Practicing Parents

The SUV of Ingratitude

julia roller suv of ingratitude

Last week we planned the Most Fun Day Ever. After packing a picnic lunch and finally finding a parking place amid the crazy summer crowds at BalboaPark, we found a great spot on the lawn in front of the Natural History Museum, ate our picnic lunch and then headed into the museum for the afternoon. The Natural History Museum is to my boys what Disney World probably was to my childhood self. They LOVE it. They would like to visit it every afternoon of their lives. And I like it too. We all had a great time watching a movie about mammoths and mastodons, looking at the new exhibit about them, checking out an old favorite exhibit about skulls, playing in the “dinosaur camp” and poking around the gift shop.

I even bought them a Reese’s peanut butter cup cookie. Mom of the Year, right?

Yet after all this fun, as we trudged the long, long way to our parking space, my older son lapsed into what could only be described as a sulk. He didn’t want to keep up with his brother and me, he crossed his arms, furrowed his forehead, and refused to answer when I asked him what was wrong. With his entire body, he was making it clear that he was Annoyed with Me.

And frankly, his attitude was making me feel pretty Annoyed with Him too.

Nothing feels more frustrating than when I spend all day taking the boys on what I consider, anyway, Amazing & Enriching & Fun Mom/Child Experiences, and they respond not with the  thanks and gratitude and hugs that I feel I so richly deserve, but with complaints. About the dinosaur toy I didn’t buy for them at the museum store. Or the fact that their brother is sharing their water bottle. Or over the complete inadequacy of our snack provisions.

I know exactly why they do this. They’re exhausted or hungry or thirsty or all three. They’re like that Snickers commercial that uses character actors to declare, “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry!” Yet knowing why they act this way does not seem to help the way I feel about it.

I feel like, I spent all day doing what you wanted to do, and you don’t appreciate it at all! OK, fine, next time, we won’t go to the Natural History Museum. We’ll do what I want to do. See how you like that, buster!

And just like that, there we are–a whole SUV full of ingratitude.

My reaction is completely unfair. Just because at the end of the trip, they’re tired doesn’t mean they didn’t enjoy it. But there’s something about feeling unappreciated, about feeling faced with a lack of gratitude, that knocks all the sense out of my head. I love doing stuff for them, but I want them to acknowledge it. And when they don’t, it hurts.

Every parent in the world has felt this way, I’m sure of it. Wondering when their kids will appreciate a tiny bit of all the things they do for them. I’m sure I made both my parents feel this way. A lot. (Sorry, Mom and Dad. I get it a little bit more now!)

But something slightly amazing happened last week in the car on the drive home. I was thinking furiously about this phenomenon and just why it bothers me so much, and I started thinking about how God might view my near-constant lack of gratitude for the stunning numbers of gifts I have received.

Does it make God crazy frustrated? Does God feel hurt that I’m too busy with my own tiny complaints to see the gigantic gifts?

Yet I know that God doesn’t need reward and acknowledgment in the same way that I do nor for the same reasons. Rather, our recognition of the remarkable gifts of our everyday existence is at least at much for us as it is for God.

The next time my son responds this way, I’m going to do my best not to match him frustration for frustration. Instead, I’m going to get us both a snack posthaste and then remind him of all the fun we had together, without asking him to thank me for it. I’m going to point out, to him and to myself, all the beautiful things around us and start listing some of the blessings we have. I’m going to be a living gratitude journal, by gosh.

Gratitude is kind of a trendy spiritual discipline right now, but it sure isn’t a new one. See, oh say, most any of the Psalms.

Still, the most beautiful and poignant prayer of gratitude I’ve ever read is that of Etty Hillesum:

“You have made me so rich, oh God; please let me share out Your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on Your earth, my eyes raised toward Your Heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.”

The camp she mentions? It’s Auschwitz, where she and her parents and brother died.

I have found that the darkest times are often when the gratitude wells up the deepest. Because it’s often only when that which we love and take for granted is jeopardized or lost that we see clearly the immense beauty of our lives.

I wish I got my head out of my own miniscule problems long enough to be more perfect in my gratitude. But I’m looking forward to that day when my family car is overflowing with it.

Julia Roller

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