But lately, as a new mom, the parable has taken on new meaning for me. God is the perfect parent and we should strive to be like Him with our children, but it is sort of intimidating and abstract to try to "be more like God." That's why I think Jesus gave us the father figure in the parable - to give us a concrete example of how God wants us to parent our children.
It's not about us.
I will never forget when a good friend of mine who has done an outstanding job parenting three amazing children said: "Kids don't actually belong to us. They belong to God, and He gives them to us for a short time to raise. After that, we return them to Him."
Instead of this attitude, I think so often parents' love for their children translates into a claim or hold on them, even after they are adults who are off on their own. They feel guilt when their children make decisions they don't approve of. They feel hurt when they believe their children slight them. They feel pride in themselves when their children do something good. I think this sense of possession drastically affects the parent-child relationship, subjecting both to potential emotional distress.
What the prodigal son's father teaches us
The father in the prodigal son parable does not seem to have such a feeling of possession over his son. He freely gives to his son the gift of his inheritance early at his son's request. Surely he would have preferred that both of his sons stay near to him, yet he respects the free will of his younger son, allowing him to go off on his own without making him feel guilty.
But when the son makes his mistakes and remorsefully returns to his father, his father does not show disappointment in his son's decisions. He does not tell his son what he should have done and how he'd hurt his father, or out of a sense of entitlement demand the inheritance that the son had squandered to be repaid. Rather, the father selflessly welcomes his son back into his home. His son's presence is a gift worthy of celebrating, not something that was due to or owed to the father.
The point of parenthood
Why do we have children in the first place? It has nothing to do with us. It is not so that we can brag to our friends about how well-behaved our children are, thanks to our parenting skills, or feel pride in cultivating our kids' talents. It is not so that one day we have someone to take care of us in our old age or to give back to us whatever we have given to them.
Rather, it has everything to do with God. We are given the beautiful privilege of bringing His children into the world so that we can do our best to teach them to love Him and neighbor, then release them into the world to make it a better place. And somewhere along the line, we might just learn how to love in some flawed version of the perfect, selfless, and unconditional way that God loves us.
Human nature strikes
But in reality, I feel tempted even as my daughter is only 7 weeks old to take credit for her affable personality ("She's happy because I have her on a routine!") or be proud of her pretty eyes ("She has my genes, after all!"). And I dream about how we will one day be best friends and she will become famous for some grand, altruistic endeavor, allowing me to say, "That's my daughter!"
I will never be a perfect parent, and my child will never be a perfect child. We will both make mistakes, and she will make different choices than I'd have preferred. She won't turn out exactly as I've dreamed she will. She may not be as close to me in the future as I'd like. As a teenager (or even before), she will probably even throw out the quintessential blow: "I hate you, Mom!"
What's expected of us
Knowing that, all I can do is my absolute best to nurture her, give freely to her what she needs (and then some, if I am able), teach her what she needs to know, give her the unconditional love she needs to thrive in the world, and pray for her every day that she might one day be in Heaven. While she's a child, I will celebrate her successes and help her learn from her failures. After I release her into the world as an adult, I will pray for the blessing that she wants me to remain part of her life. If she returns to me having done good, I will rejoice with her. If she returns to me having made mistakes, I will welcome her back with loving arms and give her advice when she asks for it. If she doesn't return to me at all, I will be sad, but I will trust that her Father will take care of her. No matter what, I will not ask her to repay anything I've given her, just as God doesn't ask me to repay what He's given to me.
Above all, I won't take anything personally. She is her own person, and while I am responsible for giving her a good upbringing, I am not responsible for the choices she makes of her own free will. She doesn't belong to me. She belongs to God.
Doing the best we can
Of course, this is all an ideal dream I have for myself. I know full well how difficult and virtually impossible it will be. As humans, we are all drawn toward selfishness and tend to see the world as revolving around ourselves. Humility does not come naturally to us. We don't thrive upon uncertainty or lack of control. I am the first to say that I do not do well when the plans I have made for myself don't come to fruition. But I know the goal I need to strive toward, and with God's help, I'll get there little by little.
When I decided to settle in the town where I went to graduate school, 500 miles away from home, my mom was heartbroken. She imagined how hard it would be for me and for her when I had children and was so far away from my mom and family. (By the way, it is hard, after all!) Furthermore, I was taking away the dream she'd had her whole entire life of having her family live around her - getting together on weekends, supporting one another at events, celebrating all holidays together. She was hurt and worried, and she let me know it. But one day, it clicked for her that while this may not be the realization of her dream, my life wasn't hers to plan. I was happy, and she finally came to rejoice with me for that. Now, our relationship is stronger than ever despite the distance.
I thank God for the earthly examples of parenting He has provided me through my parents, in-laws, and friends. And I thank Him for the example He has laid out for me, both in "layman's terms" in the parable of the prodigal son and most especially in the way He loves me as my Heavenly Father - totally, freely, faithfully, and, if I cooperate, bearing great fruit in the world.