I yelled at my daughter the other day. Not a gentle “Don’t do that, honey,” kind of correction, but an angry, “What on earth were you thinking?” reaction. She was carrying two open cans of sparkling water and a plate of chips on a tray toward the back door for her picnic, but stopped to shoo away a little brother who had his eyes on the chips. In the midst of her defensive posture, the cans slipped off the tray and spilled onto the carpet. Of course they did. Every mama paying attention would have seen that coming a mile away.
I, however, wasn’t paying attention. I don’t remember what I was doing—it probably had something to do with me and my phone in hand—but I do remember hearing the commotion and immediately yelling at my five year old for spilling. She, in turn, yelled at her two year old brother for making her do it, and pretty quickly there was a lot of frustration going around for a little bit of spilled sparkling water. A simple misstep halted my child’s creative idea on a nice day, and there we were, yelling at each other as if the offense merited some sort of punishment.
After we cleaned up, I thought about how quickly that moment went from fun to frenzied. I realized that I had been doing that quite a bit—reacting to a mistake as if it were a personal attack that I needed to fend off. My fuse had been shrinking, and I had been distracting myself with other things. Rather than parenting my children with the patience and instruction they need, I responded to a common sibling squabble like I was one of the siblings.
This is not the kind of mom I want to be. It was a thought that hovered over me in the wake of simple moments that I had turned in to small calamities with my exaggerated reactions. So why is this the mom I am—Impatient, snappy, easily frustrated, responding to the mistakes of a five year old as if I were another five year old?
Here is what I know about myself: by the time I’m out of patience, yelling, and frustrated that I have to reprove a behavior yet again, it’s too late. My sin has become a barrier between the correction I wanted to give and my child’s heart. If a mama speaks out of the overflow of her heart, my overflow had been speaking loud and clear, pointing to the fact that I wasn’t guarding the sources filling my heart-well.
I’ve always put guardrails up around my young kids, filtering their influences and being careful to ensure that good and healthy seeds are planted in the fertile soil of their young and impressionable hearts: monitoring the media they consume, the books we read, and the places we spend our time. But somewhere in the midst of sleep-deprived nights and long days, the beautiful chaos of bringing three children into our family in three years, and the juggling of schedules, finances, and decisions, I stopped believing that I need guardrails, too.
You’re exhausted, I told myself. Just relax. Grab your phone. Post something on the internet that will affirm you. Watch Real Housewives. Check Instagram again.
Our smartphones aren’t the problem. Instagram isn’t the problem. I’m not so legalistic that I’d condemn every television show out there, either. The problem is really simple: it’s me. My heart is. My misplaced worship is. The idolatry of my time and performance is. And the way I feed these things by comparing myself to other mothers, that’s the problem. And as my patience had been wearing thinner and my strong reactions to simple parenting moments becoming more frequent, I started to wonder if the things I was using to fill up on in the small moments were creating bigger issues in my heart. As Paul David Tripp has said, “When you shake a cup of water, you’ll get wet; the shaking is only going to make what is already inside spill out.”
So goes motherhood. If I’m filling all the margins of my life with the mindless scrolling of everyone else’s highlight reels, it shouldn’t surprise me that I react frustrated when my real life doesn’t look like one. If I’m looking for a break from the noise of our toddler-filled household and only turning to the noise of media to find one, it shouldn’t surprise me that I return to the noise of my real life with less capacity for it, not more. If I’m treating my sins of pride, jealousy, slander, comparison, and idolatry as if they’re no big deal, it absolutely should not surprise me they do exactly what God’s word tells us sin will do. Without boundaries they’ll steal, kill, and destroy all the good things God wants to produce in me and my family.
My sin, my misplaced worship, and the way I’ve sought to fill my life with the things God tells us will not satisfy—these are the barrier between me and the mom that I want to be. As I’ve escaped to worldly influences, I’ve robbed my soul of the fellowship with my Savior that it needs, and I’ve seen firsthand—and so have my children—how motherhood shows me the difference between the overflow of a heart filled with treasure and a heart filled with idols.
From the beginning of human history, God has taken sin seriously. Its wages have always been death and its consequences have always been painful. If sin—whether it’s an obvious indiscretion, or the things I dismiss as “small sin”—has been the wall in the way of the mom I want to be to my children, then repentance will be the way back to fellowship with the One who paid the price for my sin. I cannot skip the work of confessing the actions I know aren’t pleasing to God, and doing so right in the moments that my conviction shows me that. Martin Luther, knowing that our hearts are prone to wander said, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” I think he would have no problem with me taking a bit of liberty with his words: the entire life of a mom should be one of repentance.
Motherhood is one way God makes his goodness tangible, and I am learning each day that to be the mom I want to be, to experience that goodness, I have to begin with a posture of humility; which is sometimes as simple as the choice between one of the many temporary comforts fighting for my affection, and repentance. Simple, pure, childlike repentance. As I guide my children through the moments of saying, “I’m sorry, will you forgive me?” to others, I can, and must, do the same thing—because we share the same problem: our sin. We’re all in need of saving from the thing that keeps us from God and from one another.
But the best news for all of us is that grace is already there. Even in the moments when I recognize that the overflow of my life has been a reflection of all the wrong things I’ve been filling it with, grace is there. Even when I’ve lost my patience again, grace is there. Even though I don’t deserve it, grace is there. And ultimately, my repentance is a reflection of my understanding of God’s forgiveness, even when I don’t deserve it. It’s the true view of my sin, and what Christ has already done on the cross to atone for it, that propels me to weave the truth of the gospel into my daily life.
The command of Jesus was simple: repent and believe in the gospel. My responsibility is to never forget that command; to daily repent and believe anew in the good news. Because the gospel really is the most essential truth to my parenting, and repentance removes all the things of this world that compete with it. When I do this, the overflow of my heart—the way that I live—becomes joy and gratitude from the forgiveness I’ve been offered. And grateful and joyful, that is the kind of mom I want to be.
Katie Blackburn is a mama of three who is still very much learning how to be a mama at all. She is saved by grace and runs on cold brew coffee and quiet mornings at her desk. She is also a regular writer at Coffee + Crumbs and a contributor to The Magic of Motherhood (Zondervan, 2017). You can find more of her writing on faith, motherhood, special needs, and other life lessons on her blog or on instagram.