What the Children’s Classic ‘Madeline’ Taught Me About Being an Adult

When we learn to embrace the drudgeries of life, we can find rhythm and cultivate the routines that sustain us.

Book cover of ‘Madeline’ by Ludwig Bemelmans
Book cover of ‘Madeline’ by Ludwig Bemelmans (photo: Viking Books)

We all know that the test of a good children’s book is whether you still enjoy it as an adult.

These past few weeks, I’ve been reading Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline to my daughter. I’m not only enjoying it — I’m learning from it. Yes, in those sweet colorful pages, I have discovered so much wisdom and insight into my everyday life and vocation.

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines
In two straight lines they broke their bread
And brushed their teeth and went to bed.
They left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines in rain or shine.

The life of Madeline is one of routine and order.

Every day, “at half past nine,” these 12 little girls take their walk through the streets of Paris.

This simple statement taps into a fundamental truth: human beings are wired for ritual. The rituals of life sustain us by providing balance to our every day. If we neglect cultivating a healthy sense of order, we will find rituals in the unhealthy: binging Netflix, mindlessly scrolling, overindulging, etc. Instead of instilling harmony, these “rituals” will bring about disorder and daily havoc.

The book Madeline rejects this havoc by instilling the virtue of orderliness. We could sum up orderliness in words like “neat” or “tidy,” but the impact of this virtue is much more impressive. For orderliness enables one to live in peace and harmony, which brings healing to our hearts. It cleans up the chaotic and frees us to live as we ought. For parents in particular, Madeline reminds us of what a gift it is to be able to bring children into a world of order, reflecting the order of Heaven and God’s creation (1 Corinthians 14:33).

“Where there is order, there is harmony,” said St. Irenaeus of Lyon. “Where there is harmony, everything happens in due time. Where everything happens in due time, there will be benefit.”

This doesn’t mean we’ll never encounter messes, or that our homes will always be immaculate. It also doesn’t mean we won’t get discouraged by interruptions. Rather, it means that instead of giving up, we will embrace those interruptions with patience. If we are able to tackle the small daily battles of life, we will be in good shape when the big ones come along.

We even see this in Madeline when Miss Clavel awakes in the middle of the night proclaiming that “something is not right!”

It is because of the routine and structure of their lives that Miss Clavel and the girls are fully equipped to face the unexpected trials and difficulties that come their way.

“When you keep your life in order, your time will multiply,” said St. Josemaría Escrivá. “And therefore you will be able to give greater glory to God, working more eagerly in his service.”

What frequently prevents us from instilling order is daily drudgery. There is nothing glamorous in the mundane and monotonous tasks of life. Even the world seems to lecture us that your work — your life — should be fun. “If it feels laborious, you’re doing it wrong!” But we have to challenge this belief because laborious and even boring tasks are a necessary part of life. 

As author Jennifer L. Scott reminds us in her book Madame Chic:

The truth of the matter is, these mundane tasks must be done. There is no getting around them. Almost everyone has to do a task on a daily basis that is less than fun. The key is to find pleasure in the task and to not wish you were doing something else while doing it.

It is in embracing the drudgery that we can find rhythm and cultivate the routines that sustain us.

Each vocation has its own elements of the monotonous, but we honor our God-given roles when we choose to do our part well, rather than procrastinate or try to escape. There is dignity in the dull tasks of life and it's in pursuing that dignity, rather than avoiding it, that we find happiness.

Cultivate and embrace your daily rituals — laundry, dishes, walks, time in prayer — and don’t rush through the aspects that seem more tedious. In doing so, in adopting the Madeline approach to life, you will discover that the joy of life doesn’t come from the big glittering moments, or our attempts to escape. It comes from living each moment well — in rain or shine.