You can kind of have it all.

That’s the creative compromise we arrived at as hopeful parents on the cusp of a new millennium. Like many of our peers, we had goals for meaningful family life alongside hopes for rewarding work opportunities and the lifestyle that such work made possible.

When Candice got pregnant with Harrison, she negotiated a great opportunity to work from home. Being the editor of an online magazine and having a high-speed internet connection made it feasible to work remotely. She edited articles during Harrison’s naps and let him roll around on the floor while she posted the articles online. She attended meetings via conference call—covering the phone’s mouthpiece with her thumb when Harrison got loud. If Harrison wanted to go to the park, Candice would forward the house phone to her cell in case someone called from the office.

As we read about similar developments among other families, we started thinking maybe new technology was the answer. Maybe there were creative ways to have it all to some degree. Couples who were willing to work harder and smarter might not have to make the sacrifices of previous generations.

Candice wrote articles about “fitting kids into a life,” and from the responses she got, we could tell this desire resonated with other couples. Like us, they didn’t want to have kids and then cheat them out of meaningful relationships, but they also hoped to achieve some personal goals and dreams along the way. A lot of couples want a way to neatly add the joys of a new baby to a satisfying marriage, a home with nice things, interesting work, enjoyable travel, and entertainment.

Still for all our juggling, use of improved technology, and our creative efforts to make up the difference, our “kind of having it all” strategy grew more tenuous as time passed. There didn’t seem to be enough to go around. Our marriage wasn’t getting the attention it needed, we couldn’t give our work all it demanded, and we realized the kids were getting less and less of us. But to keep the plan going, we found ourselves working harder and taking on more freelance projects. We stayed up later and got up earlier. We tried to make our money go further—refinancing our house and exploring speculative opportunities. We divvied up more housework. We tried to get things done without cheating the kids and then looked for ways to make up for the time the kids felt cheated anyway.

Instead of having it all, it felt like we were carrying it all—all the work, all the headaches, and all the pressure. Worst of all, it left us with little opportunity to enjoy what we were working for.

The problem with trying to have it all

We used to offer some pretty creative answers for questions about balancing work and family—about how couples could find their identity and make the most of their education and talents in the midst of starting a family. But the longer we’re parents, the more we see that our creative answers aren’t enough. Technology, innovative job arrangements, domestic compromises, and so on can accomplish some impressive gains at points, but they can’t cover everything. This is especially true if you end up having greater than typical challenges—if you have a difficult pregnancy, if you have a child who needs intensive medical care, or some other extraordinary demands.

Ultimately what was driving our “kind of have it all” mentality was what drives so many other couples starting a family—the desire to add kids to a life that remains, as much as possible, like it was before the kids arrived. Trouble is, that effort is ultimately in conflict with what’s actually required of parents.

The approaches we tried—and those we so often see recommended to young couples—are attempts to create hybrids between the adult-only and child-rearing worlds. The sticking point with such hybrids is sacrifice. In the adult-only world, it’s an unwelcome nuisance. In the child-rearing world, you can’t make it without it.

Sacrifice is inevitable when you start a family—you can’t avoid it—and none of the hybrid efforts figure out how to handle it. They try to get around it somehow or to balance it out through elaborate workload sharing and compensation. Few seem willing to just accept that it’s required and embrace it. They don’t want to give stoically of themselves and then end up being taken advantage of by someone else.

What do you do about sacrifice?

“Be imitators of God …”

As we came to the end of our creative approaches, we discovered a design that perfectly meets the needs of a family without neglecting individual family members. It’s found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and begins: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2). This passage sets up the verses that follow, the ones that call a wife to respect her husband and submit to him in the way the church submits to Christ; a husband to love his wife as Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:22-33); and parents to raise children in the training and instruction of the Lord (6:4).

These verses have tripped people up over the years, especially in cultures sensitive to gender equality. But the foundational context established in Ephesians 5:1 and 2 makes it clear that God isn’t calling families to the kind of oppressive domination and doormat submission that some imagine. Instead, couples can find in this almost two thousand-year-old passage a model for directing their lives, marriage, and family that when applied consistently is more innovative, more effective, and more fulfilling than any other social system the world has attempted.

What’s distinctive about this approach?

You respond as dearly loved children.

First, this model is built on God’s generous love for us as our Creator. The Psalms remind us that we are loved dearly as God’s children. Psalms 107 says, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things” (8-9).

Your ability to love and care for your spouse and any future children comes first from being dearly loved by God. This is the essential starting point. The fulfillment we so often seek from the perks of our jobs, from the things we buy, or even from the love of a spouse or a child can’t come close to giving us what God freely offers.

You learn how to show sacrificial love to your spouse and children by first experiencing how God does that for you. It’s not giving love to your spouse and children, all the while counting on them to love you in return. Instead God fills you daily from His endless supply so that you’re able to give without expectations.

You don’t keep score.

Couples who can love sacrificially in response to God’s love are less motivated to keep score in their attempt to split work evenly. Couples who are dearly loved by God stop trying to keep score of each other’s sacrifices. They realize the goal is to imitate the loving sacrifice of God—a different standard altogether.

You embrace the heroic.

The bargaining approach of calculated sacrifice that so often characterizes our marriages falls dramatically short of the radical lengths of God’s sacrificial love. The greatest measure of love, after all, is giving your whole life. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Whatever sacrifice is required, Jesus is our model. For love, He laid His life down; we’re called to do no less. The reality of whom we’re laying our lives down for—our own dearly loved children—is a constant motivation to keep on doing it.

In our culture, it’s normal for children to fit into whatever lives their born into. It takes a spirit of sacrificial love to see through a child’s eyes and adjust your wants, needs, and desires to those of the child.

Why is the child’s perspective significant? Because that’s how God designed it. He entrusts helpless infants to our care and tasks us with the responsibility of meeting their needs and shaping their souls. It’s where Paul started the fifth chapter of his message to the Ephesians: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

The nature of parenting is sacrifice. You can’t retrofit kids into your present life. If you want to be faithful, you have to fit your life around what God calls you to as a mom or dad. That requires dying to yourself daily. It’s painfully hard, but it’s actually easier than trying to work in vain pursuing the illusion of having it all. You are dearly loved. As you approach starting your family, imitate the one who loved you by laying down His life and trust in His promise that “whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25b).

Adapted from Start Your Family by Steve and Candice Watters. Published by Moody Press. Copyright © 2009 by Steve and Candice Watters. Used with permission.