In the juggling act of life, most of us try to keep multiple balls in the air in order to maintain our mental and physical health. The balls in play typically involve some combination of work, relationships, exercise, relaxation, and spiritual life.
Adding children is akin to lobbing a cannon ball into the mix.
At least, it was for me. After having children, work and relationships were bumped aside, exercise and relaxation fell to the ground and rolled away, and spiritual life . . . how do you maintain a fulfilling spiritual life with young children? Is it possible to have daily “quiet time” when no time is quiet?
For years, I struggled to find time–even fifteen minutes–into which I could squeeze some combination of reading, meditation, and prayer. Our four daughters tend to be early risers; the instant my feet hit the floor in the morning, I was met with demands for breakfast and potty and books. The day was a whirlwind of activities. Naptime was my only chance to wrestle the house into some semblance of order, prepare dinner, and–in any remaining time–write. After the girls were in bed, the dinner dishes washed, and the next day’s lunches prepped, I had a few (exhausted) minutes left over to spend with my husband.
I knew I should be prioritizing God; I knew there was probably something I should drop or tweak to make room for my spiritual life. But I could never quite figure out what, or how, so I just stumbled along, frustrated and guilty.
Over the past year, I thought I’d hit on a solution: Waking up earlier. I’ve always found that my morning–and my mood–are improved if I wake up before anyone else and prepare for the day. Maybe if I woke up just a little bit earlier, I could get everything ready and have some spiritual time for myself. I’d start the day centered.
So, for most of the year I set the alarm somewhere between 5 and 5:30 AM. I was skimping on sleep, but it seemed to work; I could get dressed, organized, and fill my spiritual tank before breakfast.
Then, like they do whenever I’m on the phone or in the bathroom, my children sensed competition and upped the ante. They started waking up earlier . . . and earlier. Daylight savings, with its early light, didn’t help. By the end of the school year, my daily reading/meditating/praying time was almost always interrupted by the pitter-patter of little feet.
I didn’t want my daughters to remember their mother reading her Bible, looking up at them with annoyance, and snarling, “What???”
My husband was having similar challenges. So we went to our pastor for advice.
Instead of suggesting that we wake up even earlier or drop things from our tight schedule, she asked, “Do you have spiritual time together as a family?”
As a matter of fact, we do; we attempt daily singing/reading/praying time with our girls at both breakfast and bedtime. But I’d describe these sessions as more of a “free-for-all” as opposed to “spiritual time”: Usually one daughter’s trying to be “the good girl”, one daughter’s goofing off by inserting scatological terms into the hymns, one daughter’s screaming, and one daughter’s off playing alone in the corner. We’ve tried any number of exhortations and enticements and family devotional guides; it’s always the same scenario.
But our pastor shook up my world.
She suggested that perhaps we didn’t have to think of these family times as separate from our own spiritual lives, especially now that our lives were stretched so thin. She suggested that family worship could, in fact, be part of my personal spiritual life.
And just like that, I realized that I’d gotten it wrong for my first six years of parenting.
All this time I’ve considered the singing, praying, and Bible reading that we do with our kids to be something that we do for them. It’s important to incorporate spirituality into their development, but what we do during those times doesn’t apply to me: It’s like how I play Candyland for my daughters, but Settlers of Catan for myself. After all, during those times with my children, we’re singing children’s hymns (“This Little Light of Mine,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho”), reading from children’s versions of the Bible, saying short and simple prayers.
My pastor helped me realize that I’d been arrogant and wrongheaded to assume that my children’s spiritual lives were somehow inferior to mine, that they didn’t count, that I had nothing to learn from them. Don’t I always cry during VeggieTales videos? Hadn’t I heard a visiting pastor, who works with inmates in a South African prison, describe how these convicts love singing the old Sunday school songs more than anything? Doesn’t Jesus say that we all need to become like little children (Matthew 18:3)? How had I missed this?
These days, I still attempt my quiet morning spiritual times, but when I hear little feet running downstairs I no longer feel quite so irritated. I know that, later that day, I’ll have times of spiritual refreshment with my children, and I’m trying to really listen to the stories in those children’s Bibles, to really think about the lyrics to those children’s songs, and to pray with my daughters the way I’d pray alone. Because these times are my spiritual life, just as much as my quiet moments alone.
Has my daughters’ behavior during family spiritual times improved as a result of my attitude change? Not really. But then, so much of our faith is about the long run. In the meantime, I’ve found that it’s possible to have a spiritual life with my children, rather than despite them.