Catholic Spirituality,  motherhood,  Suffering,  toddlers

The Distressing Disguise of the Toddler

We’ve been trying to incorporate more daily prayer into our little household, and with toddlers underfoot and a hungry baby calling the mealtimes, it isn’t the most prayerful environment. Honestly, it’s the antithesis of what I picture as a prayerful environment. But, work with what you’ve got, right?
Last night found me on wakeup duty at 11 pm, 11:45 pm, and then midnight. All the same child, and all requests of a similar vein: “I’m thirsty, I’m hungry, I just can’t sleeps.” This particular child, my sweet eldest son, is my most challenging; he is the most like me in temperament, and he may be more intelligent than I am. He challenges my authority daily, and he is constantly practicing his litigation skills during nap and meal times. We’re two of a kind, and there is nothing quite like looking into the mirror of your child and seeing some of your own deepest struggles reflected back at you.
As I hoisted him up on the kitchen counter last night, perhaps a tad too forcefully, I shot a resentful glance at the digital display on the stove: 12:04 am.

Doesn’t this kid know how hard I’ve been working all day? Don’t I deserve some peace and quiet between 7 pm and 7 am? Why can’t he just wait until breakfast for his next calorie download?

I looked at his small, tear-streaked face while I peeled his banana in the dimly-lit kitchen. Suddenly seized by an affectionate impulse, I bent down and kissed each of his little bare feet, dangling limply off the counter top. Hadn’t I just read a quote from Bl. Mother Teresa earlier today on somebody’s blog? Something about seeing Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor?
Well here was my street urchin. Here was my Calcutta. Standing in our kitchen at midnight, resignedly peeling fruit for a child who is allergic to sleep and knows no end of testing my patience. He was not an interruption, I suddenly realized, but an opportunity to show greater love. Love that cost me something, love that must be wrenched from my selfish heart and offered with straining muscles and forced smiles and a bone-weary soul.
Here in first-world America, surrounded by luxury and convenience and shielded from almost all physical suffering, it was the closest approximation to the radical, self-giving love preached by the saint of the streets that I could make. Take my looks, take my free time, and take my pants size…but when you take my sleep, that’s when my real Calvary begins.
I tried to see him as a little image of Christ, this naughty son of mine, and even while I felt a tad dramatic embracing and kissing his dirty little boy feet, I felt intensely that this moment was an opportunity of grace custom made for me. He needed a drink and a midnight snack, but not as much as his mother needed a chance to flex her flabby muscles of self-denial.
It’s all very well and good to pray with your children when’s it’s convenient. It’s essential, actually. Earlier in the day I’d felt quite satisfied after praying 3 decades of a ‘cheerio rosary’ with this same child, interiorly patting myself on the back as we counted out 10 Hail Mary ‘o’s’ and some raisin Our Father’s which he painstakingly tracked and consumed as we worked our way through the mysteries.
Parenting, I’ve got this! I thought to myself, feeling the warm glow of accomplishment. And it was an accomplishment, getting my child involved and engaged in formal prayer. But it cost me very little.
There are opportunities for both kinds of grace every day in this vocation: moments that are easy and natural and flow out of the steady rhythm of a happy home, and moments that feel enormous when they occur, demanding sacrifice and seemingly-heroic patience.
I just pray I get better at recognizing the latter, never content to remain only in the former. I don’t want to be a surface level Christian with my children. Happily for me, they don’t seem content to let me remain there for long.


  • Eliese

    Perfect. Exactly what I struggle with too. And btw – Cheerio rosary – BRILLIANT!

    I am (kind of, when I remember) using the book Small Steps for Catholic Moms by Danielle Bean and Elizabeth Foss as a daily devotional. This month focuses on gentleness and the past couple days they reflected on the “sweet interruptions” of our children. “My precious children stick to me like little burrs, they are so fearful of losing me again [after a trip]. The moment I shake off one side another clings on the opposite, nor can I write one word without some sweet interruption.” – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton; “St. Francis de Sales, that great saint, would leave off writing with the letter of a word half-formed in order to reply to an interruption.” – St. John Vianney. Definitely what I need to work on.

  • Melissa

    Yeah…this is it. This was heart wrenching for me to read as I sit here contending with some serious guilt over my intense lack of patience with my kids. So many times I find myself thinking, don’t I deserve just one! Moment! Of peace!?!? But this isn’t supposed to be easy, and I don’t know if I’ve grown in patience but its clear that that’s the goal right now because God is giving me endless opportunities, and who is more deserving of that growth than my kids?? Thanks for this

  • Patty

    So beautiful Jenny! Ever since hearing that idea of Mother Teresa (embracing your own Calcutta) I have found joy and peace even in the little things I may not attribute much too….great post!

  • Jessica Dimas

    Love this! So eerie that I stumbled upon your blog today to read this exact post, when last night in my dimly lit kitchen, I too impulsively bent down and kissed the tops of my toddler’s feet who was sitting on the counter. I’ve never done that before! But I can totally relate to this post because it’s my life right now. I feel like I don’t get a free moment to myself, even at night. I love the perspective you put on this!

  • LPatter

    beautiful both/and….have felt both sides of the parenting moments in my time so far (going on 6 yrs) but I know something is off when I don’t have the self-denial ones creeping up too often…maybe I’m working too hard to arrange things conveniently. Then again, there are phases that come and go and wow, what a breath of fresh air when all of a sudden an incredibly difficult phase clears for a bit. Thank you for the reminder here…it really is those moments that make us the parents we want to be in the more intentional ones.

  • Nancy Shuman

    This is wonderful. Filled with insight and striking to read. I flashed back to a similar realization with one of my little ones. It was ONE OF THOSE DAYS. I felt almost at the breaking point with my strong willed three year old, who could try my patience like no one else on earth. After a series of now-unremembered but probably tantrumed-about demands, this little one told me his shoe needed tying. As I knelt to take care of this, I looked up into his little face and realized how young he truly was, how innocent, how in need of me for the simplest of things. I instantly thought the words “what you do for the least of My brothers, you do for Me.” I thought of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. It was a simple moment, but one that has stayed with me as if frozen in time. It was a genuinely pivotal moment. That son is now grown with children of his own. And again: your post is wonderful.

  • Kate

    Gosh, Jenny, I love this. You got me on so many levels. It’s hard enough to love a child well on our own timeline, and then we have to go and love them on their timeline too? “No, child, I’m flipping making you dinner and I’m elbow deep in raw meat, I cannot get you a glass of ice water.” The last issue of the little mothering journal “Soul Gardening” had an article where a mother got frustrated over a needy child and thought “You’re in my way” and then realized “No, you are the way.” I think about that moment a lot. I say that to myself a lot. But starting tomorrow, I’m going to say “Here is my street urchin. Here is my Calcutta.”

  • Anabelle Hazard

    Street urchins, Calcutta, Mother Teresa –just wow. I didn’t think I could ever start praying the daily rosary with my 2 month old baby and 20 month old (who like your oldest, mirror mirrors the not fairest mom in in the kingdom) but believe it or not, that’s when it happened for our family. God gives you grace if He puts the desire in your heart.


    Oh, this is so true, so beautiful, and definitely something I need to keep in mind.

    And your “Doesn’t this kid know how hard I’ve been working all day?” reminds me of an exchange I had with Breck the other day. We’d just finished up a stressful, uncooperative meal and the baby was screaming and I was scurrying to make his bottle and Breck kept trying to talk (yell) to me over the screaming. I blurted out, “Stop! Quiet! Don’t you know how stressful this is for me?!” And quite innocently, he responded, “Nope!”

    Which was so true. He’s four. He doesn’t know how stressful it all is. And I should stop wishing that he did — it isn’t fair to him.

  • Beth

    Just beautiful. It’s so true that these kids of ours take and take and take, but when we learn to give with joy what they take from us, that’s when the graces come. And “Take my looks, take my free time, and take my pants size…but when you take my sleep, that’s when my real Calvary begins.”… Brilliant! Amen, sister!! 🙂

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