Years of training in surgery equipped me with the skills and confidence to stop massive bleeding, take out gallbladders, and open the chest in under half a minute.
These skills mean bupkiss when a toddler sets a Scrabble game on fire.
Recently my husband was out of town, and the kids and I were quarantined to the house with a respiratory bug. Daily I arose determined to make everything work, to arrange all the moments as if they were glowing panels in a stained glass window. On our fifth morning, I awoke with a throbbing headache, and even the shafts of early light filtering through the window made me wince. Yet I tackled the morning with gusto, resolved to cram healing, learning, joy, laughter, inspiration, growth, productivity, housecleaning, and maybe even a little writing into every minute. I choked down some ibuprofen with a cup of coffee, and seized the day.
Then, it started.
First, Pip argued about going potty, preferring to soak his pajamas rather than interrupt his concentration on Legos. Then, he argued about everything else: combing his hair, getting dressed, wearing a life preserver indoors, using a napkin, eating toast, his sister’s turtle socks, his sister’s existence, eating soup, not eating soup, going potty, dismantling the toilet while going potty, reading, not reading, going to his room, coming out of his room, a shovel, hanging out of a window, cheating death by jumping off a rocking horse, my hairstyle, the arrangement of magnets on the fridge, the color coordination of his utensils, peregrine falcons, and pretzels. Oh, and responding to his given name.
Bean jumped into the fray. She practiced shrieking, “Mine!” and “No!” in alternating octaves. When I didn’t prepare her snack quickly enough, she sampled the furniture. She stood on chairs, ripped books, and smeared Goldfish spittle on every surface. She whacked her head, wrist, foot, shoulder, and pinkie toe six times during illicit living room acrobatics. All this, to the shrill refrain of “Mine! No! Mine! No!”
There was screaming. There were bloodied lips. There was a preschooler escaping outside into the snow, in socks. There was that same preschooler howling because his feet were cold. There were my lovingly selected books for the day, trodden upon and scattered in a pathetic heap on the floor.
There was smoke emanating from a Scrabble box.
Bean had managed to turn on a halogen light in a cabinet, via a switch that should have been well beyond her reach, while she was in time out. As I raced to prevent a blaze, with my hair disheveled and my patience brittle, Pip sauntered in, his face screwed into a sour expression. “Mum Mum, what did you do?”
That was it. I whirled about, my teeth clenched. The last, feeble threads of my composure, already frayed, had snapped. I shouted. Loudly.
“Both of you, just STOP! Stop! Do you hear me?” Pip took a step back. Bean’s eyes widened. “I’ve had it with both of you! You’re not listening to anything I say! You both know the right thing to do, but you insist upon doing the opposite! Stop it!”
I was trembling. Pip’s eyes welled with tears, and remorse washed over me. “Mum Mum,” he pleaded. “Please, don’t yell.”
My own tears came. Still shaking, I fell to my knees and wrapped both of them in my arms. Together, we prayed. What have I done? I despaired.
The Lord had called me to teach these children diligently in His ways, to guide them toward loving Him with all their heart and mind. To teach them about grace. Instead, I had hurled words with the power to crush them. Discipline was one thing. . .unbridled anger another beast entirely. I had lashed out without a hint of gentleness. (Prov 15:1) My outburst claimed that righteousness is a mutable thing, an asset entirely within their capability. I’d hinted at legalism and works-righteousness. In one horrible breath, I trampled their spirits, and wrenched Christ from their view.
When I started this journey, on a daily basis I prayed for the Lord to help me guide the kids with wisdom. In particular, I prayed for help with Pip, whose sensory processing issues, inflexibility, and wicked temper produced a litany of challenges. His daily outburst count served as the barometer for our household.
As the months have passed, my prayers have shifted. My pleas assume a different angle, directed less at my children’s behavior, and increasingly upon my own. As I watch my kids each day, I perceive glimmers of myself reflected back at me. Sometimes, the picture is serene. At other times, my image, once so familiar, seems warped, writhing beneath a maelstrom of current. I regard my children, and through them God holds a reflecting glass to my face and says, “Look. Consider. Repent.”
The chaos and preciousness of these days reveal the sin I once cultivated with such fervor. As a surgeon, I prized my efficiency. I valued my determination, independence, and decisiveness. I developed a reputation among my colleagues for tackling the hard issues, for always doing the right thing no matter the challenges involved. I held everyone — my peers, my trainees, and myself — to exceedingly high standards. I was always impatient.
Such qualities served patients, I convinced myself. Yet when these traits confront a crying child, their artifice crumbles away. The elements of myself I treasured as virtues, unveil themselves as gnarled outcroppings of my pride.
When my esteem for efficiency supercedes my patience, I squash my preschooler’s imagination. I teach him that promptly getting dressed takes priority over the magical wanderings of his mind. When I demand my children never falter in their behavior, I teach them that it is possible to never falter, and so rip from them the good news of Christ Jesus. When I wed myself to a regimen for our days, I stamp out the delicious spontaneity that bubbles up through their play. When I snap with impatience, I fail in my duty to teach them about the God whose patience abounds, who knows them and so loves them that He gave His Son for them.
And so each day, when the new light of morning leaks through the window, I pray for patience, and for forgiveness. I pray for the Lord to help me cast off the idols to which I bound myself for so long, the pride that still poisons my days. I pray for the discernment to teach Pip and Bean, first and foremost, to act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. (Micah 6:8) And I pray for the peace to instruct them through gentle words, through a love that is patient and kind, through actions that never boast.