When your high hopes and expectations of parenthood are dashed, how can you find contentment? Where is the hope? Speaking from personal experience, author Liz Carter shares her wisdom with us.

When You Can’t Be the Parent You Dreamt of Being: There is Hope

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From the emails I’ve received from lots of you – as well as my own parenting experience – I know that many of our parenting struggles have, at their core, a root problem:

We haven’t met our own sky-high expectations.

We went into parenthood with images and ideas and philosophies and plans – and each time life doesn’t work out as we dreamt, we feel guilty, as if we’re depriving our children of the parents they really deserve.

To delve more deeply into this, I’m honoured to be hosting Liz Carter here today. Friends, you are in for a treat! Liz knows what it is to have your parenting dreams dashed, time and time again (read on for more!) – but she has encouragement a-plenty for us all today.

As well as being the mum of two teens, Liz is the author of Catching Contentment, a book which had a deep impact on me when I read it a year ago, and which has been one of the best-selling Christian books of the last year. Her writing is grounded in reality, yet poetic and beautiful and piercing to the soul. I’m thrilled that she’s here to share her experience and wisdom with us today.

When your high hopes and expectations of parenthood are dashed, how can you find contentment? Where is the hope? Speaking from personal experience, author Liz Carter shares her wisdom with us.

Advent: a time of family joy. Right?

Well, social media tells us that’s so. All around us we see images of families relaxing together, indulging in Christmas fun and frolics. Children are impeccably dressed and perfectly behaved, and mums are beautifully turned out, juggling personal grooming with baking tasty treats and organising ever more exotic tableaux for Elf on the Shelf.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of reality for some of us. Or perhaps not. For some, it’s a headache; with so much to do and so much to spend – and don’t get started on the guilt. For others still, it’s another reminder that life just doesn’t match up to the life of our hopes and dreams. A reminder that our reality is painful.

Social media can amplify these feelings.

I’ve spent years and years of Advents and Christmases scrolling through my feeds and thinking that my children are missing out. My children are teens now, but when they were small it seemed especially bitter. I watched perfect images scroll by, the laughter of children shining from the page as they posed for another photo of another adventure.

Waves of bitterness would begin to lap over my toes, and then my feet, and then begin to rise, swirling around me until they took hold of me. Why can’t my life be like that? Why have my kids never had a mum who took them on countless sepia-toned adventures?

I’ve lived a life that has, at times, been greatly narrowed.

I’ve lived with chronic lung disease since babyhood, and it has progressed over the years. My life has become less and less recognisable as ‘normal’ – whatever that means.

Bringing up children has been a joy for me – but it’s also been so very difficult, because their life has been narrowed, as well. They’ve never known a mother who spends every day of Advent and Christmas making memories with glitter and ferrying them around between exhilarating Christmas activities. Their Advent seasons have far more often been spent indoors. Instead of visiting Christmas decoration-making workshops, they were more likely to be building Christmas trees in Minecraft.

Life sometimes doesn’t go as we hope it will.

We might come up against health issues. Our children might be sick or neuro atypical, and some of us may be working through past trauma with adopted children. Our children might not always walk the path we’d hope for them, in life or in faith.

Parenting is one great unknown, and we can feel ill equipped for the challenges it can bring – and that can lead to us feeling as if we are simply not enough, which in turns leads to us holding onto feelings of discontent and bitterness.

I’ve so often felt I haven’t been good enough.

Not long ago, though, I was talking to my daughter. I wanted her to know that I recognised her life had been far from easy, living with a sick mother, in and out of hospital, forever missing out. But she told me that she’d never felt she was lacking. She told me that she’d had all she needed. She’d had love and laughter, she’d been listened to and had much time spent with her – even if that time was with me slumped on the sofa under a blanket watching Polar Express. Again. I said to her that I’d always felt guilty when I saw pictures of children and families experiencing so many wonderful things together, that I’d felt lesser.

But she said that she had never felt lesser.

I think that’s such a crucial thing to remember as we bring up children, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in and however perfect or imperfect our lives are. That we are not ‘lesser.’ Chances are, those perfect Instagram-filtered pictures are only throwing up momentary snapshots of lives which aren’t, in reality, that perfect after all. It’s more likely that we simply want to connect with others, to share the joy in the moments we do have. Comparing ourselves to the images we see is never going to be positive for our spirits, because it will only rob us of our own joy in our own moments.

I’ve learned so much about how God is present in our lives as they are, rather than how we think they should be.

In my book, Catching Contentment – which was published this time last year, when I was sick in hospital – I’ve written about how contentment isn’t something that happens to us when our lives are healthy and happy, but it’s something we can intentionally reach out for – whatever our lives look like. So many messages we hear from the world around us communicate the deception that we can only find happiness or peace when we have achieved this thing or bought that thing or lost that weight or found that relationship or had that baby.

Sometimes, teaching we hear within the church can echo something of that narrative, too, implying that it’s only when we are all fixed up, when we are healed, when our lives look like they are straightened out – that we can find contentment.

And yet, when St Paul said he’d learned the secret to contentment in Philippians 4, he certainly wasn’t writing out of a position of ‘all fixed up.’

His Instagram feed wouldn’t have been filled with stunning images of Christmas tables laden with food and beautiful, smiling people. He was in prison as he wrote this, his friends were being murdered for their faith. He lived a life of hardship and poverty, in pain and brokenness – and yet he discovered peace beyond understanding. Paul’s experience of fullness of life in Christ was never tethered to an ideal life. In fact, Paul found Christ with him in suffering, bringing him far closer to a soul-level peace, soothing his deepest being.

So when I scroll through those feeds and sigh at my own brokenness, I remember that in God, I am not lesser. I am enough. For my children, I am enough. In my daily lived pain, I don’t need to succumb to bitter discontent, because I find God with me in that pain, turning my eyes away from me and towards the captivating glory of Christ. And even when my tears fall and all seems lost, I know that God is faithful and will never, ever leave or forsake me.

What about you?

Do you sometimes feel as if your life doesn’t match up, as if you are not enough?

May you be filled with the assurance of God’s overwhelming and passionate love for you this Advent time, the knowledge that you are more than enough in him. May you be confident that you don’t have to wait until things are ‘fixed’ to know the great and glorious peace which God longs to give to you. May you hold your hands out today, even if they are shaky, and catch hold of all God has for you.

If you appreciated this, I highly recommend Liz’s book Catching Contentment – such a great read for all of us, but particularly when contentment seems elusive.

You might also enjoy:

Excellent Christian book about finding contentment through life's hard places, suffering and imperfections. Liz Carter, IVP, 2018.
When contentment seems to be elusive, how can we learn the 'secret of being content', as St Paul put it? Liz Carter has great wisdom for us in her book Catching Contentment, and shares nuggets here.
What happens to your mental health when you start a family? How can I earn enough to support them? How can I make everything work and still stay healthy? A consideration of these important questions before you start a family.

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