By MARY HOOD HART
When my four children were small, they gave me many opportunities to practice self-discipline and self-denial. Right from the start, I was denied sleep. I remember vividly the first nights after we brought our oldest home from the hospital. I couldn’t believe so tiny a body could manage to stay awake an entire night.
I wish I could say I accepted this sleep deprivation gracefully. I remember nights when I paced the floor with Katie in my arms, sometimes in tears myself, frustrated and furious with my husband who was sleeping peacefully through my torture. Over time, even when Katie learned to sleep through the night, she never failed to rise, bright-eyed and raring to go, before dawn. I remember how painful it was for me to force myself out of bed to take her downstairs for breakfast. I remember the pure pleasure of the occasional weekend getaway when I could sleep as late as I wanted.
By the time my fourth came along, I was accustomed to sleep deprivation. I guess you could say the children had finally trained me to accept it. Once I started accepting it, sleep deprivation didn’t seem as much like torture. I also had the advantage of a new perspective. I understood from my experience with the older children that no phase, even a sleepless one, lasted forever, that “this too shall pass.” Once my perspective changed, I calmed down, and through that more peaceful acceptance, I became aware of opportunities for grace. Some of my most profound prayer experiences at that time in my life took place at 3 a.m. when I was feeding Anna while the rest of the household slept.
The same gradual change in my attitude occurred for other frustrations in child-rearing. When I was a new mother, I thought Katie was programmed to prevent me from accomplishing anything. I’d start a task as simple as folding laundry into neat stacks, and Katie, then a toddler, would take great delight in knocking them over. No matter what household job I attempted, something would interfere. Self-indulgence was impossible, too. Unless my husband was home, I could forget trying to read a novel or take a leisurely bath. Just taking a shower required long-range planning.
But, like the sleep deprivation, I grew to accept interference, frustration, the inability to complete a task in the way I wanted. By the time our fourth child was born, I discovered there were more important things than neat stacks of folded clothes. I realized that at this time in my life my attention was best given to my children not the house. On the days when I accepted my circumstances and allowed my children to straighten out my priorities, I found most household tasks could be put off. So, we’d all pile on the couch and read picture books. We’d sit around the kitchen table and paint. We’d pack a picnic lunch and head to the park. When Jim would get home from work and the house looked worse than it did when he left that morning, I had a hard time explaining what I’d been up to all day. But our marriage survived.
Now that my children are all in school, the discipline they imposed on me is slipping away. Most days, even at work, I have no interruptions, frustrations, demands on my time and energy nearly as frequent or intense as the kind small children create. For years now, I’ve been able to sleep and shower as needed.
Why would I want it any other way? At 46, I don’t yearn to return to the days of sleep deprivation and constant demands. Yet this freedom comes with a price. Without the discipline imposed on me by small children, I’ve grown too comfortable following my own will, too inclined to expect life to go smoothly, too accustomed to measuring my worth in the number of tasks I complete in a day.
Now, without small children around to keep me in line, it’s up to me to muster the discipline to practice what they taught me years ago — that true happiness comes from self-denial, not indulgence and virtue’s in self-giving, not success.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children.