“That’s it! I’m done!” I declared.
I swooped my crying two-year-old out of his seat. I left the lunch he refused to eat sitting on the table and carried him upstairs as he clung awkwardly to my pregnant torso. After I hastily put him in bed, I stepped carefully out of the room, avoiding the piles of toys and laundry. It was all just too much. I couldn’t handle it. Life was just too much.
As the door closed behind me, I turned to my four-year-old daughter. In the calmest voice I could muster, I announced, “Mommy is going to her room now. Please just give me a few minutes. Please. Don’t knock unless it’s an emergency. I just need a couple of minutes. Please.”
Grace’s eyes grew wide with understanding. “Oh. Are you going to pray about your attitude?”
I stopped and stared at her for a moment—and then burst out laughing. Yes, she was exactly right. My circumstances weren’t the problem, not really. My circumstances were just life! The real problem was indeed my attitude.
Grace, now twelve, doesn’t remember that conversation. I wish she did, because maybe then I wouldn’t have to repeat this mantra quite so often: You can’t always control your circumstances, but you can control how you respond to them. In other words, sometimes hard things happen, whether we like it or not. A friend betrays us. We get passed over for a promotion. We spend hours cooking a meal only to have little noses turn up in refusal. Whether they are big or small, we all face challenges. And of course, we all experience a range of emotions when faced with trying times. But our attitudes and our emotions aren’t necessarily the same. We can be sad or hurt or even angry and still approach a challenge with a good attitude.
I think this is what Paul meant when he declared, “We rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3 ESV) and why James encourages us to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2 ESV). Even the church fathers didn’t claim they never felt sadness or hurt. Paul didn’t say, “We rejoice in things others would call sufferings.” No, Paul suffered! But in the midst of it, he kept an attitude of hope and determination.
A few months after Grace reminded me of the importance of my attitude, I faced a new challenge when my infant son was diagnosed with Down syndrome. My heart raced and tears fell as I tried futilely to grasp this new path, this whole different life we were suddenly and unexpectedly ushered into.
My grief was understandable in the face of such life-changing news. Unfortunately, my sadness was not accompanied by an attitude of hope and determination. Instead, I threw a tantrum. Like a toddler holding her breath, I was convinced I could prove to God that he was wrong to bring this into our lives. I stamped my foot and threw a fit, waiting for him to sigh and say, “Okay, Katy, you’re right. This isn’t fair. I’ll take away Joey’s extra chromosome, and everything can go back to normal.”
But he didn’t. Day after day, month after month, I drew my anger around me like a cloak, clinging to it righteously. Then, one day, my daughter whispered, “I feel bad for you, Mommy. It seems like having kids is really hard. I don’t think I want to be a mom when I grow up.”
Even typing those words now, almost seven years later, makes me catch my breath. Grace wasn’t scared off because of her brother’s diagnosis. The extra doctors’ appointments didn’t concern her. She didn’t worry about future friendships, education, or jobs for a child with special needs. My attitude had taken over my parenting and made my daughter feel sorry for me—and now she didn’t think she wanted a family of her own. In that moment I could see that my attitude was infecting my family, my friendships, and even my health.
I resolved right then and there to let go of what I couldn’t control and take charge of what I could. Instead of despairing when Joey struggled to walk, I rejoiced when his tireless efforts finally produced steps. Instead of mourning his loss of hair when he developed alopecia, I celebrated the end of his tantrums at haircuts. (He really rocks a bald head, anyway.) Instead of clinging to grief, I adore our life, and I love offering comfort, understanding, and hope to moms reeling from a new diagnosis.
Seven years later, do you know what has changed? Nothing. My sweet boy still has Down syndrome. We still face challenges, some related to his diagnosis and some just because life is full of them. Our circumstances are the same as they would have been if I had remained that sullen, angry woman trying to prove God wrong.
But I am different, and that is everything.
Katy Epling is a writer, speaker, and “masterpiece in progress” (Ephesians 2:10) from Akron, Ohio. She and her husband Jon have three beautiful children who provide her with an abundance of story material, both dramatic and comedic. Learn more about her heart and ministry at katyepling.com.
Photograph © Nathan Anderson, used with permission