What kind of parent were you going to be like? Did you always imagine yourself going on daily nature adventures or doing crafts with your pre-schoolers? Reading aloud around the fire on winter evenings? Dispensing your hard-won wisdom to a rapt audience of eager teenagers?
If you thought about parenting much before you had kids, you probably had some great ideas. And probably you didn’t realise quite how tiring raising children is. Or how difficult and dispiriting the routine of home life can become. Or a bunch of other things.
Being a parent is superawesome. It’s also jolly hard work.
This series came about because of where our discussion on obedience went. To summarise: ‘Sure, I aspire to letting my kids explore/make their own mistakes/take one of two options/have a tantrum in their own room but today I’m just exhausted and what I need is obedience.’
What we’re concerned with in this series is the gap between our parenting ideals and our parenting everydays. It’s a bit like we see a green land across a river that we always thought we’d be living in. It’s where we want to be. But we’re stuck on this side, where life isn’t as easy or enjoyable, and there’s no bridge. We could walk through the river, but it’s cold and we don’t like the water.
As Angela pointed out to me offline, so far the posts have been more about making life better on this side of the river, than living in the gap between reality and expectation. If you can get a bit more sleep and a bit more help from neighbours, you might find that where you’re living is green and nice after all. If you practise being kind to yourself, you might realise that you’re actually doing a Brilliant and Amazing job and the river disappears.
But living in the gap, becoming content with having wet feet, is a vital life skill that many of us are underdeveloped in. Many of us find the gap between our reality and our ideals an uncomfortable one. We can deal with that by narrowing the gap, either by performing better or by changing our expectations. Or (and) we can learn to swim. We can learn to cope with life in the gap. After all, we’re likely to be here for a while.
Learning to live in the gap was a theme of my time as a pastor. It’s a demanding job, with major tasks that are never quantifiably ‘achieved.’ Is my sermon as good as it could be (no), or is it as good as it is going to get by Sunday (yes)? Is every person in my church being nurtured and cared for so they are maturing and flourishing (no), or am I doing my best towards that goal within my capacity (yes)? Those are some big gaps to live in.
Building bridges isn’t a sufficient answer. In parenting and in pastoring, our ideals and expectations will never be met because we could always do more – theoretically. Even when our kids are doing beautifully, when they’re thriving and becoming wonderful human beings, if we have perfectionist leanings we will always see more we could do, right?
You don’t arrive as a parent or a pastor or a person. You don’t get to the other side. You do your best, or you do what you can. And you learn to live in the gap.
So with that large disclaimer to say that I am no expert in these matters, just someone who has been muddling through with these questions for a while now, here are some of my thoughts for how to cope with the gap. I’d like your comments, ideas and responses below, please. There is plenty to add.
1. Feel the feelings
If, on a bad day, you feel inadequate, or disappointed with your parenting, or perhaps even that you don’t like yourself very much right now, then please allow yourself to feel those feelings.
It’s old news, I know, but ignoring difficult feelings doesn’t make them go away. Instead of quietly giving up, your hard feelings might be like a three-year-old, who just gets louder and more insistent until you pay her some attention. Or they might be like the rubbish bags you procrastinate about putting out, getting smelly and festery and more unpleasant, the longer you leave them. Or they might be like an overflowing sink that will eventually spill over in a very messy fashion if you don’t attend to it.
It can be tempting to think that paying attention to how bad you’re feeling will be worse than any of those outcomes, and it is to be avoided at all costs. Maybe you’ve never done it so you don’t know how bad it will get. No one likes feeling awful, so that’s a pretty reasonable response. But I am confident that ignoring how you feel is like living on credit. Just because you’re not paying the bill doesn’t mean you haven’t spent the money. It’ll be due sometime, and the bill will get higher the longer you leave it.
The good news, after all that doom and gloom, is that generally, paying attention to your feelings is the path to moving through them and feeling better. I’m not trying to spoil your day. I want you to feel better!
So get a box of tissues ready if you’re a crier (like me), or go for a walk somewhere quiet, or spend some time writing down what’s going on and how you’re feeling. Get it out.
2. Where do the feelings come from?
If you regularly feel stuck with hard feelings of inadequacy, it may be time to figure out where they’re coming from, and why. You might benefit from getting some help with this.
A conversation with a close friend or partner, combined with some journalling or deep thinking alone, might be all you need to gain some fresh insight. You might want to consider:
- when did you first feel like this?
- what kinds of experiences or people lead to you feeling like this?
- what kinds of things do you do to avoid feeling bad?
- how were these feelings and experiences viewed in your family when you were growing up?
If thinking alone or talking with a friend doesn’t solve all the mysteries for you, this might be a good time to invest in a few sessions with someone trained in this stuff.
I tend to think that almost every human being can benefit from counselling or psychotherapy. You don’t need to be in crisis or highly dysfunctional. Think of it as the emotional equivalent of seeing a personal trainer for a couple of months of boot camp to kick-start a new season of health and exercise.
3. New ways of thinking and feeling
Knowing how and why you have developed your internal habits is vital, and often more than half the race run.
Figuring out how you can change life-long patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving is another step, and again, some professional help could be a worthwhile investment. You may only need a few sessions with someone you click with (though it’s good to be prepared to try out two or three different people until you find a good fit) to get some insight and tools for approaching things and seeing yourself differently.
Can I just say that you are worth this? No one needs to spend their life feeling inadequate or sad or anxious or overwhelmed. It’s not how it is supposed to be. It’s possible, with help and support, to feel better.
You might prefer or need to do this alone. Perhaps the company of a good book could be helpful. South Taranaki library has pioneered the Turn the Page initiative where you can self-prescribe a book to support good mental health. Their book list is here.
Please do add your own ideas and tips below, and feel free to challenge, correct or add to anything I’ve said. If you have a background in therapy, please give us your insights, too!
There are lots of practical things we can do to make parenting easier. The very best thing we can do, I think, is to go easier on ourselves. For many of us, there will always be a gap between ideals and reality. If we can get comfortable living in the gap, we can use it as a source of inspiration and motivation, without drowning in the river.