Acknowledging the Hard Stuff


Last night, we had a Horrible Diaper Situation in the middle of the night. As with all Horrible Diaper Situations, I prefer to stick the baby in the tub rather than deal with it in a more hands-on way. It was the cold, wee hours of a new year, and with the baby splashing away, I pulled out my notebook and jotted down a list with two parts: hard things and good things.

All year, I kept trying to convince myself that it was a good year—that things shouldn’t feel so hard. We had a beautiful baby and a fun, smart toddler. I had always dreamed of having a house full of kids, and I wasn’t going to let two kids be hard for me. So all year, I tried to be positive. To say: I’ve got this.

And why should my life be anything but easy? All year I’ve felt guilt about living in the particular time and place that we do. I’ve felt unease about the material wealth around me, frustrated at myself for ever complaining about anything, wondering why I—a mom in the suburbs—couldn’t get my life together and do more, be more, give more. I’ve asked over and over, “How do I live a life of Gospel sacrifice as a mom of two? How much can I ask my toddler and baby to sacrifice in order to sacrifice myself?”

So I told myself over and over to stop complaining, that my life was easy, that I was privileged. This was part of the story of the year.

But in the in-between times, I often fell into desperation, feeling like there was not enough sleep, not enough help, too many tantrums, too little patience. I often felt like all my nerve endings were exposed—as though one bad thing in a day could tip me over the edge. And it often did.

I could call it The Year I Realized I Was Not a Great Mom. Up until this year, no matter how hard motherhood got, I felt like I ultimately had it. This was the year I didn’t have enough patience, the year I tried to rely on my own strength, the year I felt so alone at times that it took my breath away. And in those moments, I chastised myself to get it together, to realize how privileged I am, how entitled I was being.

I constantly beat myself up for wondering how life could feel so hard because it should be so easy for me.

I told a friend recently that I tried all year to pretend that this was a good year and finally, in December, I realized it had been hard in so many ways. She agreed and pointed out concrete things that had made my year hard—things I hadn’t even noticed. And instead of making me feel discouraged, this gave me peace. Acknowledging those hard things was part of accepting and understanding this year. 

So last night, sitting by the edge of the bathtub with my notebook propped on the toilet, I finally forced myself to acknowledge on paper the hard things (because most of the time, for me, it has to be on paper).  And as I wrote them down, I felt freedom to say, “Wow! There really were a lot of hard things this year.”

My goal this year was to thrive. Though we were having a new baby, I didn’t want to end up in survival mode for so much of the year. I worked hard to make “thrive” my word.

But a short way into the year, after a series of exhausting days of toddler (and mommy) tantrums I was copying down these verses from James 1: 

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1: 2-4)

And I realized my word instead should be joy. I was going to find joy in the trials. I kept this verse at the forefront of my mind. And though joy seemed to me at the time like a cop-out word of the year, it wasn’t.

This year really was a fight for joy. I found myself fighting with every ounce of my mental and emotional strength some days to see the joy before me—in the beauty and in the sacrifice. I had to realize over and over again that there really is no joy or strength apart from the Lord. I have to seek Him and meditate on His word to find joy.

I also found myself finding so many little joys—even just five minutes at a time as Alain de Botton talks about in The Course of Love. I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty in the midst of the chaos and to accept that there will never come a day of perfect rest here on this earth. I long to discover the secret of keeping up with the laundry and having a good routine so I can  find time to write even with two babies running around. I want to not be tired when I invite friends over and to have meal-planning and grocery shopping be totally automatic.  But this year, I came to realize something important: I can’t wait to get my life in order before I start living. But surprisingly in the living, I often find order and discover priorities. 

As I listed those hard things, I found more of them than I expected. But I was filling up my list of good things even faster.

I’m not writing this to try to tie my year up in a bow. In fact, I can't tie the hard things in my life up in a bow right now (probably ever). Instead I’m writing it to acknowledge that God fulfilled his promises. I can strive and work for joy—and indeed sometimes I have to. But I can also find it by acknowledging that God is faithful to His promises no matter what is going on in my life. I can find it in realizing that I am part of a bigger story and, at the same time, that there are hard, unresolved things on this earth. I love this verse from a William Cowper hymn: 

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.

I learned this year that God is faithful and that the fight for joy is a fight for faith. I learned this year that I have to allow myself to acknowledge that some things really, truly are hard, that joy is sometimes a fight but always a worthy one.

I have to hold both these tensions in my heart—the true, very real pain of life on earth and the true, daily and forever joys found in God.

When I acknowledge the hard things, I see even more the goodness in the good things, gifts that come from a good God about whom Paul tells us (and this is amazing!):

"And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Philippians 1:6)

I am astounded by God's goodness and faithfulness to me. I wouldn’t have thought I would write this, but as I reflect back on my year, though we were often more surviving than thriving, I realize this really was a year of Joy. 

P.S. If you, too, are struggling to find joy in a season of your life right now, this is one of my favorite resources.