could i have grace instead?

I paced around our small bedroom, bouncing a swaddled infant and singing Jesus Loves Me. We were interrupted by a knock on the door, again. Andrew was only a few weeks old, and his two-year-old big sister had not yet mastered the art of playing quietly in the other room while I put him down for a morning nap. I whipped open the door and knelt down to Charlotte's level. "If you knock on this door again, you will have a time out."

The knocking did not stop, but it did change to a soft tapping, allowing me just enough peace for Andrew to doze off. I laid him in the pack 'n play and moved toward the door, committed to following through with my threat. I didn't care how many times I put her in time out over the next few days, that little girl would learn to be quiet when her brother was napping.

I opened the bedroom door to see her sitting in the hallway surrounded by pretend food. She smiled. So big. So genuine.

Shoot. Stick to your guns, Joy.

"I made you soup," she said, holding out a small plastic pot filled with wooden carrots and peppers.

Oof. Don't cave. Don't you dare be a parent who spits out empty threats. 

"Charlotte, thank you for the soup, but you kept knocking on the door when I said to stop. You have a time out." As expected, the tears began, but it wasn't temper tantrum tears; she was sad, disappointed. She finally had my attention, and I was barreling in with a consequence.

I was flooded with compassion. She'd been a big sister for sixteen days, and I expected her to play quietly in the living room while I snuggled and smooched her brother. I was being unreasonable, and I knew it. She didn't need a lesson in obedience right now; she needed grace.

My next sentences were a jumbled mess. There was something about how she'd made a mistake by not obeying. Something else about not getting what she deserved, and I probably threw in something about Jesus for good measure. It wasn't eloquent and possibly not theologically sound. But if I want my children to grasp the grace of Jesus, I need to fill our home with tiny snippets of grace. This was a first, mediocre attempt.

"So," I concluded,  "Mommy is going to give you grace instead."

I exhaled a sigh of relief, hoping to move past the moment, but Charlotte wasn't done. She looked at me with expectation and held out her hand.

"Grace," she demanded. "I want grace."

Oh rats. My holy moment was coming to an abrupt ending as I realized Charlotte wanted something put in her hand. I told her I was giving her grace, and she was ready to receive. No doubt she imagined grace to resemble a chocolate chip cookie.

"I want grace," she demanded again, now stretching out both hands.

"Well honey," I began, knowing I was already sunk, "grace isn't something I can put in your hand. It's kind of like..." Oh, this ought to be good. "Like...a hug."

A hug? Really, Joy? Grace is like a hug?

It seemed appropriate to lean in for a hug, but she pushed me away in frustration. With her hands outstretched and head flung backwards, she began screaming, "Grace! Grace! I want grace! Give me grace!"

Preach it, sister. We all do.

Would you think less of me if I told you I went and got her the cookie?

*****

A few months ago, the kids and I met some friends at an indoor play place. We played, ate lunch, and played some more. I intentionally held off on dessert knowing it might be just the motivator I would need to gather the darlings when it was time to go. There were a dozen candy machines next to the escalator, and I'd be happy to trade a quarter for a handful of Skittles if it meant a smooth exit to the car.

It was nearing 1:00. I gave the five minute warning.

The one minute warning.

Then the casual, "Time to go," as I swung the diaper bag over my shoulder and turned toward the exit.

No one followed. Shocking.

Eye contact was made, and I mouthed the words, "Let's go," from across the room, complete with a forceful hand gesture and deathly mama glare.

No response.

I walked toward them as they ran even further from me, a sure trigger for my blood to start boiling. I knew it wouldn't be easy to collect the darlings, but I had to keep my composure. After all, there were other moms watching me. I couldn't go all crazy mom, yet.

They began climbing a giant pig structure and I moved in, ready to pull a good, old-fashioned dessert threat out of my back pocket.

"You need to come now, or you will not be able to get a treat." I stood silently and watched them disregard my instructions with glee.

The next ten minutes were a blur, and I can't remember how I wrangled them in, zipped their coats, and tied their shoes. I was frustrated, tired, and ready to enforce my threat. Today I would teach them a lesson, even if it meant screams and tears because by golly, when I say it is time to go, it is time. To. Go.

We approached the escalator and the colorful candy machines locked eyes with my children.

"Can we get a treat, mom? Please, can we get a treat?"

Deep breath. Here we go.

"No. I told you it was time to leave, and you didn't come. Your consequence is no treat today." Boom. Done. Consequence enforced. Lesson learned. Well done, mom.

"But please, can we just get one treat?"

"No. I told you it was time to leave, and you didn't come. Your consequence is no treat today."

Charlotte stopped walking, and I braced myself for the inevitable wailing. She buried her face in her hands and let out a loud frustrated exhale. A moment later she looked up and said, "I'm sorry. Could I have grace instead?"

Insert pin drop.

What just happened?

Did she ask for grace?

Is she allowed to do that?

Am I allowed to do that?

I've made stupid choices recently, some toeing the line of foolish and others that are downright sinful. Either way, they are mistakes deserving of a consequence. I never considered just asking for grace. I've opted for guilt instead, fearfully waiting for a smack down that might finally teach me a lesson.

Guilt is a poisonous beast I rarely see in my children. They mess up all the time but are never slowed down, dragged down, or consumed with guilt. I, on the other hand, talk with the Lord about the same foolish choices for months, continue to apologize, and then dwell some more in the sorrow of my stupidity.

Could it really be that simple? Am I allowed to just ask for grace instead of a deserving consequence? Grace instead of guilt?

In Matthew 18:2, Jesus says that we must "become as little children" in order to enter the kingdom of God. It is from this verse that the church coined the term "childlike faith," a phrase tossed around when Jesus stops making sense in our grown-up lives. Jesus is pretty confusing to me most days, and I am not crazy about this "childlike faith" phrase. Mostly because I don't understand what it means or how it plays out in my day to day.

I suppose on my worst days, when the weight of my decisions and the filth of my sin are overwhelming, childlike faith looks something like a crying toddler, hands outstretched, head flung backwards, screaming, "I want grace! Give me grace!" And on my more dignified yet weary days, it might look more like a girl who just lost 25 cents worth of Mike-N-Ikes but is bold enough to ask for grace instead.

*****

I let her have the candy that afternoon, and on the drive home I started to doubt my decision. Was that a good parenting move? What about obedience? What's my plan if she starts asking for grace all the time?

Asking for grace all the time.

I like that.

So, I followed Charlotte's lead that day and decided to ask.

Lord, discipline is hard, and I don't know what I'm doing. I'm not sure what just happened in that mall and if I made a wise decision. Would you cover this one in your grace? Would you take my feeble efforts, weakest moments, greatest mistakes, and give me grace instead?

Asking for grace all the time. I think I'll start doing that.

This essay was first published by Mothers Always Write

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my lame to-do list

Stephen came home to crabby children, a messy house, and scrambled eggs for dinner, again.

I felt the need to defend myself, or more accurately, I felt the need to console myself and feel accomplished. I opened my planner onto the kitchen counter as Stephen tackled the dishes.

"I am going to name for you all the things I got done today. You won't be interested in most of these, and I recognize this isn't for you - it's for me. But when I'm done reading my list, I'll need you to be proud of me. Maybe even clap."

Stephen's a good sport about ridiculous requests, so in an urgent yet mocking fashion, he turned off the water, and leaned across the counter to humor me with his undivided attention.

I proceeded to read the following list:

Fold laundry

Deposit check

Return stuff to Target

Call Verizon (I deserve a medal for this one!)

Order the canvas print

Empty the dishwasher

Make eye doctor appointment

Cut the kids' nails

What a sorry looking list.

It seemed foolish to rattle off a list that only reinforced my lame life, but my unshowered body and shriveled up mind needed to feel effective. By the looks of crabby child #1, tantrum-throwing child #2, and this "well played in" house, I had little meat to show for my day.

I desperately wanted to think back on my day and feel a sense of pride, but instead, my day was unimpressive and filled with tasks a trained monkey could do.

But Stephen clapped anyway.

*****

For twelve years, I walked into school and knew a to-do list would be waiting on my desk. Sometimes it was a long one on a yellow legal pad and organized into categories like "To Copy," "Phone Calls," "Must Do Today,", and "Must Do By Friday." Other times it was a scattering of items jotted down on neon post-it notes or a sliver of white space in the corner of my plan book.

It was a never-ending list, and for every item scratched off, another two were added in its place. Nevertheless, each day was marked by tangible accomplishments - phone calls made, emails sent, lesson plans written, teachers observed, agendas drafted, meetings conducted, problems solved, presentations completed, papers graded, resources gathered. Boom.

I got stuff done. Impressive stuff.  Important stuff.

Months later, I am still adjusting to this stay-at-home-mom gig, and my list looks different, less satisfying. That rewarding feeling of an impressive, productive day is slipping away.

*****

I imagine I am not alone in my love-hate relationship with these lists. In a social setting, I complain, burdened by a to-do list that haunts my sleep, but secretly, I love that list. I love the sound a Paper Mate Flair pen makes as it crosses off a completed item, and I know I'm not the only one who adds already completed tasks to my list just to feel the rush of checking it off.

I spent three years juggling motherhood with a career and would have been grateful to complete a list like the one above in a week. I know the battle of getting nothing done, forcing myself to surrender the to-do list and play Candyland or cars instead. But these past few months, time has been on my side. With one in preschool, another obsessed with his train table, and afternoon naps still going strong (knock on wood), my Paper Mate Flair pen can swoosh through that to-do list.

Why isn't that enough? Productivity ought to be satisfying.

My day is filled with doing, but what I'm looking for are a few items to activate the 80% of my brain that is turning to mush. Dishwashers? Phone calls? Errands? Ugh. I can practically hear my brain jingling around up there.

I used to get stuff done. Impressive stuff. Important stuff.  

Don't say it. I already know.

It matters. That lame to-do list matters. 

******

I decided to stay at home with my children for many reasons, the most pressing being Stephen and I weren't content with our quality of life. Yes, we had more breathing room in the budget with two incomes, but no breathing room with our time. Weekends were spent catching up on the bare bones of survival - laundry, grocery shopping, running a Clorox wipe over the bathroom sink. And when we ignored those responsibilities and opted for a family day, we paid the price of falling even further behind. We'd blink, and it was Monday morning, back to the grind. Weeknights were exhausting, a mad rush to stay afloat until the kids were in bed, and then Netflix. So much Netflix. Who had energy for anything else?

So we made a change. I traded that never-ending, seemingly impressive to-do list for a lame one, filled with mundane, brain-mushing tasks. But it has made all the difference. 

It means we can breathe at night. We can pop popcorn and watch a movie with the kids without folding laundry and writing a grocery list at the same time. We can both put the kids to bed rather than one of us heading out to run errands after dark.

It means we can stay in our pjs on Saturday until whenever we want. We can go for a bike ride or spontaneously invite friends for dinner without feeling suffocated by the phone calls we didn't make and the chores we ignored. 

It means I can support Stephen in a way I haven't had time to before. I get to make his day a little bit easier, and hopefully a little bit better by relieving him of the trivial but necessary tasks of life, freeing him up to pour into a job he loves and a family he loves. 

*****

I am quite certain that tomorrow I will be cleaning up spilled milk for the umpteenth time while my brain wiggles and jiggles. I will mumble words unsuitable for my grandmother's ears rather than remembering what my lame daily accomplishments really mean for our family. That's the funny thing about truth - we know it, we speak it, we write it, but it doesn't always play out in our hearts and actions. 

Some days I ache for impressive - for pencil skirts, high heels, meetings, and presentations. I want to learn something and be challenged by new information. I want to solve a problem and organize an event. 

Instead, I make pancakes, sit on hold with Verizon, and entertain a toddler in the post office line. I make animal noises, talk about rainbows, and constantly answer the question "Can I have a treat?". I organize toys, manage schedules, and buckle children into car seats a dozen times a day. I take Charlotte to preschool and perfect Andrew's forward roll during parent/child gymnastics class. I sing songs at storytime and prepare the guest bedroom for upcoming visitors. I fold, iron, tickle, paint, read, hug, cook, call, build, drive, laugh, wash, teach, play, sing, snuggle, and kiss chubby cheeks. 

I get stuff done. Nothing impressive, but everything important.

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