The Slowest Sheep
I would say that we were having “one of those mornings.” But honestly, each day that we have to get to preschool involves a fair amount of frenzy, so really, it was just morning.
My oldest son was scrambling around, putting on his clothes and shoes while eating what felt like his fifth piece of toast, trailing crumbs behind him like a far more uptight Hansel, and asking me every forty-two seconds if we were going to be late.
With an eye on the clock, I was running wind sprints through my house, stopping each time I passed the kitchen counter for a sip of lukewarm coffee: to the back for the diaper bag, to the front to track down a wayward mitten, to the back again for the snacks left on the counter. With each pass through the house, I found myself stepping on more and more of the Cheerios that my youngest was supposed to be eating as he stood on his chair, somehow still only in a diaper.
And then there was my daughter, newly four, with one boot on, one boot off, methodically stuffing Paw Patrol characters into her coat pockets. She was deeply into a phase of Special Things that no one else was allowed to play with and that she absolutely had to have with her each and every time we left the house.
The thing is, this wasn’t our first four-year-old rodeo. Our oldest son had also had Special Things, and we eventually came up with strategies so that the process of leaving the house did not actually make our heads explode. But with Elsa, the Special Things changed so frequently that we were always one step behind with our very reasonable expectations for what could and could not go with her into the car.
That morning was no different. After her pockets were crammed full enough to make tightening the car seat a sure battle, she strapped her baby doll into its carseat, then turned to her backpack and began to fill it with the essentials:
the glittery Mary Janes that she is not allowed to wear out in the snow
a fake flower that we got at last year’s May Day parade, lost and forgotten about until its celebrated discovery earlier in the week
a regifted My Little Pony from my own childhood collection
the spoon that my youngest had flung onto the floor five minutes prior
I took a deep breath and said with as much Mary Poppins as I could muster, “Elsa, can you please work on your other boot? We’ve got to get going.”
Minutes later, we were finally all heading towards the door. The boots had been tightened, the coats zipped, the mittens put on, but inevitably, Elsa was struggling. She grunted in a herculean effort to get her backpack on over her puffy pink winter coat.
With the baby on my left hip and the diaper bag slung over my left arm, I used my right hand to move her straps up to her shoulders and then to herd them all out the front door.
I got the boys out to the van and buckled in. But when I looked back, Elsa had only made it one step down on our five-step stoop, weighed down by the slipping backpack, her doll in its car seat, her stuffed bunny, and a book “for the ride home.”
I ran back up the steps and with what I felt were the last reserves of my patience, kindly offered to help her carry some of her Special Things to the car, wisely and calmly citing the icy sidewalk before her and our need to hustle if we didn’t want to be late.
Spoiler alert: she turned me down.
Another deep breath. I walked patiently just behind her as she struggled down the sidewalk. A few steps later, she inevitably slipped on the ice and fell down in dramatic fashion. The bunny and book went flying into the snow. Her baby and its carrier lay upturned a few feet away, and there was my daughter, a pink heap on the cold cement sidewalk. Her backpack on top of her had opened slightly in the fall, and more of her Special Things started slowly sliding off her back. She began to rage cry, “I JUST CAN’T CARRY EVERYTHING!!!” while I began to gather her things.
At my first baby shower when I was considerably pregnant with my first, a slightly older, much wiser friend shared Isaiah 40:11 as part of a short reflection:
He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
I had never heard that verse before, and while I found the imagery beautiful and thought it amazing that God included a specific shout-out for young mamas in the Bible, I had never been the type to really prize gentleness. For most of my life prior to having kids, I was driven, self-motivated — the receiver of not one, but four annual elementary school character awards that deemed me Diligent. Whatever the project was, I would plan well and work hard, looking to God for little more than a high five here and there. I thought motherhood would be no different.
Spoiler alert: it was exceedingly different.
Within the first few months of my firstborn’s life, I was broken in a thousand ways. I had mastitis three times in three months. There was no sleep. There was only nursing. I vividly remember the day that my husband came home after eight hours of work, and I wept because all I had accomplished beyond feeding myself and our baby was to cut the baby’s fingernails...I mean, not even his toes. I lost the ability to be productive. I lost myself.
I grew painfully aware that I was no longer going to be able to keep up. I started and ended each day of that first year with the feeling that I was failing. I was overwhelmed with gratitude and grief that this soul had been entrusted to my care.\
With white knuckles, I clung to the image of a gentle Shepherd, scooping me up in His arms, carrying me when I was falling behind in every way.
As my daughter continued to sob on the sidewalk, I did what most of us would do: I whipped out my phone and took a picture of her, face down on the ice, surrounded by all of her important things, defeated because she could not carry them all.
I held back both both tears and laughter because I knew, deep in my soul, that I was taking a picture of myself. I picked her up, wiped the snow off her leggings, and I asked her if I could carry her Special Things the rest of the way to the car. She nodded, crying, and slumped towards the open van door as I carried the doll and its carseat, the bunny, the book, and the plastic flower.
He gently leads those that are with young.
Ours is not a Shepherd who is standing behind us, prodding us with sticks, telling us to hustle and get it together and keep up. Ours is not a Shepherd who rolls his eyes, or sighs audibly when we are slow to move, weighed down by our important things.
He slows down and walks besides us because we are, on average, twenty-three steps behind the flock, weighed down by newborn car seats that get heavier every day. He knows that we are delayed because we are biting our tongues, waiting for toddlers who will do it themselves. He walks beside us even though we haven’t showered in days, even though He knows how much much urine we have scrubbed off the carpet, just this week. He knows we fall behind because we are up late, worrying about our marriages or replaying this morning’s grocery-store tantrum scene over and over in our minds. He knows we limp along because we are unsure if we are doing any of it right. Because we stagger under the weight of our self-imposed standards. Because we are just bone-tired.
He knows that our ponies and plastic flowers have been replaced by much weightier treasures: the crushingly beautiful burden of the immense love for these souls in our care...the utter depth of our hopes and dreams for who they are, for who they are becoming.
He knows we are the slowest sheep.
He knows we are carrying too much.
And so He slows down. He waits, gently offering to walk down the sidewalk with us, and to carry all of our most Special Things.