IMG_6873I grumbled down the road, mad at my children for not being happy. Why can’t you just be happy? Why do you have to whine about everything? And of course, my thoughts asked myself the same question. Why am I having such a very bad day? What really has gone so wrong, that I feel so awful in this moment?

“Let’s just be happy!” I almost-yell at them in the back seat, with forced cheerfulness and a fake smile plastered on my face. I don’t remember what else I say to try to convince them that life is not so very bad, but I hardly believe myself, so I doubt they do either. But as often is the case with children, they recover, and by the time we reach our destination, they – and I – are able to put on not-so-forced cheerfulness. We walk into the preschool, funfetti cupcakes in hand, doused in sprinkles as that irrefutable sign that life can be full of sunshine even on a very rainy day. Rainbow Sprinkles… colorful little bits of cheer, with a subtle crunch, imparting joy to every bit of frosting or whipped cream or ice cream they are so generous as to decorate.

It is my son’s third birthday. My baby, my dear heart. My last little one. My last one to ever have a third birthday. The one who still needs me so desperately at times, who still awakes in the night on occasion, and is comforted just to hold my face close to his, with his chubby little arms around my neck. And we bring cupcakes in to celebrate with his little preschool friends.

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What was so very bad about this day? Mostly, it was nothing more than a case of things not going as expected. It snowed in the morning, in March. It had been snowing all weekend. In other parts of the country they are having an unusually early spring, but here, we had snow flurries once again. In the valley where I live it did not stick to the ground— indeed, it was not even freezing temperatures on the ground —but at my little boys’ small school there are teachers who live in areas where the snow stuck and made roads difficult, so school started at 11:00 instead of 8:30. Never did it occur to me that I ought to check if school was delayed, until I pulled into the parking lot, and no one was there, and the buildings were dark. Gone with the snow flurries were all my hopes of all I had to accomplish in the morning, when all the kids were at school, because now school would be one and a half hours, instead of 4. Back home we went with our cupcakes, as I tried not to think about how I had arisen an hour early to have the cupcakes ready in time to bring them, or how I had to drag my littles out of bed and rush through the morning routine so we would not be late. The kids didn’t mind going back home to play, and yet every little argument, and extra spill I had to clean up, every ant that dared cross my kitchen countertops, every tear over inconsequential matters, and every interruption bothered me exponentially more than it might, had I been expecting to spend the day with my kids instead of with my tasks. So by the time we returned to school at 11, it felt like a not-very happy birthday.

Why couldn’t I look at those extra hours with them as a gift instead of an inconvenience? When my oldest boy was three, I spent almost every waking moment with him and my newborn daughter. Actually, many of the sleeping moments too! When my first baby turned three, I had time to plan parties, take walks in sunny California, look for bugs and have picnics. I remember a little grassy area in the middle of our condominium complex where we lived. We’d walk there, and play by the bushes and palm trees. We’d happily watch ants and grasshoppers, and the occasional praying mantis. We’d walk to the park a half-mile away and I would play too. What happened? Am I any fun anymore?

Now my youngest baby is turning three, and life is swallowed up by activities for the older ones, and errands, and work. I am glad to have time as a grown-up, doing grown-up things that do not necessitate bringing my kids along or involving them somehow. But am I missing something essential? I remember when my now-three-year-old baby was born, and I had been working part-time, and stopped to be home with my baby, but also to spend time with my two-and-a-half year old. I just sensed that he needed me, particularly, for a season. I am so happy I took that time to be there with most shy,  sensitive, soft-spoken and tender-hearted child. Am I there for my baby the way he needs me to be? He has siblings to play with, so it makes sense that since I am not his sole companion, as I was for my firstborn, that I not play quite as much.

It truly is a great challenge to have four children. Not even considering the toll on my body, four children is a lot to balance. Being there to listen to them all, to teach them, play with them, take them to activities, care for their physical needs. I think I spend too much time “managing” them and not enough “participating” with them.

What was so very bad about my day, that I found myself yelling at spilled yogurt instead of just patiently cleaning it up? Why do I retreat into myself when I am having a hard time, instead of turning toward others. I have always had a hard time asking for help. I don’t know why. I have had serious theories about this. Shyness, lack of feeling I have the right to ask for help, feeling it is easier to just do it myself, thinking that others ought to just take initiative and do it – and feeling disgruntled that I even have to ask. I don’t know why it is hard for me. But it is even hard when it comes to my kids. I know they are better off for having to do chores. No one gets to skate through life without working. Or very few do, anyway. Why cannot I find joy in working with them? Why does it often feel like involving them in the household work is harder than just  doing it myself? Yet if I am left with the bulk of it, then no one really wins, because they aren’t learning, and I am not able to be there for them in other ways, where they would really prefer me to participate rather than merely tolerate their imaginative worlds of adventure.

It was not really a very awful day, yet it felt like it. But it was my attitude that needed fixing – not my circumstances. The only things that were really wrong was that I failed to connect with God when things did not go as expected, and I failed to connect with my children in a healthy way.

C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters is set upon the premise of one of the demons in management giving advice to one of the younger demons assigned to try to steer a particular young man away from God’s devoted pursuit of him. At one point the elder demon advises the younger with something like, “Most of the time we don’t have to really be very much involved in their lives. They pretty well are able to self-destruct on their own.”

I wouldn’t hazard a guess about how exactly devils and angels are involved in this world. I don’t think I have a little devil on my shoulder, and in fact I think I am pretty securely ensconced in God’s protection. But I can identify with Paul in Romans 7, as he describes the struggle within himself to do good, and yet only ever able to succeed by the grace of God, often falling into those behaviors he despises in himself.

19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. 22 For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

I am pretty well able to self-destruct, and if I am not careful to mend the dear relationships I hurt through my own self-centeredness, I will bring destruction upon others as well.

I have prayed in the past, Lord, help me to be wise. And I have seen, over time, that I begin to function in greater wisdom, as I let the Word of God soak into my soul. I have prayed, Lord, help me to see people as you see them, with compassion instead of judgment. And I have seen God alter my perspective as well. But I still struggle with patience! And I struggle to seek help, and I have to daily, actively choose God, instead of self-loathing. I cannot love others well, when I struggle so within myself. O wretched woman that I am, who will save me from this body of death?

I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! …There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death… For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.  For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. (Romans 7:24-8:6)

Thanks be to God, who can turn terrible awful days into not-really-so-very-bad moments, and into grace, and fresh opportunities to live in God’s light, and love, and peace, when I will turn my eyes away from this world and its challenges and inconveniences, and towards God and others. I have no great answers to share today. Life on earth will probably always be more full of questions than answers, but there is joy in the journey, if only we look up and see it.

By the time I picked the boys up again at 12:30, I had reconciled myself to not completing most things on my list, and we enjoyed our afternoon and some time with a few friends that evening. My poor boy got scared of the fire on his three candles on the cupcake and ran away from the table as we tried to sing to him. (Too bad I didn’t get that on video!) But as the evening wore on, after awhile he came to sit on my lap, and I gently rocked him and cuddled him, and my three-year-old baby fell asleep on my lap. I don’t remember the last time that happened. I savored every moment.