Her words rolled over in my brain, trying to recollect sense of the statement from a woman’s whose opinion I value most.
My sister held her newborn, straddling the chasm between confidence and terror. The movements were still so new; there was no muscle memory, no line of stamina, no profound understanding that this, too, would improve with time.
“Whenever I tell anyone you have a job, and then follow it up with mention of your four kids, they are shocked. No one knows how you do it.” She glances down at her baby, with only a moment’s pause. “Truthfully, I don’t know how you do it. I can’t seem to figure it out with one.”
I laugh suddenly, almost knowingly, still fresh in the memory of those first weeks with my oldest, ten years prior. Those were the hardest days, for certain; I would take the comfort of repetition over the panic of novelty any day. But those words, offered with such grace and compassion, caused me to pause.
How do we do it, day in and out? How do we stay present with our family, but still provide for our world through work? Where is the balance, or does it exist? And if it exists, how in God’s green Earth do we find, establish, and maintain it?
My husband and I often compare our daily schedule to a house of cards. There are many, so many cards, and they’re often threatening to fall over. Our family, when taken as a whole, leads to such complexity that we are noted as a fire hazard when we try to squeeze into one hotel room.
When houses are built on flimsy cards, their construction requires meticulous attention at the best, and a solid pack line defense at its worst.
For ages, my frustration peaked on days when one of our cards fell over, causing the rest of the house to collapse. A daughter would wake up sick, or the carpool would fall through, or a meeting would arise with no warning that required my attendance. No matter how much I planned for these days, they seemed inevitable, and would often show up at the worst time possible.
My frustration reached the point where, instead of trying to protect our time, I was becoming almost aggressively defensive of our daily lives. I wouldn’t let anything, or worse, anyone, into our world who threatened to knock the cards down. I was all too easily overwhelmed with any extra requirements, requests, or sadly, even the humanity of our community.
Because our house of cards seemed so perilous, I felt myself shutting out those who, on further reflection, might just be the foundation our house needs.
Staring me in the face most days is my favorite C.S. Lewis quote:
“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is, of course, that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day.”
What if, despite my past insistence, I shouldn’t focus on what’s going to knock over our intricately constructed house of cards, but instead, should revel in the joy of what’s holding it up?
When I took a closer look, I realized that our lives aren’t held up by anything that we are doing as an individual family. Our lives are pieced together in a beautiful tapestry of community that God has delicately placed (or sometimes thrown) into our path. This community, with all its humanity, is truly what has the capacity to hold us together. We aren’t made to do it alone; that’s not how we’re designed to exist in this world. Time in isolation doesn’t permit growth.
September, especially for parents of school-aged children, might be the toughest time of year. You’re trying to gain a routine, assimilate your children to a new setting, and navigate the constancy of parenthood that never relents. Each year, I find myself growing more defensive, even to the point of being self-righteous, that I must be the one who does it all for our family.
Of the many wrong steps I’ve taken, this is one that I fear might be the worst. If our collective community becomes one of isolation, defensiveness, and pride, we are missing our greatest gift. By shutting others out, we give up the opportunity to have our family supported, encouraged, and enriched. We miss our interruptions, the very pieces of our lives that will ultimately bind us together.
And finally, we might miss the profound opportunity for compassion and grace, both to extend to others, and also to receive ourselves.
There is no better gift to teach our children than the compassion to extend to others and the humility to receive grace themselves.
And in that chaos, the true beauty of compassion and grace shines through.
This piece originally appeared on The Today Show Parenting Team in October 2019.