What’s it like to have five children? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why don’t people go to church? Thislife Online puts Cape Town pastor, surfer and father of five, TERRAN WILLIAMS, on the spot…
The elder son of a shoe designer and a fashion designer, Terran Williams, 42, was born in Jozi and grew up in Sea Point, Cape Town. He currently leads the congregation at Common Ground Church, Constantia, and is in charge of preaching and teaching at the church’s nine Cape Town congregations. Terran is married to Julie, currently the marketing manager of a local wine farm, and they have five children: Eli, 8, Fynn, 6, Ivy, 4, and Charlie and Sam, both 2.
Five children and us: Terran and his wife Julie might not look like it here but they’re actually in crisis mode, he says!
OK, what’s the reality of parenting five kids?
Children are the sweetest things in the world. Your heart walking around in someone else’s body. But there’s a dark side parents don’t often talk about. I think it’s good to open it up: it’s no good running a marathon uphill and trying to tell yourself this is wonderful. Facing the fact of the agonising incline is necessary if you’re going to make it. A few months ago, a therapist friend of mine said, ‘A family with a kid under the age of three is in crisis mode.’ At first I thought that was a bit negative, but on reflection I conclude he’s right. Parenting infants and toddlers puts you under a constant pressure that little else in life comes close to matching. It’s incessant in its challenges. To be fair, having five kids close together only compounds the reality, but we’re just a magnification of what’s there for smaller families. (We know this: we once had fewer kids ourselves!)
So why did you have so many children?
We didn’t plan on five. We struggled initially to produce one! After three, Julie told me to get the snip. But she’d always had a sense of another child, so I said, ‘Why don’t we try just for two months?’ It happened straight away. Seven weeks later, Julie came rushing in from her scan screaming, ‘We’re not having a baby’… (my heart stopped)… ‘We’re having two!’ My vision went blurry.
And it’s been hard?
I don’t want to sound as if I’m complaining. I think of parents who lose their income, single parents, parents of kids with severe disabilities, or parents who have lost a child. Those guys are the masters of the universe. I’m in awe. But we do have a number of challenges! On our better days, Julie and I team together like Batman and Robin, on our more stressed days we turn on each other. At night, we keep count of how many times we get out of bed and when our number is higher, ‘gently’ nudge the other person who’s pretending to sleep through the baby cry. By day, we play the ‘who’s suffering more’ card, and sometimes have a go at each other verbally in front of the kids. Yes, we know how damaging this is to a young child’s psyche, but the guilt doesn’t always have power to stop the bickering.
Professionally, my sharpness disappeared for a year after Ivy and then the twins were born. There’ve been emails not responded to quickly enough, under-preparedness for critical meetings, increased strain from inferior quality attention to fellow-workers, and a tendency to lose composure when leading people requires me to stay calm.
Is that it?
No, there’s also a panoply of negative emotions. New fears and anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, the crippling curse of comparison. In my view, the most emotion-intensifying thing about family life is that we tend to absorb each other’s emotions. Every tantrum, tear and sibling tiff emits an emotional toxin that the trying-hard parents tend to take into their tender hearts. Our kids bounce back remarkably, but we parents, the emotional filters, are left with the residue. There’s a best-selling book on parenting called Keep Calm and Parent On. That’s probably the best, but most unachievable, advice there is: like telling someone tumbling down a mountainside to keep calm and enjoy the ride.
Any other challenges?
Our house is a mess almost all the time. Stress and exhaustion work against one’s sexual capacities. Financial strain. We hardly have anyone round (we’d be embarrassed if people glimpsed the real chaos of our lives!). Every week, a new Time mag arrives in my postbox, but I can’t read it because its title is the one thing I don’t have!
So how do you survive?
Coffee. Ha ha. And a long afternoon nap – I wish! Thankfully, Julie’s parents live close by and her mom comes round during many a crazy hour while we eat supper. My mom also helps out and on weekdays we have Winnet, who helps us clean the house and care for the twins. When things get really crazy, I try to step into endurance mode and remind myself I probably won’t feel like this tomorrow, so I shouldn’t make other people’s lives miserable in the meantime. I try to look after myself. My little maxim is: if your outflow exceeds your inflow, the shortfall will be your downfall. So I try to squeeze in surfing once or twice a week and holidays by the sea. I also try to take the kids out separately on a ‘date’.
The best part of my life. I married up. She was head girl of St Mary’s, Hillcrest, in KZN and I wasn’t even a prefect. She reminds me in the chaos of parenting: ‘This is not for ever and one day we’re going to miss it.
OK, so some other things. You and God?
As wonderful as family and surfing are, they don’t satisfy the deepest chambers of my heart. But God does.
Children bounce back quicker than their parents, says Terran
Why do some people find God so hard to find?
I think we go looking in the wrong places. Searching for Him might short-circuit the important discovery that He has come searching for us.
Why do you think there’s so much suffering in the world?
Nine times out of 10 I’m stumped at what good can come out of a situation. But when I think of Jesus on the cross I see a God who’s not immune to suffering. I believe He weeps with us. I came to know God through the loss of my father, who split up with my mom because he was gay. Sadly, he was one of the first 100 people in South Africa to die of AIDS. I doubt I’d have come to know God if I hadn’t been shaken out of the shallowness of my life by the pain of loss. I have come to see God’s hand in my hardships. It’s as though God prunes me. The pruning shears, the hardships – they cut our lives right back. It doesn’t make sense. But, later, when fruitfulness comes, it starts to make sense.
Why don’t people go to church any more?
Oh, they do. Around the city, I get to preach to 1000s who still do, new people arriving each week. As for those who don’t, for many, their lives are so complicated already. They’d never imagine there could be one more thing that might be the very thing that simplifies and focuses everything else. Of course, there’s also the bad PR of the church in history – hypocrisy and judgmentalism – such a sad misrepresentation of its founder, Jesus. It’s not all gloom. My experience is that for every story of the church getting it wrong, there are 10 stories of it getting things right. The media seldom cover those.
Common Ground Church?
My 17-year journey with this church has been a rollercoaster of wonderfulness. It started at Laerskool Groote Schuur in Claremont 18 years ago and now has nine vibrant congregations, ranging in size from 150 to 1000. We’re big on social justice and community building, and try to make Christianity accessible to people. We help them wherever they are on their spiritual journey, regardless of their thoughts about God and church. We often say, ‘We’re a church where you’re welcome to belong before you believe.’ When I first visited the church, the bulletin said, ‘We’re ordinary people with an extraordinary God.’ That and the authenticity of its leaders hooked me.
Any perspective to share with fellow parents?
You Are Not The Only One. Parenting is hard for almost all of us. Also, You Are Not Alone. A small verse hidden in the massive book of Isaiah says God gently carries those who have young. It’s helped Julie and me when we’ve been at our lowest, reminding us there’s a parent in heaven who’s there for you as you parent another. Our vulnerability, as we rear the most vulnerable, catches His loving attention. You might feel alone, but in reality there’s a heartbeat as close to you as your child is to yours.