I thought was the best for her, was really the best for her.
Now that I have spent over half my live raising kids, I’ve come to the conclusion that parents have four fundamental obligations to their children: To keep them safe, to provide for their needs, to make them feel loved and to prepare them for life.
I believe most parents intuitively understand and work towards meeting them. Yet how things play out, based on our culture, beliefs, resources, and how we were raised, varies.
The more time I spent working with children in orphanages, who were lacking in many of these things, the more time I spent thinking and praying about what it actually took to meet those needs. As I reflected on how to provide these things to those I served, it changed the ways I thought about meeting them for my own children.
I knew that I didn’t want her to be raised how I was raised. Besides having left home at such a young age, I hadn’t had a solid education, and didn’t know what a healthy relationship with ones parents looked like.
As time went on, my philosophy of how to meet the fundamental obligations to my children evolved.
Keeping them safe looked different in a less developed country like Guatemala, than it did in the U.S. She didn’t grow up in a perfect suburban neighborhood, she grew up spending time with me visiting the places I worked, driving across Mexico to the U.S. and back every few years, and often times, just being in my company. The safety came from being with a dad who was always alert and looking out for her, yet at the same time exposing her to new and wonderful places as she served alongside me.
Providing for her needs changed as well. There is something about seeing others with so so much less than us that can impact what we think we need. Many of the things we classify as needs, are actually just wants. Instead of mountains of new toys every birthday, I started making presents for my children, from wooden flower planters with their name carved into it, to refurbishing and rebuilding old bicycles, we met their needs and many of their wants, in, yet tried to demonstrate a clear difference between the two.
Making them feel loved. My efforts turned from loving them with things, to loving them with time. For most of their childhood, I would come home from work and take them to park every single day. We played in forests and fields and spent time together. I can’t say that I have always succeeded in loving them perfectly in every way, God knows I have my failings, yet I believe that our focus on spending time and resources on experiences with my children, rather than on things, has paid off.
Preparing them for life. This is where some people might disagree with me. How could I throw away the “lottery of birth” my children had been given by being American citizens. The opportunity to grow up, live, attend college and find a career in what is probably one of the safest, richest countries in the world, with limitless options at their disposal. In exchange for a life in a largely impoverished country, where crime and violence are a daily companion, where they don’t have the same fast track educational prospects, live away from their relatives, and possibly suffer from the innate challenges that come from their parents being missionaries?
It’s something that I have given a lot of thought to and grappled with, and I don’t know that I have a perfect answer for it. I may not have given her the typical things that are so highly valued by most people. But I have given her something more.
I have exposed her to the world, not just to her country. I am proudly American, yet the world is bigger than my home country. By raising her in Guatemala, I have shown her the greater scope of humanity, beyond one race or culture. She speaks a second language, and easily engages people from different walks of life. Her education, while a mix of home school and local schools, has been so much more than book learning. It has been the places we have worked where she has served alongside us and developed heart of compassion. From time spent volunteering at church, to willingly helping with projects in our ministry, to assisting her younger siblings, I believe that service has become part of her DNA. She may not have had access to AP classes and been able to get college credits while in high school, but she has constantly been faced with learning opportunities and real world problem solving challenges that have constantly pushed her outside her comfort zone, and, of utmost importance, she has learned to learn.
She has had wonderful opportunities to see God to amazing things. While stuck at the border a few years ago facing a problem with immigration's, she told my wife “I wasn’t worried, because Daddy always gets us through”. While I was encouraged and touched that she had such confidence in me, I could only point her to God as I knew it was Him who had saved us time and time again in our travels. From our car breaking down in the middle of nowhere in Mexico to dealing with corrupt cops and seemingly impossible situations in foreign countries. She had seen God do miracles us and for her and it had grown her faith.
Most importantly however, I have seen her develop her own personal relationship with God, from making the decision to be baptized, to aligning her activities, friendships and lifestyle with what has become, not just ours, but her belief system and her own personal convictions. I could not be more proud of her. Her faith is her own, and I think that is her true preparation for life.
More than anything I could have done to prepare, I gave her a path to God, where she could develop her own faith, and she did. Could I have done that back home? Certainly! Yet seeing God’s word come to life, when you desperately need it and there is no other solution, is an incredibly valuable gift to give to your children.
Did I do a perfect job raising my children? No. Would l do things differently if I was 17 and starting out again? Perhaps! The only thing I know I did right in raising my children is that in my desire to do it “right” led me to God, His word and His principals.
In truth, when I look at her, at the amazing woman she has become, despite all my faults and failings as a father, I don’t know that I would change a thing.
As she finishes school this year and begins to make her own way in the world. I know that while her life may not always be easy, she has the tools, character and connection with God to make to make the most of the life she has been given.
She is more than I could have hoped for, but everything I prayed for.
Julia Taylor Martiny, I love you and am so proud of you.