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Parenting through Disappointment and Unmet Expectations

Every step in my journey of motherhood has been a reminder that I am not in control.

It began with months of negative pregnancy tests. Well-meaning questions stung. Doctors, medication, surgeries, and more offered common grace that I was thankful for. But even those with the highest levels of efficacy couldn’t offer a solution unless the Lord brought life where there was none.

One day an ultrasound finally revealed more than surgical needs. It was a day of great rejoicing. But it was followed soon after by a day of sorrow. Just as I couldn’t make two lines appear instead of one, I couldn’t make my baby’s heart continue to beat.

From the very beginning, motherhood was a reminder that there are countless problems I can’t fix.

Giving birth in one sense brought relief from a difficult hardship many of my friends are still enduring. It brought deep joy, deep laughter, deep love, and affection. And it brought new kinds of pain mixed with familiar reminders of my finite smallness. Of my inability to make things go according to plan.

It happened in small ways familiar to most parents—an inability to control the sleep schedule of a newborn, the behavior of a toddler, the order of my home.

And it happened in bigger ways that are more unique to my family. Three babies born at 28 weeks when I couldn’t control premature labor no matter how much I tried. It happened in a fifty-day NICU stay with children covered in tubes and wires. It happened in a neurologist’s office over the results of a difficult brain MRI. Hard words spoken over my son that I couldn’t shield him from no matter how tightly I held him in my arms.

Like everyone else, the last three months have offered new reminders that I am not in control. Try as I might, pandemics cause yet another lengthy list of things I can’t fix for my kids.

I can’t reopen the library or my son’s preschool. Or guarantee that the spaces he loves will go back to normal anytime soon. I can’t end teletherapy in exchange for the in-person work my son with Cerebral Palsy desperately needs. I can’t wave a magic wand and erase all the ways COVID-19 has impacted the people I love.

C.S. Lewis coined the phrase, “severe mercy” to describe how God uses painful circumstances and suffering to remind us of what is true and ultimately draw us closer to him. If we have eyes to see it, parenting through a pandemic can serve as a severe mercy.

As we face an unusual summer and an uncertain fall/upcoming school year, what opportunities might be hidden inside disappointments and the big and small reminders that, as parents, we are not in control? Here are just three opportunities that I can see:

1. An opportunity to teach our children that the Christian life gives space for lament, for grief, for honesty about disappointment.

When things get hard, we are tempted to ignore difficult emotions. We bury them rather than being honest about their presence. And this can causes those negative feelings to come out sideways in ways that are destructive.  

This is also true for children. Do we encourage them to share what’s going on in their hearts? Are we showing them how to name the disappointments or minimize them? Do we use our own anger or frustration to curtail what’s going on below the surface?

Our heavenly Father is not cold or distant. He does not roll his eyes at our concerns or ask us to act like we’re okay when we’re not. 1 Peter 5:7 reminds us that God invites us to cast all of our anxieties, all of our burdens on him because he cares for us.

As parents, we can help our children name the places we hurt. We can validate, we can listen, and we can take them to God together.

2. An opportunity to offer our presence when we can’t offer a solution.

When we see our children hurt, our first reaction is often to fix. If we can’t fix, we might try to overcompensate to make up for what was lost.

Is that how God always parents us through trials, though? Does he always swoop in and change the circumstance we don’t like? He alone has the power to do this, and yet, in his infinite wisdom, he doesn’t always intervene the way we want him to.

Rather than always offering an immediate solution to our suffering, he instead offers us something better. God offers his very own presence.

He tells us that we don’t have to be afraid, not because our circumstances will always be easy but because he is always with us. He tells us that his grace is sufficient and that his power is made perfect in our weakness. Instead of always ending the trial, he gives us the grace to glory in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope.

Those are the things so many of us ultimately want for our children and they grow out of hardship, not from a life of ease.

3. An opportunity to know and live out the difference between agency and control.

Exercising agency is biblical. It’s part of a long list of both/and statements that God asks us to hold in tension. God tells us to work hard with all of our heart knowing that we are serving the Lord Jesus. Proverbs extols hard work and planning as wise virtues. But it doesn’t offer promises for specific outcomes or for things to go the way we want them to.

The way we live our lives matters. The way we parent our children, the decisions we make, the way we steward the time we have together, all of it matters. Trusting King Jesus, surrendering our life and our kids to him isn’t a call for passivity or fatalistic thinking. It’s an invitation to evaluate our priorities, to do our part accordingly, and to ultimately entrust the outcome to him.

“I am not the Christ.”

My friend Elizabeth introduced me to this parenting mantra taken from the words of John the Baptist. Now, I claim it as my own.

Moms (and for that matter, dads) often feel guilty about a whole host of things. Usually, the source of this guilt isn’t about conviction over sin. It’s about failing to “measure up” to preconceived notions and expectations about how things were “supposed” to go or look.

Thankfully, God has not called me to be my children’s Messiah or Savior. He has instead called me to be their mom. As a Christian parent, God is calling me to something far simpler. He’s calling me to follow him and provide both an example and opportunity for my children to do the same. To love my nearest neighbors—my children—as I love myself. 

None of us would choose our current reality, and yet it holds opportunities for our families. I cannot control what the coming months will bring, but by God’s grace, I can control my response.

Questions for Further Reflection

  • What are the specific disappointments my children are experiencing?
  • How do these disappointments make me feel?
  • When I think about these disappointments, what do I immediately want to do first rather than praying and entrusting my children and their disappointments to God?
  • How might the way God parents me provide encouragement?
  • What can I do with or for my children when the circumstances they face is beyond my control?

Are you struggling to know where to begin as you process all the unmet expectations that come with this new normal? Consider starting with this prayer, which invites you to name your disappointments and cast your cares on God.

Looking for more resources on how to parent well in the midst of unusual circumstances? Check out our Parenting During a Pandemic page for more ideas and encouragement during this season.