Ahead of Mother’s Day, we'll be sharing stories of every day Christian mothers, and how knowing God and the gospel has shaped their perspectives on children and parenting. In this reflection, Louise Gosbell shares how God has been at work in her family living with disabilities and chronic health issues.
"My self-worth is determined by God, so whether I have a good parenting day or a bad parenting day, I know that my self-worth is determined by God and not my own wins or failures. "
1. What does being a Christian mother mean for you?
Being a mother is a great blessing, but I also feel it carries a lot of responsibility. There are days when that responsibility really weighs on me as I reflect on how I am raising my girls and the kind of women I want them to grow into. There is this tension in wanting to raise them as strong and confident but also humble and willing to learn from others. I want them to speak up for those who are voiceless but also be quick to listen to others experiences and stories, especially when they are different to their own.
In some respect, being a Christian mother adds extra spiritual dimensions to the responsibility of mothering, but, more importantly, it is also a huge relief. I can see that while God has given me a task and a role to play in mothering my girls, they are ultimately His children, and He loves them even more than I can. He seeks their best even more than I do. His plans and purposes for them are better than I could anticipate. So, I find that a huge comfort and relief. It is a reminder to trust God for all things in my role as mother.
2. What do you believe to be the ultimate purpose of motherhood?
I believe that God created families as support networks to help us care for one another. The role of a mother then is to nurture and care for her children. Part of my role is to be a model for godly behaviour and teach my children God’s word, how to love one another, and be good stewards of His world.
However, I also recognise that in a broken world, families don’t always work as they should. So sometimes we can be ‘mothers’ to those who aren’t our birth children. And others can be ‘mothers’ to us when our own mothers are no longer around. That is the incredible way God created us as people created to be in relationship, to have inbuilt support networks in our families, but even if/when those families don’t work as they ought, that we have the church family to provide the love, nurture, and care to us and we can provide that to others also.
3. How has the Gospel shaped the way you parent your children?
The gospel very much shapes the way I parent. My self-worth is determined by God and whether I have a good parenting day (yes, my children remembered to be polite the visitors, I am an awesome mother) or a bad parenting day (oops, I forgot to pay for the excursion on time!), I know that my self-worth is determined by God and not my own wins or failures.
The message of the gospel is one that is centred on Jesus as the one who laid down his life for all people. At the heart of this is God’s love for humanity. In being a model, I want to model that sacrificial demonstration of love and what it means to put others before myself. My purpose in parenting then is not to receive praise from the world or to parent in a way that ‘looks good’ on social media, but to parent in a way that pleases God, demonstrates the gospel and the fruits of the spirit.
My prayer is that my children don’t just hear the gospel taught but see it enacted in all we do and say as a family. I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t always get that right, but I hope I can be willing to be honest about my failings for my girls to learn from that also.
4. What has God been teaching you in motherhood? How have you changed as a person?
One of the greatest things I have learnt as a mother is the need for community. My mother died unexpectedly when I was only 18 and I really became the primary carer to my two younger siblings. At that time, I was staunchly independent. I wanted to appear like I had everything under control and I didn’t want or need the help of others. Through coming to faith and then becoming a parent to my own children, I’ve really learnt the value of the family of God and of community helping and supporting one another. I love Paul’s image of the Body of Christ as a community of different members with different gifts and abilities all serving one another and being served by one another.
When I gave birth to my youngest daughter, I sustained what is called public symphysis diastasis. In essence, the joint at the front of my pelvis separated. Even after 13 years and years of physio and other treatments, I live in chronic pain. This experience as a mother has been difficult as I have had to recognise my own limitations. There are things I see other mothers doing that I simply cannot do. There is grief in that but there is also the reminder again that my value as a person and as a mother is not rooted in the things I do or in the number of holidays or camping or theme parks I take my children to.
Learning to accept and embrace the help of others which has been hugely humbling. There have been many times I could not have been able to get through difficult circumstances without the help of friends and church family. People have picked up my children from school, cleaned my house, folded my laundry, taken my children to dance concerts while I was in hospital. I simply could not do the important job of mothering without the help and support of others. Being a good mother isn’t about proudly trying to do everything myself, but in recognising my limitations, accepting help when I need it, being grateful and joyful in all circumstances, and thanking God for His incredible provision in all these things.
5. What are the joys and challenges of being a parent to a child with a disability and chronic health issues?
When our youngest daughter was only 4 months old, she contracted a rare strain of bacterial meningitis and almost didn’t survive. I will never forget the doctor at the hospital saying, “We honestly did not think you would be taking a baby home from the hospital.” He said, “I don’t use the word miracle very often, but it is a miracle that your daughter survived.”
At 13, our daughter has a range of health issues such as sensory processing disorder, anxiety and a poor immune system among other things. She also has Ectodermal Dysplasia which means she is unable to moderate her own body temperature and is prone to overheating. The combination of all these things mean she likes routine and predictability, as unexpected change can be very difficult for her.
She also has an incredible directness and honesty which can be challenging and refreshing. Her sisters know that she is the best person to ask for advice because she is brutally honest (“Nope, do not wear those shoes with those pants. They look terrible!”). This can be very entertaining but also challenging in trying to find the balance between speaking truthfully and speaking words that can be hurtful.
There is a poem called “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingsley, which draws a parallel between preparing for the birth of a child and planning for an overseas holiday to Italy. The lead up to birth is like the planning for the trip. However, rather than arriving in Italy, you instead find yourself in Holland. Holland is not what you were expecting and not what had planned for. But after a period of readjustment, you realise that Holland has a lot to offer.
Kingsley suggests that having a child with disability or chronic health needs is a similar experience of recalibrating your expectations of parenthood to adjust to this new reality. There is an honesty in the poem in expressing the grief over never being able to make it to Italy, but the author finishes by saying “But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to go to Italy, you will never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.” So, while there are certainly challenges with parenting a child with disabilities and chronic health issues, there are also great joys of being ‘in Holland’ and experiencing all that has to offer as well.
"Human frailty or weakness or limitation is no impairment to God’s ability to work in and through us."
6. How does the gospel speak into your role and work as a parent to a child with a disability and chronic health issues?
Through the combined experience of my health issues and my daughter’s, I have learnt a lot about God’s sovereignty: God is “over all and through all” (Eph. 4:1). Even on difficult days, I have a deep sense of God being at work through it all to bring about His plans and purposes. I might not understand every part of that plan, but I can trust that He is at work.
This encourages me in two ways. Firstly, it is a reminder that human frailty or weakness or limitation is no impairment to God’s ability to work in and through us. Whatever our disabilities or health issues, whatever our intellectual or physical abilities or inabilities, God is at work and uses us in His service. And secondly, it gives me a great sense of hope and longing for the time when all humanity and all of creation will be renewed with the return of Jesus. I look forward with great anticipation to a time without physical pain or tears when all will be made right and brought to its completion.
"For all families living with disability, God’s message is, and will continue to be, to take heart and to trust that God will uphold and sustain us through all life’s challenges."
7. If you could encourage other families living with disability, what would you say?
Kate Hurley edited a beautiful book called “Take Heart: For Families Living with Disability.” Kate’s title is drawn from the words of the Psalmist, for example, in Psalm 27:13-14. Here the Psalmist says:
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
Here the Psalmist exudes confidence that whatever life throws at him, God will keep the strength and courage to face it. Kate’s book is a beautiful reminder for families living with disability that God charges us to “be strong and take heart” not in our own strength and abilities but in His. We can trust Him irrespective of what we might be dealing with in the complexities of our families.
For all families living with disability in some way or another, God’s message is, and will continue to be, to take heart and to trust that God will uphold and sustain us through all life’s challenges.
Louise is the Dean of Students and Lecturer in New Testament at Mary Andrews College in Sydney. Louise has a keen interest in the issue of disability has completed a PhD which looked at disability in the gospels. She has recently completed a disability handbook which aims to help churches to become more inclusive of people with disabilities and their families. Louise is married to Mark who is a Principal at a special school, and they have 3 teenage daughters.
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