by Vicki Bentley
“Oh, I remember those days!” I turned, red-faced from wrangling my two young daughters and a cart full of groceries, to see an elderly woman smiling over at me. “Never take them for granted,” she continued, “they were some of my happiest times.”
I smiled politely back at her and mumbled a reply, but my eyes pricked with hot tears and an involuntary lump formed in my throat. Since my children were babies, I’d heard this same sentiment over and over from well-meaning friends, relatives, and even strangers, yet each time it evoked the same visceral reaction.
The happiest time in my life? If this was ‘happy’, I certainly didn’t want to know what ‘unhappy’ felt like.
Joy is a decision, a really brave one, about how you are going to respond to life.
– Wess Stafford
A SEASON OF OVERWHELM
Intermingled with the lavish blessings that went along with welcoming two children in four years, this season of life also constituted an abundance of ‘hard.” After struggling to understand and problem-solve several years of challenging, often puzzling behaviours, my eldest daughter had finally been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of four. And while I knew deep in my soul that she was fearfully and wonderfully made by her Creator God with a unique purpose and design, parenting and advocating for her on a daily basis was no cake-walk. I wrestled with my inadequacy and failings almost constantly as I attempted to meet the vastly different yet constant needs of both my babies, and wondered how I was supposed to not only survive but thrive in this relentless season when I felt like I was consistently running on empty.
Then there was the physical distance between me and my extended family—an entire ocean in fact—that had been painfully exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. I wondered when I would next see my parents and in-laws; when the kids would get to visit with their grandparents and cousins—each new day and milestone another marker of what had been missed through our helpless inability to nurture these vital relationships.
Last but not least was the thorny subject of my mental health. For years I had soldiered on as the effects of my high-functioning anxiety had gradually increased, morphing into daily anger and the occasional crippling panic attack—a few of which had landed me in the ER. I was increasingly unable to avoid the realisation that it was no longer ‘just anxiety’ and I needed help—a conclusion that for little miss I-have-everything-together felt more like a failure than I cared to admit.
I felt stuck. How could I find this ‘happiness’ that everyone was telling me was the hallmark of early motherhood? And as a Christian, how was I supposed to reconcile these feelings of overwhelm that were a far cry from the joy I knew I should be experiencing as a child of God?
FIGHT BACK WITH JOY
It was the book Fight Back with Joy by Margaret Feinberg that was the first pivotal step in my journey to rediscovering my joy. In the throes of her life-altering cancer diagnosis and subsequent gruelling treatment, this remarkable woman made the decision to grab joy with both hands. Joy that was not dependent on feelings or emotions or the world’s definition of “happy,” but on something far stronger, far more lasting.
Joy that, Margaret writes, “emanates out of the abiding sense of God’s fierce love for us.”
Now that was the kind of joy I wanted. Because if my joy was dependent on the enduring strength of God’s love—the kind of love that would send His only Son to the cross as humanity’s sacrificial lamb—then I could surely find reason to praise in the midst of any hardship. I decided then to pursue joy as an intentional choice; to look at every new day through the lens of eternity and, even in the midst of my daily struggles, to fight the darkness of the world with the light of the Living Hope—and in Him, find true joy.
JOY IN ALL SEASONS
Over the next few weeks, I will gather with my church family and sing the familiar lyrics, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” This season of Advent, we celebrate the only true Source of our joy—the One who pierced the darkness and despair of this world with His glorious hope. Hope that enables us to meet each day with deep, all-consuming, unrelenting joy—no matter what might be contained within it.
Yet, as Kalley Heiligenthal says,
Joy is not a season, it’s a way of living.
This joy that we have in Christ should not just be confined to Christmas but be incorporated into the daily rhythms of life, no matter what we are going through. For when we look beyond the here and how to the future hope that is promised, we can “be cheerful with joyous celebration in every season of life” (Philippians 4:4 TPT).
As I look back now, a few years older and wiser, at that weary, discouraged young mum in the grocery store, I want to hug her and. encourage her that those feelings she felt so keenly won’t last forever—things will get better. But even if they hadn’t, even if new challenges had slotted right in to take their place, she would still be okay. Because though her happiness might be fleeting, her hope is secure and fully complete in Christ—and absolutely nothing or no one can take away her joy.
Vicki Bentley lives in upstate New York with her husband and two young daughters. As a published writer and editor, it is her greatest joy to cultivate and shape words that speak transformative grace-filled truth into the hearts and lives of women, especially those in the trenches of parenthood. You can connect with her on Facebook or Instagram.