Putting Emotions in Their Proper Place
By LESLIE LUDY
The last few weeks have brought about a dramatic change in my motherhood role. After an arduous twenty-nine month adoption journey, Rees and Lily Ludy (now ages two and three) finally came home from Haiti to join our family! While there is no question that this has been a beautiful and unforgettable time marked by the supernatural grace of God, I’ve also had some major adjustments to make. Though I haven’t been in “toddler mode” for several years, I suddenly find myself changing pull-ups, supervising bathroom visits, cleaning up spilled smoothies, and working through those irrational toddler meltdowns that always seem to happen at the most inconvenient times.
The other night Eric was on a conference call and I was putting all the kids to bed on my own. I was happy with how quickly the toddlers settled down. They were quiet and calm when I left their room. But about thirty minutes later I heard a suspicious rustling sound coming from their bedroom. I peeked in the door to find them out of bed, running around the room, their faces completely lacquered with sticky white diaper cream. They had even smeared it up their nose and in their ears! The message to my soul was loud and clear: “Welcome back to the wonderful world of toddler-parenting!”
Going out in public has become a whole new experience since we became a family of eight. Eric and I pretty much had things down to a science with four kids. We could go out to dinner, take off on family bike rides, and visit friends without incident or drama. Taking six kids out on the town is a bit of a different story. It isn’t fun or relaxing at this point in time — it’s work. Keeping everyone calm, well-behaved, clean, orderly, and happy requires both Eric and me to be as sharp and focused as CIA operatives on a save-the-world assignment. Not to mention the fact that we draw a lot of attention. Our family stands out like a neon sign because we have so many children close in age with a variety of nationalities represented. We often get asked if we are running a daycare. And those that don’t ask questions usually steal plenty of curious (or sometimes incredulous) glances our way. It’s pretty much impossible for us to go somewhere unnoticed. Maybe this is the way celebrities feel — like living in a fish bowl. (Except that a celebrity’s fish bowl is noticeably more glamorous than ours.)
Then there is the jarring change in our daily home life. When Eric is away and I’m home alone with all six kids, I can easily start to feel overwhelmed, wishing I could just hop in my car and escape to the mall or coffee shop and have a little time to breathe. Tending to four kids’ needs was a lot of work, but doable. Tending to six kids’ needs has me running up and down the stairs all day long and frequently breaking out in a sweat. The noise level in the house has escalated tremendously. Our bedtime routine for the kids used to take about twenty minutes. Now it can easily take an hour. My time seems to evaporate far more quickly now that I am a mother of six, causing me to feel like I am falling behind in my work and important projects, which has led to a certain low-level stress that seems to hover around my mind and emotions most of the time.
To top it off, winter decided to hit our town quite early this year. As I have been adapting to having two new toddlers at home, the temperature has dropped into the single-digits with several inches of snow covering the ground, making it impossible for me to take the kids outside for exercise and fresh air and leading to a lot of pent up energy, noise, messes, and extra chaos at home.
I must admit to feeling a bit suffocated in the midst of these circumstances. My emotions have been up and down. On the one hand, I am thrilled with what God has done in blessing our home with these precious little lives. I am equally awed by how well they have already bonded to us and how comfortable they feel in our family. I am loving the snuggles in the rocking chair and the little voices singing happily in the morning. I am moved to tears when I see my four older kids smothering their new siblings with genuine love and affection.
But there have also been moments when I’ve felt a bit smothered myself – when I’ve felt stretched beyond my capacity, when I find myself longing for my “old life” and resisting the idea that mothering six children has become my “new normal.” There have been moments when my emotions threaten to pull me downward, cloud my perspective, and bait me toward self-pity.
And in those times, I’ve felt the gentle reminder from God’s Spirit to fix my eyes upon Him and not allow my emotions to lead the way. My perspective toward motherhood must always be based upon His Truth, not upon how I happen to be feeling in the moment.
No More “Mommy Meltdowns”
Most of us are familiar with how toddler meltdowns work. When a two-year-old is overtired or doesn’t get what he wants, his emotions can take a sudden downward spiral. And if he hasn’t yet learned the art of self-control, his feelings of anger or disappointment will completely take over his mind, body, and vocal cords — negatively impacting everyone around him.
Mommy meltdowns aren’t really too far removed from this scenario. While we may not throw ourselves on the ground kicking and screaming like a toddler, we are often just as susceptible to letting our emotions control us in moments of frustration or exhaustion. When circumstances are less than ideal and motherhood pressure is mounting, it’s tempting to let our feelings take over and plunge us into depression, despair, or frustration. Yelling at our kids, slamming doors, or giving our husband the silent treatment are prime indicators that we’ve let our emotions take control, rather than basing our actions upon the unchanging truth of God’s Word.
I’ve learned that having a chipper, happy, positive, calm, and peaceful attitude isn’t really that difficult when my home and family life is flowing smoothly. But it can feel almost impossible to maintain that kind of joy when I am running behind schedule, the kids are being hyper and silly, the weather outside is frigid, the playroom is a disaster even though I just spent an hour cleaning it yesterday, every pair of my preschooler’s shoes is mysteriously missing, the toilet has gotten clogged because one of the kids stuffed it with paper towels, and we somehow have an over-abundance of sippy cups without any lids. All of these little issues work together to create the perfect scenario for a “Mommy meltdown.” The voice of self-pity and the voice of frustration begin to loudly scream out suggestions to my soul: “You can’t handle this. Go ahead and get upset, depressed, or angry—you have every reason to feel sorry for yourself right now!”
It is right when that bait is at its strongest that I must choose truth-based mothering and put my emotions in their proper place. Though my feelings may be strong, I must remember that God’s truth and power is even stronger. I do not need to act upon my negative feelings just because they happen to be strong at the moment. Rather, this is the exact moment when I must cry out to God for grace to not only survive, but to actually triumph through challenging times and difficulties. Whenever I deliberately choose to tune out my screaming emotions and tune in to the grace of God, I find that I actually can handle the challenges with dignity and strength — because I’m building my thoughts and actions upon His truth and leaning on His grace.
The Dangers of Emotion-Based Mothering
One of the strongest messages in our society today is the bold proclamation: “Follow your heart!” “Don’t know what to do? Just listen to your heart! Do what feels right to you!” This advice permeates everything from love songs to children’s movies.
Our culture has conditioned us to place a high value on our own desires and emotions. And as mothers, we are encouraged to base our behavior and perspective solely upon how we feel — not upon what is true.
God gives us different directions when it comes to our heart and emotions: “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. 28:26) and “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jer. 17:9).
Following our heart cultivates an attitude of selfishness rather than one of surrender. We cannot become the bondservants of Christ if we are controlled by our feelings. We cannot become Christ-centered mothers if we place a higher value on our emotions than we do on God’s truth.
Emotions can be a beautiful part of our motherhood role — they can help us truly cherish our children and bring joy and laughter into our homes. They can help us empathize with our children and feel genuine sadness when our kids are hurting. But emotions must always remain under the control of God’s Spirit. If we allow our emotions to take over and speak louder than God’s truth, we are setting ourselves and our families up for misery.
During difficult times, our feelings scream, “I can’t handle this. I’m not strong enough. I must let my negative emotions control my words, attitude, and actions because my circumstances are just too difficult right now.”
When we choose to agree with those feelings and base our actions upon them, we become an emotional basket-case, unable to truly care for our family with strength and joy or point them to Jesus Christ.
Truth-based mothering takes a different perspective: “I may not be able to handle this; but God can. If I ask Him, He can and will give me every bit of grace that I need to maintain a joyful perspective even when things are difficult. If persecuted Christians throughout history have maintained joy even during extreme suffering, then I certainly can maintain my joy through motherhood challenges by leaning on the enabling grace and power of God.”
Here are some practical steps that help me exchange emotion-based mothering for Truth-based mothering:
1. Don’t Be Selective with Truth
When our feelings lead the way, and we become prone to “picking and choosing” our truth, receiving the things that make us feel good, and rejecting the things that don’t. When we accept only the parts of God’s truth that appeal to us, and dismiss all the rest, we cannot receive the “whole counsel of God” (see Acts 20:27) and we end up with a distorted “truth” of our own making. (That is why so many of our churches today promote a soft, flimsy Gospel instead of a powerful, life-transforming one.)
Even those of us who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture have often been conditioned to consult “feelings first” when grappling withtTruth. When we are deciding whether to believe God’s promises or obey His commands, we often ask ourselves, “How do I feel about this?” rather than, “What does God say about this?”
When we examine God’s beautiful pattern for motherhood in Scripture, we must guard against the temptation to throw out the parts that don’t seem realistic or personally pleasing to our own tastes and wants. Never forget that God can and will enable us to live according to the pattern He has set for us! When we try to edit truth to mesh with our own emotions or preferences, we are placing our own opinions and thoughts higher than God’s. It doesn’t matter how we feel about what God says, and it also doesn’t matter what our past experience states. If our feelings and experiences don’t match up with God’s Word, the fault lies with us, not Him. As it says in Romans 3:4, “Let God be true but every man a liar.”
Responses like the following indicate that we are using our experience to determine the reliability of Scripture: “But I prayed for such-and-such, and God didn’t come through for me, and now I can’t trust Him or believe His promises.” Or, “The Bible talks about peace and joy, but all I’ve ever experienced is despair and heartache!”
God cares deeply about each one of your painful past experiences and each one of your current struggles. We must always remember that receiving His truth, not running away from it, is what leads to clarity and victory. The answers and reasons why may not always be clear. But if you learn to place His unchanging, eternal truth far above your own feelings and experiences, you will soon begin to experience freedom, faith, and heavenly perspective beyond what you ever thought possible.
2. Practice Godly Self-Control
As mothers, we want to our little ones to learn the art of self-control. This is why most of us will not sit just there and passively shrug when our toddler throws a tantrum or our preschooler tries to eat an entire jumbo-sized bag of jelly beans. But we must not forget that God’s command to embrace self-control also applies to us as mothers. And the most important area for most of us is gaining godly self-control over our emotions. We will have far greater success in teaching our kids this all important skill if we are practicing it our own lives. As it says in Romans 2:21, “You who teach another, do you not teach yourself?” Think about it. What good does it do for us to discipline our children for letting their emotions get out of control, when we are doing the very same thing on a daily basis?
If you frequently find yourself screaming at your children, having “Mommy meltdowns”, chewing out your husband, storming around the house, or despondently shrugging your shoulders in defeat as your children fight and bicker, ask God to teach you the art of godly self-control. Elisabeth Elliot expressed it beautifully with her statement, “Obedience to God is always possible. It is a deadly error to fall into the notion that when feelings are extremely strong we can do nothing but act on them.”
It may be tempting to believe that you have no choice but to act upon your feelings of frustration or defeat, but that is the opposite of godly self-control. When we bring “self” under the control of God’s Spirit, choosing the higher path is always possible!
Remember that godly self-control and human willpower are two different things. Willpower only lasts temporarily and is dependent upon our own ability. Godly self-control goes far beyond mere human “oomph” and comes through yielding to His Spirit and relying on His grace.
So next time you feel a “Mommy meltdown” coming on, remember that His grace is sufficient for you to say no to that temptation. In His strength, you can choose to bring your “self” under the control of His Spirit — even at the moment when you least feel the power to do so.