Compline for the Weary Parent

Little Kingdoms

An entry on Huffington Post Parents’ Facebook page left me chuckling with recognition—and a little shaken up. It was a snapshot of a fictional parent’s e-mail inbox, including messages from a teacher (your child has lice), summer camp (tuition is overdue), and the PTA (please bring 1,000 gluten-free bagels tomorrow morning). Though obviously an exaggeration, this fake inbox made me feel the same way my actual inbox, along with my calendar, my text history, and the notices my kids bring home from school, make me feel—overwhelmed, tired, and guilty.

As a typical suburban parent—three kids whose activities keep me in the car most afternoons, struggling to fit chores, errands, paid work, volunteer work, parenting, marriage, exercise, and healthy eating into too-few hours—I carry a hefty load of guilt around with me every day. That HuffPo e-mail spoof caricatured the exact kinds of things that make me feel guilty—too many tasks done not at all or late, too much money owed, and a constant underlying anxiety about whether my kids are okay.

I go into my kids’ rooms to say good night, and on seeing the state of disarray there, feel guilty for not setting clear expectations about them keeping their rooms clean. I open the fridge or pantry and feel guilty for letting my kids eat too much sugar and boxed macaroni and cheese. I notice the clumps of dog hair under the kitchen table (and, well, everywhere) and feel guilty for spending the first hour of my day drinking coffee and scrolling Facebook instead of doing a quick daily round of cleaning, which is the kind of thing that lifestyle magazines are always telling us to do to keep on top of things. I bring in the mail and feel guilty about the overdraft charge from the bank (“I should get a real job with a paycheck instead of insisting on being a writer just because I love it.”), the clothing catalog I like (“I should shop at consignment stores. No wonder we never have enough money.”), the cable bill (“If we were more energetic and interesting people, we’d have hobbies instead of watching TV. And if those hobbies involved growing and canning food or DIY renovations, we’d spend a lot less money too.”). I add the mail to the stack on my desk and feel guilty that I haven’t cleared it off in a week; there’s probably a permission slip somewhere in that pile. A late one.

Such low-level guilt permeates my days like a constant, irritating hum. Because Lent is focused on our guilt—confession and repentance of sin—the Lenten compline liturgy speaks directly to my disordered, anxious, and guilty thoughts.

Votive candle!!! from Flickr via Wylio© 2012 Natesh Ramasamy, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

The Compline service starts with confession, a recognition of our faults. Since I already spend much of every day naming my faults, this works well for me.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father:

We have sinned against you,

through our own fault,

in thought, and word, and deed,

and in what we have left undone.

For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,

forgive us all our offenses;

and grant that we may serve you

in newness of life,

to the glory of your Name. Amen.

As I listen to the rest of the service, particular words snag on my heart’s rough patches. I feel stretched, pulled, tattered.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

I feel weary. I feel heavy-laden. I rarely get enough rest, and then feel guilty when I do, because shouldn’t someone who really cares about writing as much I say I do be getting up at 3 a.m. to write before the kids wake up for school? I feel guilty for how tired I am, because I have so many advantages that other people don’t have—a good and supportive marriage, enough money for a well-appointed home and cars that run and take-out food when I'm too tired to cook.

Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Something about that phrase, “snares of the enemy,” gets to me. Ensnared. That’s how I feel. If I were to draw a picture of how that spoof e-mail makes me feel, of how my own e-mail inbox and calendar and to-do list make me feel, it would be of me standing still while a hundred barbed ropes curl around my feet and legs, pulling me in every direction, leaving me stuck and unbalanced.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.

This is my favorite prayer. It’s beautiful. It’s hopeful. It unbinds me from my nest of self-pitying guilt. Because all those things? Tending the sick, giving rest to the weary, soothing the suffering, pitying the afflicted, shielding the joyous—that’s what I do. That’s what parents do. Every day. And if we’re asking God to do these things for us, then maybe the fact that I do these things for other people means that the tasks that fill my days, that can feel so tedious and insignificant, are really among the most important things I can do.

Maybe the first thing I need to do is believe that the work I do as a mother matters, not just to my kids, but to God.

The second thing I need to do is to make room. Because the guilt I carry about the dog hair that wafts along the baseboards, the clutter of toys that the kids have outgrown, and the not-quite-fast-food that is our dinner many nights is useless guilt. My kids might care if I’m late picking them up or if I say “no” to their request to sign up for yet another activity for no better reason than that the very idea of it makes me tired. They may get annoyed or angry and I may need to help them see me as a human being with my own needs. But crabby kids and a too-full calendar and a cluttered home aren’t sins; they’re shortcomings. They’re life.

These shortcomings take up so much of my time and mental space, however, that I have little left for confessing and repenting of the stuff that matters: The pride that keeps me stuck in a self-righteous certainty that I have little to learn from other people. The greed that limits what our family gives away even as I daily spend money on small pleasures, like the shirt that’s 40 percent off or that $3.50 cup of coffee. The sloth with which I waste my work time by scrolling Facebook or checking e-mails because to write something good is hard, it costs too much. I could go on. Clearly, I can confess this stuff. It’s the repentance that doesn’t happen, the asking God to direct me in new directions, and taking the direction.

Every stage of life has its challenges; a big one for those in my stage of life is a lack of room for reflection, repentance, and renewal. We are, in the words of poet Barbara Crooker, “in the middle”—surrounded by needs.

In the Middle

of a life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s,

struggling for balance, juggling time.

The mantle clock that was my grandfather’s

has stopped at 9:20; we haven’t had time

to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,

the chimes don’t ring. One day you look out the window,

green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,

and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,

our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn

again how to love, between morning’s quick coffee

and evening’s slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,

mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies

twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;

his tail is a metronome, ¾ time. We’ll never get there,

Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging

us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,

sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh

of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up

in love, running out of time.

Each day, we must learn again how to love…

Each day, I need to make room, push aside the clutter of guilt clogging my inbox and my calendar and my mind. All that I do, from buying groceries and driving my kids around to volunteering at their schools and writing this blog post, are expressions of love. But it’s so easy for these tasks to become ends rather than means, to limit and choke rather than feed and inspire. I need to make room for confession that goes deeper than my grimy kitchen floor and messy desk, for love that starts with the mundane work that sustains my family and my career but ends somewhere else—somewhere less cluttered, with more room for possibility.

The beauty of the Lenten compline service is that, by asking nothing more of the congregation than our presence and our silence, it helps us make room, so we may learn again how to love.

Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Her articles, blog posts, book chapters, and books have been published by the Christian Century, GeneWatch Magazine, the New York Times‘s Motherlode blog, OnFaith,Brain, Child Magazine, the Episcopal Cafe, Christianity Today, the Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI) Foundation, Virtual Mentor (the American Medical Association’s online journal of ethics), and more. She blogs about faith, family, disability, and ethics at Patheos.