Back in the old days, when I had two children, it was pretty easy for me to find time to read the Bible and pray. This seemed a little unfair. Other mums said, "It's so hard to pray and read the Bible! Every time I try, my kids climb all over me! My baby cries! My son wants me! They won't keep quiet long enough for me to pray!" But quiet times were still "quiet" for me.
At six o'clock I woke up, made myself a cup of coffee and a bowl of muesli, and sat on the couch with my Bible.1 The kids were often asleep. If they weren't, they'd watch a DVD for half an hour or (I admit it) an hour.
In winter, it was dark when I woke. I watched the sun rise, reflected in the windows of the university building we can see from our house, turning the curved wall orange against an indigo sky, until the sky lightened and the pale trunks of the gums glowed silver. Of course, it wasn't always idyllic - there were months of pregnancy nausea and early-waking babies - but I picture it through the soft focus of nostalgia.
Fast forward to the present day. My two older children have been joined by a five and eight year old who are, let's say, just a little more demanding than their brother and sister at their age. At six o'clock you'll find me on the couch, legs stretched along its length, Bible in hand and lemon-scented gums in view. My husband is in bed.2 But I'm not alone.
There's a five year old squashed into the tiny space between me and the couch back, begging for warmth and kisses. There's an eight year old seated at my feet playing on his handheld games console. I read the Bible through a barrage of comments - "Look, Mummy, I've beaten the boss!" (don't ask) - and demands for breakfast, for cuddles, for attention.
This, I know, is normality.
I've been feeling squeezed and breathless, as introverts do when they get no time to themselves. I can read the Bible despite the noise (my family call it "ignoring", I call it "concentrating"). But it's hard to pray. Often I give up, go to the computer and check my emails.
There are two things you can be sure of with motherhood (or life, really). The first is that God won't change. The second is that everything else will. Just when you think you've found the one, true solution - the cure for sleepless nights, or disorganization, or prayerlessness - circumstances shift sideways.
What works for me won't work for you. What works for me won't work for me. Babies wake all night, then sleep through, then - surprise! - start waking again. The morning routine runs smoothly, then falls apart. One child loves "alone time"; another craves constant attention. Sometimes there are no quiet moments. Sometimes you have to create them out of nothing.
My friend Heather used to sit in the corridor and pray on the phone with a friend during the morning rush; her grown sons still treasure her example. Nicole and Dave took turns to shut the bedroom door and spend time with God.3 Cathy came up with a plan to make the most of the moments between feeding and settling a newborn - even if, like her friend Carolyn, it meant sticking up Bible verses in the shower. Some mums read a few verses a day with their kids; others ask a friend or husband to read to them; still others listen to the Bible while driving or walking. These are just some things that have worked for some women some of the time.4
Starve me of prayer, and eventually I get desperate (this takes far longer than it should). The other day, I'd had enough. Kids on the couch and all, I closed my eyes, only to be interrupted: "Mummy, look at this!"; "Mummy, I'm hungry!"; "Mummy, mummy, mummy...". For once, I was determined not to give in: "Sssh, boys, I'm praying. Wait till I've finished, then tell me."
Tucked into my invisible prayer-bubble, I felt a little like Susannah Wesley when she threw an apron over her head and quieted her ten children so she could pray. I could shut my children's voices out (almost). I could concentrate (kind of). My gaze shifted from myself to Jesus, and I was able to pray for others too.
The kids learned some helpful lessons. They were reminded, once again, that they're not the centre of the universe. They realized that I'm not always available: there are things more important, even, than their demands. They learned that prayer is worth setting aside time for.
And me? I've found a way to pray that works for me - for now. When that stops working, I'll find another way. There will be days when I don't manage it, but I'm not giving up. Because I need God's strength, my kids need my example, and others need my prayers.
Maybe I'll even get out an apron.
1. This was no great feat of godliness: I love waking early.
2. As so often happens in marriage, my husband and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum. I am an early bird, but he is a night owl.
3. This was sometimes accompanied by the sound of tears on the other side of the door; Nicole got the "first glimpse of the kindness in the cruelty" when their young son went to his room, shut the door, and read his Bible too.
4. I'd love to hear what's worked for you!
This post first appeared in The Briefing today.
image is by bluebirdsandteapots at flickr