The thing that happened while I was scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush

by Elizabeth


It was many years ago now. My boys were preschoolers, and my girls weren’t even conceived. I was literally on my hands and knees scrubbing my kitchen floor with an old toothbrush when I got the call: the call from a university professor offering me an interview for a chemistry lab instructor position.

For a bit of background here, let me just say that I’ve loved chemistry ever since I walked into Mr. Smith’s 10th grade chemistry class nearly twenty years ago. I love the ingenious organization of the periodic table, I love the way chemical reactions balance just so, and I love learning about how the smallest structures in creation affect large-scale life.

I always want more chemistry in my life, but with two young boys to take care of, such chemical thoughts were few and far between. So I cannot explain to you just how much I wanted this job. I would run the lab, prepare the chemicals and equipment, instruct the students, and grade their lab reports. It was an ideal part-time job for someone like me — someone with a love for chemistry but lacking both substantial experience and a graduate degree in my field.

Now, I had worked (very) part-time at the college chemistry level before, tutoring chemistry about five hours per week at a community college. And even that I had given up so I could stay home and nurse my newborn second son without interruption. Then suddenly I was handed this new opportunity — and from a prestigious private university no less.

The hours required for the job were somewhere between 10 to 20 hours per week. I had gone in for the interview hoping it would be fewer hours than that, but it wasn’t. Both financially and family-wise, it was too many hours for me to take on. I simply couldn’t afford that time outside the home, and I knew God was saying NO to this particular opportunity.

The interview had occurred, painfully enough, when my husband was out-of-town on a work/ministry trip. I was alone with two little boys when I heartbrokenly realized I wouldn’t be able to take this job. I was alone with no one to comfort me in my obedience. I was alone as I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe. I was alone when it seemed to me that my world was ending. (I thought it might be my last chance to grab a chemistry job before too many years elapsed and I was unemployable.)

But I knew God’s message to me was clear. For my family, and in that time, I needed to focus my full-time energies at home. And the funny thing about that experience? I never once longed for outside work again. I was really content at home and went on to have more babies (those aforementioned darling little girls).  Obeying in the moment was hard, but the fruit in my daily life was lasting.

So what does obedience mean for me today? Because in the nine years that have ensued since my kitchen floor story, my passions haven’t waned a bit. I still want to do ALL THE THINGS. And I want to do all the things NOW.

I want to doula, and I want to write, and I want to edit, and I want to teach calculus, and I want to teach chemistry, and I want to do youth ministry, and I want to do women’s ministry, and I want to spend more time reading to my kids, and I want to spend more time with my husband, and I want to spend more time taking care of myself.

But I can’t do all those things at once. I can’t even do many of those things at once. And I’m currently coming out of a season of discerning which things I need to be doing and which things I need to be saying “no” to. It’s been a hard season. Not break-my-heart-hard like it was several years ago, just plain hard.

For me today, obedience means looking at the people who are already in my life, and saying yes to THEM. It means saying no to certain other things. I’m finding that as I practice my yeses and nos, I’m more content in each moment. I’m more joyful in each moment. I’m more present in each moment.

But make no mistake: saying both the nos and the yeses has been hard. Contenting myself in my current stage of life has been a slippery path to plod. Obedience isn’t as clear this time, and there’s not just one monumental decision to make. In its place are a multitude of tricky choices and subtle attitude adjustments. I hope practice makes these choices, if not perfect, at least a little easier.

Because in my mind’s eye, I can still see myself on my hands and knees scrubbing the dirt out of an old linoleum floor with a toothbrush, listening to the ring of a landline telephone, and continuing to scrub as I answered it. I can still see the hope in my young heart when given the opportunity to do something I loved. And I can still see that nervous young mom walk into the chemistry building — then under construction — and wait, and pray.

I can still see me walking out of the building when the interview concluded and knowing, knowing that I couldn’t say yes.  I can still see me crawling into my boiling hot, broken-down 1988 Honda Civic and trying to catch my breath from the disappointment. I can still see me calling my out-of-town husband, unable to stop the flow of tears, and hearing him tell me with love, “I’m so proud of you.”

But best of all, I can still see myself enjoying full-time young motherhood in a crackly, crinkly 60-year old parsonage, day in and day out, for the next five years.

Those images are, for me, a symbol of choosing the best thing now, of choosing life for my family, of obeying even when it’s hard. I hope and pray I take those images of wisdom and love with me through the rest of my mothering years, because that kind of joy is something I don’t want to miss out on.

16 thoughts on “The thing that happened while I was scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush

  1. I enjoyed your article, Elizabeth. I too would rather teach Calculus over scrubbing a kitchen floor with a toothbrush (which I have never done). So many times I feel like my life as a stay at home mom is very mundane, but then I read articles like yours and realize I am just a few year away from my kids leaving home (one leaves in less than 4 weeks!) and there’s not much time left to pour into their lives. So I start again. I start family devotions again. I start praying for them again. I start teaching them money management again. I start loving them how they need it again. I start cooking, cleaning, washing for them again. It’s this constant reminder to die to self. So, thanks for reminding me. I need to start again.

    • “So I start again.” Yes. Yes yes yes. So thankful for new beginnings and second chances. And yes, sometimes I feel overwhelmed when I remember the true brevity of our time with our children. (I’m also glad to find a fellow Calc lover!) And P.S. I never scrub floors with toothbrushes anymore. That was an America thing!

  2. I have never scrubbed the kitchen floor with a toothbrush. Steam mops all the way!!!
    More seriously, I love what you said about saying yes to the people already in your life. On a much smaller scale, I have been facing some similar decisions. As much as I want to branch out right now, I feel God wants me to scale back and really invest in those He has entrusted to my care. Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Yes. Yes yes yes. I so understand wanting to branch out in ways that may even look small (but don’t feel small at all when you’re wanting them!), and feeling that tug to return to the trunk, return to the soil, return to the roots. I’m glad I’m not alone in this.

  3. Dear Elisabeth, beautifully written. I am now in the season where i am now teaching chemistry and calculus and i do so appreciate those years when i was so blessed to be with my children as they were growing. Thank you for being you. How incredible to meet in Cambodia someone who loves chemistry and maths.

    • Dianne, you are always so encouraging to me! (By the way I just saw a photo of the two of us at your going-away party in my Facebook feed a couple days ago. It made me miss you!!) Anyway, like I said, very encouraging to hear you say these things, because I look at your wonderful family and think it was worth it. All those years you spent with them, worth it. I look back on my years of tinies and think the same, so worth it. But it’s good to hear from someone who’s further on in the journey who can say that. And yes, so much fun to know we share the same love for mathematics and chemistry. 🙂 Thank you so much for befriending me in Phnom Penh years ago and being that “older woman” for me. I love you so much.

  4. My husband and I just made a major change 3 months ago by moving from one mission field to living with my aging parents–another area of service and ministry all in itself. A flood of new ministry opportunites entices me every day, and I am learning all over again the importance of the word NO. Thank you for reminding me that the son who is still at home is just as important as all the other good things out there. The phrase that most struck me was “I had no one to comfort me in my obedience”. That is how I have felt this last week but I am clinging to the promise of the fruit ahead.

    • Elaine, wow, what a big life transition you’re in right now. Full time care for anyone is definitely a ministry all in itself. And I hope that in reading this post, you feel just a little less alone in your obedience, and that it is some small comfort to you. Grace and peace be with you as you continue adjusting. ~Elizabeth

  5. I’d like to be able to everything, all the things, all at once, too. 🙂 But when I try to do that I really fizzle and am no good for anything.
    I would much rather study SOMETHING than clean ANYTHING – fortunately teaching the kids at home has given me a bit of an outlet for that…and the kids do a lot of the cleaning at our house – but we are very close to being on the other side of all that – and then I’ll be “free” to do all those other things I also wanted to do (except that I still won’t be able to do ALL of them) but I’ll also have to do my all my own cleaning. 😉 and I’ll be missing my kids…
    the nos and yeses – while I’m still learning to balance them – have been so far SO worth it. (not because of the cleaning 😉 but seeing my little folks become big folks – become grown.

    …but, Elizabeth, a toothbrush? Why a toothbrush? I understand cleaning the grout around tile with a toothbrush, but linoleum? I washed my floors in Russia on my knees with a rag (I like a rag better than a mop), but a toothbrush…. I’m picturing you like Cinderella….;-)

    • LOL! As per the toothbrush, let me explain. It was an old linoleum floor with lots of pocked little holes that attracted dirt. Early on in our time there I thought if I could only clean out those holes, I could keep it clean. No can do. So in the end I traded in the toothbrush for Wet Swiffers 🙂

      As per the other things — yes I can see the irony of being able to say yes to more, but having to do ALL your own cleaning again. 🙂 More than that, though, I know these years are short (though the days can seem long). Even the weeks are short, and I already miss having little babies around. Thankfully some of my kids still let me do some snuggling. 🙂

      And I am so with you on the fizzling and being no good for anything! I think God knows this about us, that’s why He endowed us with Sabbath. I know you love Sara Groves (don’t you? or is that someone else??). I recently came across this clip. Resonated because of some other things I’d been reading about pragmatism, taking time for reflection, etc, but also touches on art and Sabbath. I thought you’d appreciate it 🙂

  6. I recently had to re-evaluate myself. I had to cancel a few classes I teach because I knee in doing them I wasn’t being obedient. God has been clear what is to be my main focuses and I can’t let anything distract me from that. Thanks for sharing

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I’m glad to know I’m not alone in these things. And good for you, for saying no and pulling back! Bravo — or better yet, Eschet Chayil, woman of valor!

  7. My natural inclination is to say yes to things that interest me, or that I think I should do without thinking through the time and commitment involved. There are so many things I’m interested in doing or experiencing. Other things I feel like I “should” be doing, or I answer based on someone else’s needs or wants.
    I have gotten better as I’ve become more experienced- mostly through learning from mistakes. I read somewhere that “Saying no to something means saying yes to something else.” I try to keep that in mind- What am I saying yes to? Sometimes, it needs to be my family and my own peace of mind/life. Recently, I turned down an opportunity for something that I’ve always wanted to do. I know that schedule wise, this isn’t the time. If it’s the right thing, it will come back up in the future. When I think about it now, I don’t feel regret; I feel relief. I know it was the right thing to do even if it seemed like a disappointment at the time.

    • Good for you, saying no when you need to!! Saying no means saying yes to something else . . . I tend to think of it the other way around, because that has generally been my mistake — saying yes means saying no to something else (like my family or my own peace of mind). But flip it around, and it sounds more hopeful. 🙂 Like you, sometimes my overabundant yeses come from earnest desires, and sometimes they come from guilt and “shoulds.” Either way, they can cause problems. But again, yay for you, saying no and being at peace about the timing. Love, E

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