Recently, our house has been ringing with the wails of a 3-year-old girl. Morning, afternoon, and evening, Charlotte can usually be found sitting in a corner somewhere, inexplicably screaming at 90 decibels despite having both fists shoved into her mouth.
The cause of poor Charlotte’s distress has been our eternal engagement in the Epic Battle to Pick Up.
Charlotte is so different than her older sister. Sienna only needs good enough incentive to pick up. She always has. At the age of three she could pick up her toys in ten minutes flat if there was a cookie in her future. Granted, the toys would generally be shoved haphazardly under her bed, but the living room was clear and that was good enough for me. As she grew I learned to be careful, because if her incentive is too good she’ll just throw everything in a closet and shut the door, but if it’s not good enough she’ll meander around the house for hours, “picking up.” Charlotte, on the other hand, sticks to the same routine no matter what the incentive. I’ll say, “Charlotte, pick up the toys in the living room” and she’ll say, “But it’s hard for me.” And then she’ll stand perfectly still in the middle of the living room until I threaten her with the loss of something, at which point she’ll stuff her hands in her mouth, fall into a corner, and commence wailing.
I have to admit that this routine has actually worked out pretty well for her. Her wails grow increasingly louder in direct correlation to the severity of my threats and tone, until finally I just send her to her room where she plays happily while her sister picks up everything. Then when the threats come due, the wailing begins again. She’s missed quite a few afternoon popsicles and outdoor play-times, but she’s also never actually done any substantial picking up.
For a few weeks now, my husband has been patiently observing my growing state of agitation and quietly making suggestions — no, the same suggestion. “Tell her what to do,” he’ll say, as Charlotte screams in the corner and I bark at her to pick up ALL the shoes.
“I am!” I snap back.
“No, one at a time. Tell her to pick up that red shoe and put it away. Then when she comes back, tell her to pick up the other red shoe and put it away,” he says.
I’ve been responding with some variation of “I don’t have time for that” or “we never had to do that with Sienna,” both of which are perfectly horrid excuses that I nevertheless keep handy in my cache of “knee-jerk Mommy responses.” After all, their picking-up time is also my picking up time! I have laundry to fold, dishes to wash, floors to sweep, orphan socks to find matches for, and dinner to prep! I don’t have time to stop all of my work and walk a three-year-old through an incredibly simple task. I just don’t.
Today was no exception. I had three loads of laundry to fold, a dishwasher to empty, a bathroom to clean, and all the while Charlotte sat in the corner, wailing around her chubby fists. I tried to pass the buck off to the six-year-old, saying, “Sienna, why don’t you show Charlotte which toy to pick up and where it goes?” as if Charlotte had somehow forgotten where she got every toy in the house every morning. When this stellar plan resulted in Charlotte miraculously removing her fists from her mouth and aiming them furiously at Sienna’s face, I hastily intervened.
I sat down with Charlotte and took her face in my hands. Her eyes were swollen from days of crying, her cheeks were red and blotchy, her hair was matted to her face with a combination of tears and snot, and her lips were quivering. She looked at me and her eyes held this heart-breaking combination of self-pity and despair.
I had been planning on telling her that if she didn’t pick up RIGHT NOW, she wouldn’t be able to play outside with her sister. But I looked at my child and couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear to spend one more afternoon watching her press her face against the window and cry, longing to join her sister outside. I couldn’t bear to watch her slumped in a corner, wailing in defeat about a task she hadn’t even attempted. All the parenting ideals about “holding the line” and “following through” vanished, and at that moment I knew that my daughter didn’t need justice. She needed mercy.
So I set my own work aside and helped her. I pointed out, one by one, the shoes that needed to be picked up. I told her where to put each one in her closet. We did the same with the toys and the books. And finally we were finished. She had picked up. We went for a walk, and when we came home she asked to play outside with Sienna until dinnertime. I said, “of course, Charlotte, but first can you put all the stuffed animals back on your bed?” It was a condition of our walk, made earlier, but I asked it instead of ordering it. In truth, I was dreading it. Charlotte had never picked up the stuffed animals. She had always wailed that it was “too hard.” And the few times she had made an effort, a quarter of them ended up piled messily on the bed before she dissolved into tears.
But this time she agreed cheerfully. Ten minutes later I walked into her room to find the animals arranged neatly and cleverly around the room. Some sat on the bed, some on the floor. One was in the miniature cradle and one big hippo sat in the little rocking chair with a baby doll on his lap.
I couldn’t believe it. She was so proud of herself and so happy to show me her work that she almost forgot about going outside. I had to remind her before she put on her shoes and ran out the door.
This evening I sat down to look up confession times at our new parish. I’ve been dreading going to confession, not really because of the sins I have to confess, but because once I confess them I have to actually begin rooting them out once again. And I don’t want to. I don’t want to because I’ll fail, because it’s painful, and because it’s hard for me.
I put my head down on the desk and felt a familiar, creeping surge of self-pity and despair. Then I remembered the way I felt when I looked into my child’s eyes and saw those same emotions. I wanted to help her, not to condemn her. I wanted her to succeed, not to fail. I felt only love for her.
I don’t often think of God as my Father. My Lord, certainly. The One who rules over me. The One to whom I am bound. But Father? God seems too distant for that. Too majestic. Too inaccessible. Too perfect, and to be honest, too exacting.
It wasn’t an accident, though, the chain of events that transpired in our house today. It wasn’t an accident that I was given the grace to see beyond myself and recognize a child in need of love and mercy. It wasn’t an accident that that very grace came on a day in which I was so in need of love and mercy myself. And it wasn’t an accident that the evening played out in such a way that when I put my head down on my desk I was despairing of my own sins while simultaneously reviewing my day to find something to post about.
And it wasn’t an accident that I found it.