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


that damn stroke

A nurse stood at the foot of Dad's bed and held up a pen in one hand, a banana in the other.

"Mike, point to the pen."

His left hand carelessly pointed to the banana.

The nurse set down the banana and held up a water bottle instead.

"Mike, point to the water bottle."

He pointed to the pen.

I thought he was kidding. I thought he was annoyed at the nurse for insulting his intelligence. This was a man who lived for Trivial Pursuit and participated in Jeopardy every afternoon at 3:30 - a grammar nerd, literary guru, and Cubs' stats fanatic. He was being asked questions suited for a nine-month old, and I thought he was playing her. The nurse repeated this exam several times throughout the morning, each time with similar results.

I couldn't stand it anymore.

"Dad. Stop it. Be serious. Point to the pen."

He looked back at me confused. The nurse wrote something on her clipboard and left.


We had been waiting all day for information, an answer, a suggestion, a next step. A new doctor came into the room and stood at the foot of Dad's bed as we circled around. But there was no information, no answers. Instead, the doctor kept a safe distance from optimism, swimming around in a vague territory of "more tests," and "just have to wait and see." If we were looking for hope that Dad might speak again or walk out of this hospital, we wouldn't find it from this doctor. 

Exhausted and defeated, it was clear we all needed a break. 

My brother and I, along with our spouses, ended up at Starbucks. I was thirty-six weeks pregnant and ordered an iced passion tea lemonade; it didn't seem appropriate.

Thirty hours ago Mom had found Dad on their bedroom floor, crippled and silenced by a massive stroke. Right now he was sleeping in a hospital room. He couldn't move the right side of his body and made weird noises when he tried to talk. His face was droopy, and he needed someone to wipe drool off his chin. While he laid in bed scared, confused, and unable to distinguish a pen from a banana, I was sitting outside a coffee shop on an 80 degree day drinking a fuchsia colored iced tea. Something didn't feel right, but it was also a relief to be out of that hospital, away from doctors who had no answers and offered little hope. There was freedom from the stale conversation that hangs in hospital rooms because no one knows what to say but silence seems worse. The familiarity of a coffee shop brought relief. I don't know how to navigate hospitals, awkwardly lingering around my dad as he lay motionless in bed, but I do know coffee shops. I know how to order a drink and idle by the counter. I know how to set up camp around a table, sip, talk, people watch, repeat. It was comforting to know what I was doing for an hour. 

We sat around the table, and I told them I didn't feel bad for my brother or for my myself. We had Dad, at his best, when we needed him most. He was there - baseball games, dance recitals, Six Flags, AWANA Dad's Night. He'd taught us to drive and took us to Cubs games. He'd moved us into college and walked me down the aisle. I didn't even feel that bad for my mom. I probably should have, but she was Mom; Mom can always handle it. 

Instead, I told them, my heart was aching for this baby in me who would only know a grandpa who sits in a wheelchair as a quiet spectator rather than one who gives piggyback rides and reads stories in a Donald Duck voice. 

My heart also ached for my brother's three-year-old twin boys. They were too young and wouldn't remember that just nine days ago their Grandpa was splashing them in a hotel pool and building a sand castle on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

That's when my brother cried. 

My brother is a man of action; he always has a plan, a next step. There was something about seeing him, elbow on the table, leaning into his hand to wipe away tears that told me this was bad. This was our great divide - the event that just split our lives into a before and after. 

I stopped talking and drank my tea. 


It was just after 4:00 in the afternoon on Monday, three days after Dad's stoke. I was sitting on the small plastic couch near the window when Dad waved his left hand, motioning me to come closer. He pointed to the clock and then back at me; his face was concerned and looked to me for an answer. I knew that look, and I knew what he was thinking. 

"You're wondering why I'm still here," I said. 

He nodded.

"You want to know when I am leaving."

More nodding. 

"You know it's 4:00, and you know we have a five hour drive back to Ohio. You are worried about us driving home in the dark." I said it as more of a question, not really sure if he understood details like time. 

But he nodded again and even smiled. He motioned at the clock and then at the door.

"We'll leave soon, okay?" I sounded like a teenager, irritated at my overly protective father. But I wasn't really annoyed; I was relieved and knew he also wanted to ask if I'd rotated my tires recently. 

He reached over and put his left hand on my giant belly. My throat tightened up, and I felt tears burning the back of my eyes. But I didn't want to cry, again. I didn't want to tell him my heart was crumbling with fear and that he had to get better so he could play with his grandbaby. 

"You think I should leave now so I don't have the baby right here?"

He laughed and looked at my mom as if to say, "Would you help me out here and get her to leave already?"  

That was the first time I saw a hint of Dad. Visitors with good intentions told us he was still in there; he was the same old Mike. But I wasn't so sure until he pointed to that clock.


The months after dad's stroke were confusing. I had lost the dad I'd known for 29 years and weeks later gave birth to my first child. I didn't know how to let the joy of motherhood exist alongside the sadness of dad's stroke, and even now, five years later, I cannot separate the grief and joy. I loved those early weeks of motherhood, but it felt selfish to be so happy when I knew my mom was miles away drowning in decisions and sorrow while my dad was barely moving or speaking. 

I was grieving the loss of my dad. I still am. But that seems strange - grieving the loss of a dad who is alive. 

He has come a long way from the man I saw in the hospital bed five years ago. I am thankful for that. But in my desire to be thankful, I haven't given my sadness the room it deserves. I haven't said aloud how much I hate that damn stroke. I haven't thought much about how I'm sad, and how I miss my dad, and how unfair it is that my children were robbed of their grandpa. 

If I give my sadness an inch, I am convinced it will take the mile. And then another mile after that, probably picking up anger and fear and bitterness along the way. Before long, I might be too far gone. 

But today I will say it. 

I hate that damn stroke. 

I hate that it took the life we expected for my mom and dad. I hate that it took the grandpa who wants to wrestle and swim and play hide-and-seek. I hate that my brother's twin boys had three years with that grandpa, but my children never met him. And I hate that I'm starting to forget. 

I have to try, really try, when I want to remember him. I have to sit in a quiet room and close my eyes if I want to hear his voice and remember the distinctive Italian gestures he'd use when telling a story. Sometimes I try to remember him sitting in the driver's seat of the car or mowing the lawn, but I can't, not anymore. It's strange how you can see something or hear something for decades, but then forget so quickly. 

I do not take Dad's recovery lightly. He took on years of therapy like a champ, relearning to speak and walk and manage with just his left hand. We are still adjusting to a new normal, but Dad is alive, and he knows his grandchildren. They build puzzles, play CandyLand, and sit on his lap to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. They have an inside joke about quesadillas, and Dad can bust out a pretty mean tickle monster with his left hand. They adore him, and I am thankful. 

But I still hate that damn stroke.


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.