The Distressing Disguise of a 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.

image: Petrenko Andriy /

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Jenny Uebbing is a freelance editor and writer for Catholic News Agency. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband Dave and their growing army of toddlers. She writes about marriage, life issues, politics, sociological trends, and traveling with kids here.

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