And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience –Romans 5:3
When people hear that I have five (going on six) children, I frequently get a comment about patience, usually something like, “Wow, you must be SO patient. I could never have all those kids. I’m going crazy with just my two.” When I get the chance, I try to tell people that I’m really not a naturally patient person, but I’m learning to be patient. And in fact, the Lord has over the years miraculously increased my tolerance for messes, spills, bickering, having my stuff get broken, and multiple little “helpers” always underfoot. How He’s done that has been simple. There’s only one thing that leads to patience. And that is tribulation. The main reason that I’m now able (usually) to spend all day every day with five children is that I spend all day every day with five children.
But I’m not a patient person.
This was driven home to me graphically last month when I scored five photo book vouchers for 75% off. My husband and I were professional photographers for a few years, and my husband has sort of kept up with things as he’s been able. Since we got our first digital camera back when I was pregnant with our firstborn, we have taken roughly 77,000 pictures. (Some of you may be mistaking that for dramatic hyperbole. Au contraire.) And over the same amount of time, we’ve actually printed around 20. The other 76,980 or so pictures lived on an external hard drive handily tucked away in storage, which meant that the children saw fewer actual pictures of themselves as children than I did of myself back when my family was taking grainy pictures on a little point-and-shoot camera with a disposable flash. It was my great dream to make the children photo books of their lives so far, so they could take them out and flip through the way I used to do with those envelopes of prints from the drug store.
Last November, I got my chance. There among the piles special offers and modern-day e-junk mail in my inbox was a deal at Cafe Press, where I could buy up to five image wrap photo book vouchers for the low, low price of $9.99 apiece, for a combined savings of $149.85. The only catch was that once I paid, I had to actually order my books by December 31st. No problem. That was, like, over a month away.
Have I mentioned that I have five going on six children? That I homeschool? That my computer skills are limited to blogging, e-mail, and Facebook, so I needed my husband to actually get the pictures off the hard drive? And have I mentioned that my husband runs his own business? And I’m sure I haven’t mentioned, but the more practical among you may have been able to guess, that it actually takes a very long time to look at 77,000 pictures and decide which ones are your favorites. So it may not be a shock when I tell you that I got nearly to the end of December and I didn’t have my photo books done.
It was crunch time. Every spare moment found me at our little rolltop desk with my husband’s laptop and photo software. One night at around 11:00, I was finally ready to start making the first photo book. I slaved over the layouts, carefully chose backgrounds in my oldest daughter’s favorite colors, picked the perfect cover image and the very best title font. It was beautiful, maybe not up to the level of an experienced album maker, but I was thrilled. I showed my husband each glorious page. It had taken me til 2:00 in the morning, and I was exhausted, but I was done. One down. Four to go. I hit “upload.”
And the whole thing crashed.
My book was gone. My husband tried to find it, but it had completely vanished into cyberspace. I wanted to scream, cry, sit down and DO something, maybe stay up until 5:00 and try to reclaim my lost masterpiece. Panic was rising. This was NOT like having my kids lose the pearls off one of my wedding earrings (which happened last week). This was intolerable. This was a machine just hiccuping when it wasn’t supposed to and RUINING my labor. Machines are supposed to do what you want when you want them to. I knew in my head that computers are lame and always crash, but it hadn’t been in my equation. “I just lost three hours of work,” I said in disbelief.
“Well,” my husband said mildly, “this happens to us all the time at work.”
The next morning, I could hardly remember anything I had done the night before. Right after breakfast I sat down again and remade the entire book. It took another three hours. I hit “upload,” and this time it went through. The glitch was gone, whatever it had been. Now to do the next one.
Once again, I slaved. Layouts, backgrounds, cover image, font. This time for my oldest son. I previewed the photo book. It was great, and I hoped he’d love it. He seemed like maybe he’d be less interested in pictures than his sisters, but then he was a baby lover and these were pictures of him, too. I felt a bit giddy as I dreamed of giving it to him. I hit “upload.”
And the program crashed.
I lost three hours of work.
When you don’t pass a test the first time, God often gives you a retry, sometimes the very next day. This was my retry, and somehow it was a little less horrible. Miserable, but not agonizing, like stubbing your toe as opposed to breaking it. I sent my husband a text. I needed the grumpy emoticon, but not the caps lock.
This stuff happens to my husband all the time, so he’s learned to take it in stride. I’m sure he doesn’t like it when programs crash, or the Internet eats his uploads, or he loses hours of work. But it happens often enough that it isn’t unexpected, kind of like I don’t expect to sleep through the night, or have a day without whining, or have my children remember to practice their piano lessons or do their chores without reminders.
If any of you are wondering if you have the patience for a large family, I’d like to encourage you that you probably don’t. But if you’re willing to step out and accept the tribulation, you may very well wind up with exactly the patience you need.
It was Monday. In so many ways. The kids had just gotten over the flu (mostly), and we were grinding rustily back into school work after taking a week off. I had misread the weather forecast on my phone and wound up with two loads of laundry to dry on a foggy day that dripped with 96% humidity. Somewhere in between finding lost math books and explaining the difference between adjectives and adverbs, I had to find places to hang up all that laundry in the house since the clothesline was out of the question. One child abandoned her handwriting assignment and needed to be retrieved, just as soon as I changed a (CRASH) diaper, and rehung the shower curtain rod that fell under the weight of too many wet clothes, and figured out why another child was yelling, and told another which English exercises to do, while the “day” stretched further and further into the evening and the house slowly slipped into disaster.
As I rushed madly toward dinner, the living room looked like a situation for FEMA, and a little voice was whispering, Failure. “Why can’t I keep my house clean? Why can’t I stay organized and on top of things?” I wondered irritably to myself as I surveyed a cluttered morass of school books and toys, the remains of a late lunch still on the table in the kitchen.
Every day is chopped up by a million interruptions, a million little needs, for cups of water and pieces of fruit, for Band-Aids and math help and conflict resolution and more conflict resolution. Nothing ever seems to get DONE. And sometimes I feel weary. I don’t have a heap of shiny accomplishments at the end of most days to gaze at with satisfaction. Only the striving amid “yes, dear, Mommy will take you potty,” and “no, you may not play until after you practice your piano,” and “please calm your voice down,” and “you need to forgive your sister.”
But as I stood there between my late dinner cooking in the kitchen and the messy aftermath of a long school day in the living room, it hit me. If I had no interruptions from the children, no needs but my own food and sleep, I could deep clean my entire house from top to bottom in less than a month. I could organize every drawer and closet in under two months. And that meant that I could, in theory, entirely recover from all kid chaos in less than three months. It could all be wiped away, fresh, and clean, and perfect. But if I messed up on the little things, the tiny needs, the chances over and over and over again to shape my children’s character by patient example and gentle admonition, there would be no three-month recovery. There would be no three-year recovery. There would likely be no recovery at all without miraculous grace. The things that worry me, like laundry, clutter, and making nice food for guests, are sports cars. They can turn on a dime.
But character is a glacier.
If I want to change the direction of my children’s character, it can only be done with a force like gravity, a constant, steady, almost invisible pull. I can’t run frantically after sports cars when I have a glacier to move, and I can’t expect the results to be instantly perceptible, stacked up, and checked off. But over time, over years, the glacier will slowly shift. And the days when I cheerfully change my toddler’s diapers, get my kids back on track (again) with their school work, take time to reteach a chore, clean up another unexpected mess, and mediate another fight over toys, those days are actually Success.
I said I’d never do it. I wasn’t going to give in to the electronic babysitter. I wanted to disciple my children, to be with them and let them walk with me, to keep them away from the vapid, the unloving, and the foolish. But then I got worn out. It was worst of all when my husband was working long hours. I’m a morning person. I can usually go like a bomb until dinner. And then I’m done. That’s it. I’m half-asleep and completely spent. And somewhere along the line, we ended up with Netflix. I didn’t want my husband to come home to a house looking like a drug-related crime scene, and it just seemed so easy to say, “If you guys can clean up the living room and your bedrooms in half an hour, you can each pick a show to watch.” And so it began.
Every show I let my kids watch made me worry for one reason or another, but yet, they all seemed to have some insidious redeeming quality, some silken justification for why I should overlook the obvious. One show featured siblings who were consistently annoyed and even grossed out by each other and showed direct confrontation and fighting as the solution to evil, rather than loving our enemies or overcoming evil with good. Oh, but it was so FUNNY, classic. Even I was quoting snappy lines. And of course, it was by PBS, and the vocabulary was delightfully rich. It was educational, right? In another show, the only adult main characters were villains, and all the good, noble, exemplary characters were children. The messages were “follow your heart,” “believe in yourself,” and “count on your friends.” Typical elementary humanism with a healthy dose of peer dependency. But it was so pretty and sweet, and the girls LOVED it, and I loved seeing them happy. And on it went. Little nagging worries here. Little appreciations there.
Oddly enough, right around the same time, inexplicably, the children’s attitudes started slipping. Grumpiness, even meanness crept in. The noise level increased. There was arguing, selfishness, back talk, and sass. (Not that those things hadn’t ever been there before, but this was MUCH worse.) The children often complained that they were bored during the day. None of their toys or books seemed interesting. And the time when they were happiest was at night, lined up on the basement couch in front of the TV.
And I, for my part, was growing more and more dependent on that break in the evening. All my efforts to teach the children God’s Word and solid character seemed to be having less and less effect. It was no fun being a mom whose entire life revolved around nagging and discipline. It seemed like every interaction I had with the children was frustrating. I was either tearing my hair out trying to get them to pay attention to their school and chores, or struggling not to yell at them for fighting and screaming at each other (again). I always breathed such a sigh of relief when AT LAST the children were tucked away downstairs, and I could sit in a quiet, clean living room and think two thoughts in a row without having to pause to say, “Give that back to your sister!”
Soon, there was a whisper in my heart that I was no longer enjoying my children, that I needed to make time just to BE with them without demands and expectations, that rest time could not be segregated: Mommy in the living room on Facebook, children downstairs on Netflix, that the babysitter would have to go. “But I’m tired!” I whined. “I wrestle with them all day. I want a break.” But deep down I knew. I knew that if I invested in them rather than farming them off to the world that the wrestling would be much less, that sacrificing my peace at night would mean gaining peace throughout the day.
Malachi says that when God makes a family, He’s seeking a godly seed.
And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. — Malachi 2:15a
God’s purpose for our family is godly children. I realized that loading my children up with ideas that were contrary to Scripture was not going to make them godly (duh). And that by compromising so I could have a rest time all for me, I was going directly against God’s purpose and what He is seeking. And we were seeing the mushy, spoiled fruit of my selfish laziness.
So we have gone on a foolishness fast. No more TV. No more Mommy fleeing alone to the couch after dinner. Just being together as a family. In the evenings since the fast began, we’ve made applesauce, baked cookies, and read books. Yes, I fell asleep reading at least once, so I passed off the book to my nine-year-old to finish while I snoozed. It hasn’t been quite as extravagantly easy as the old days of Netflix, but it hasn’t been nearly as hard as I thought, either. It IS possible to relax with five young children wielding frosting and sprinkles, especially when I just focus on admiring their work and remembering that the process is the point, not necessarily conserving sprinkles or finishing without having to sweep the floor. And the overnight change in the children’s behavior has been nothing short of miraculous. They’re still kids, but they’ve sweetened up like nobody’s business. And I feel like a mother again instead of a warden. Funny how sometimes the harder path is easier in the end.
Someone’s going to tell me that I need a little time to myself, but that’s something else I let creep in that I said I’d never do: I’d never seek to get away from my children. Yes, it’s true that I’m not with them twenty-four hours a day. They do go to bed before I do. My husband and I occasionally have dates. And I do go to the gym a few days a week. But as soon as I start feeling like the goal is to get away from my children (rather than incidentally being away from them because they’re growing so they need more sleep, or my husband and I need to build our marriage, or I need to exercise to be healthy, etc.), there’s a subtle change in our relationship. I start to resent the children and even see them as being in the way, when actually raising them up to be godly is my husband’s and my life’s work right now, handed to us from God Himself.
Will we never, ever watch anything ever again? I don’t think I’d go that far, but for now it’s feeling wonderful to be getting my family back from the glowing, hypnotic indoctrinator and myself back from compromise and squirmy justifications for all that stuff I said I’d never do.