The gravel crunched underneath my feet rhythmically as I trudged one step farther with my toddlers. Aadvik, Anaira, and Adhrit held each other’s hands, three dark-skinned forces of nature dragging me along on their daily walk. With their determination, it was difficult remembering who was in charge. Their incessant cries of “Akah, Akah!”—the Indian Telegu word for “older sister”—made me grin despite the exhaustion. In the distance, bullfrogs croaked and other children squealed, and no feeling compared to the way the March wind tousled my hair. There was so much on that day—every day—that alleviated the exhaustion of nannying three toddlers from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday.

I was six months into my gap year and only three months into my nannying job. I didn’t exactly start off my gap year in September of 2020 eager to work in childcare. In fact, I started my gap year hesitant to commit to any career or life path at all. Out of necessity, I was at home while the majority of my close friends were navigating the treacherous experiences of sophomore year. This isolation left me stewing in bitterness, and to commit to staying in my hometown until August of 2021 was unimaginable. So, rather stubbornly, I thought: if I procrastinated getting a job or taking courses online, then I could live in denial that I was absent from college.

This scheme only lasted for two or three weeks. Feeding resentment leaves you starved in turn, and I was desperate to find a better source of emotional nourishment by the month of October. Knowing I was spiritually in pain, a friend recommended the book Messy Spirituality by Michael Yaconelli to me. Little did I know that book was the start of Jesus radically healing one of the ugliest pains of my life and also the start of my willingness to invest in my gap year.

The premise of Messy Spirituality was about Jesus’s disciples, specifically their brokenness. The book spent countless pages expanding on the history of the disciples—their background, their sins, and their service to the Lord. Already deeply resonating with the scarred history of the disciples, I didn’t believe the book could speak to my heart anymore. But then Yaconelli stressed that these chaotic people were whom Jesus pursued the most. It is not the most pious the Lord invested in the most, but the neediest.

Additionally, the book focused on Peter and how he felt unequipped for the ministry Christ called him to. My hands—voraciously turning the pages up until that point—now paused as my mouth dropped. There was no more-fitting description for me at that moment than a servant that felt chronically unworthy to minister to others. However, Jesus cradled my heart in that moment and murmured, “Yes, my child. I can still use you.” I realized, no matter how destitute I felt, I could still impact others, and this truth redefined the remnant of my gap year.

I remember how the grace of my Savior filled me like helium that day. Certainly, I did not feel competent immediately. The gap year still had spiritual miles to grow me. But the Holy Spirit granted clarity that led me, month by month, to confidence in Christ.

The following month, after I had finished Messy Spirituality, I began the arduous process of reconciliation with those around me. I apologized to my parents for my enraged behavior, investigated how I could join additional church ministries, and began the hunt for a job. My major at the time was communication disorders, so to gain experience for a future job, I applied to work at a mobile speech therapy company. They specialized in at-home visits for autistic children, and there truly wasn’t a better job at the time that blended my passion and what I then believed my career path to be. The application process took a grueling three weeks, and I nearly reached the last step of the hiring process before the company realized I didn’t own a car and decided not to hire me based on that unmentioned prerequisite.

I was downhearted, to say the least. Why would the Lord keep what seemed like such a perfect opportunity away from me? My mom reassured me God never said no in vain, and after four more failed job opportunities followed, I doubted her encouragement a little more than I did the first time. Finally, after nearly two months of relentless searching, I looked into childcare. It wasn’t a last resort, as I did truly love working with children. I just couldn’t fathom how a job such as that would work to prepare me for anything in my future.

A bit pessimistic, I reached out to a family I had previously worked for, asking if their toddler needed a makeshift preschool teacher. Within less than twenty-four hours, the mother enthusiastically responded, offering not just one child to my care, but three. I believe my immediate reaction was nervous laughter. Who was I, a nineteen-year-old, to watch three children under four nearly full-time? Again, the beast of incompetence rallied for my devotion, but the moral of Messy Spirituality reminded me I couldn’t possibly fail if this was what God had ordained for me.

The first day of my new job approached, and I remember anxiously fixing my hair for about thirty minutes, although I figured a toddler would grab it almost upon arrival and dishevel it. My heart hadn’t beat that hard since my first day of freshman year speech! My mind flooded with questions. Would the kids like me? Would the ethnic barrier matter, as every kid I worked with lived in a Hindu background? Would I be able to save up enough money to provide for the next month of school?

Picking at my fingers, I tiptoed up to the front door to greet my tiny coworkers I would see nearly every day for the next nine months. Immediately, Aadvik, always the most outgoing of the children, waddled up to me, asking if I’d like to build a Lego house with him. The other two children were more shy but warmed up to me as soon as we had outside playtime. The milky brown color of the children’s eyes melted me as soon as I saw them. Even now, there’s not a day that passes that I don’t think of their endearing eyes and still melt. Within a week, the toddlers felt like my own children, and a deep sentimental attachment imprinted on all of our hearts.

The next few months were exhausting but restorative. God did equip me for every job He called me to, and most days that looked like cleaning up spilt food, potty training, going over simple addition, and watching Cocomelon videos. God reminded me that no matter how tedious some jobs felt, every single day and task was important for His heavenly kingdom. Just like the woman at the well, Christ looked at me in such a frail state and chose to redeem me anyway. Most days, I’m still in denial His mode of redemption was a group of children and excruciating pain.

It now appears to me I was horribly wrong about nannying not playing into my future career at all. My love for communication and writing free-form poetry when I wasn’t working slowly shifted my love from communication disorders to English. And, fascinatingly, my little army of Indian children taught me endless lessons about speech development, basic human connection, and human caretaking, all of which are key to so many more fields than English.

August of 2021 came much sooner than expected, and the day came when I was to leave my toddlers and go back to Bob Jones University. I never understood the concept of “bittersweet” until that day. With tears in everyone’s eyes and sniffly noses, I hugged my toddlers goodbye, wishing I could truly communicate how much these three-year-olds changed my life. How do you describe to a child that every moment of patience and every hug given and every picture drawn with them grew you into a better person? What encourages me is that I can choose to practice gratitude daily for their importance in my life.  Damaris Ziemski never did feel as free and redeemed in Jesus as she did walking with her toddlers around a muggy lake.