As I write this, it’s the end of another half-term which seems to have been full of freedom and joy for everyone. Except me… and perhaps you?
For some, school holidays are a sigh of relief; time with the children to relax and play, to explore new places and take autumnal strolls through golden leaves. For others, it’s a headache; childcare is expensive and more difficult in holidays, 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 school holidays looking 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. Another healthy, happy day out. 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?
You see, 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. I managed to hold down a teaching job for five years, then gave up when it became too much for my body to cope with. 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 half-term ferrying them around between exhilarating, life-enhancing activities. Their holidays have far more often been spent indoors, with the odd morning out when mum feels up to it or dad has some time off. Instead of running amongst golden leaves, they were more likely to be building golden palaces in Minecraft.
And it feels like I have let them down. That I haven’t been good enough.
The other day, 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 The Big Bang Theory. 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 new book, ‘Catching Contentment’, 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 made ‘whole’ in Christ – 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 cloud-free skies and beautiful, smiling people. He was in prison as he wrote this, his friends were being murdered for their faith, he knew he was under threat of execution. 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, the knowledge that you are more than enough. 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.