Cara Joyner

Sanity in the Tiny Years: A Manifesto

This post originally appeared at

Has anyone seen the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood? I'm not saying it's a cinematic masterpiece, but it's one of my favorites. Reason #1 - Maggie Smith. Reason #2 - all the other reasons don't matter because, MAGGIE SMITH. BJ says it's "okay". Whatever. He doesn't have to understand this part of me.

There's a scene towards the middle when Ashley Judd's character, a mother of four small kids, has a mental breakdown. There are several complicating factors in her story, specifically an abusive relationship with alcohol, but it culminates one night when her husband isn't home and she wakes up to all four children sick with a stomach bug. Reflecting back, she says, "I dropped my basket." Shortly after this, she leaves for several days, locked away in a hotel room by the beach. No one knew where she was or how to reach her. Sometime after returning, she ends up in treatment for alcoholism. I want to believe I would never walk out and I would never snap, but I get it. Obviously, she shouldn't have left and it caused a cascade of problems for her family, but that heavy place in her that felt starved for a break, buckling under overwhelming exhaustion, that place that felt claustrophobic and trapped, I get that.

She left because she didn't know what else to do. She didn't know how to ask for help and at her point of desperation, when she could have reached out, she chose to run.

Here me say that I never plan on being her. But I understand her. I think we all do. I can only bend so far before I start to break and when the splintering begins, I can't pretend I'm invincible. I can't pretend that I don't want to be cut loose into the open world.

Sometimes parenting brings us to our knees.

First, there's the "how do I do this?" part of having kids. I can't help any of us here. When I'm all out of guesses and my intuition throws the white flag, I turn to the women who dug their heels into the dirt of this road long before me - women I know, who know me well, and women I respect from a distance (thank you Jesus for Ann Voskamp). Their wisdom keeps me moving.

But then there's the part of having kids that isn't so much about how I do it, but how I survive it. Some of us know how easy it is to slip into the darker places of our minds, and we know that caring for our mental health and nourishing our souls takes a lot of work. It takes a team and it calls for a plan. To stay healthy and present requires taking our thoughts captive and directing our focus on the light. So as I parent through the tiny years, this is my creed. This is where I protect my heart and my mind and my family.

1. I will be honest.
You should know that I am a baby person. Not everyone is and that's okay, but I am. I love being pregnant and I love newborns and generally, I'm not that bothered by the lack of sleep in my life. You should know that in the last four years, I could probably count the number of times I've actually slept through the night. I was never much a babysitter and in general, I wouldn't describe myself as a natural kid person (I'm the most awkward nursery volunteer EVER). But I love my kids and I love my friends' kids and I love this stage of parenting.

You should also know that I didn't enjoy being a mom for the first five months after my oldest was born. He was beautiful and brilliant, but I didn't get it. I couldn't see the glory in the whole thing. I have the clearest memory of holding him on the couch, after an entire day of non-stop tears (his and mine) and thinking, "I need to give him back. I need to drive to the hospital and give him back. I can't do this." The guilt that followed that thought was crushing.

If there's one thing the Psalms, Job, Moses, and Jesus himself have shown us, it's that God can handle our brutal honesty. He doesn't ask us to gloss over the tortured parts of our hearts and He isn't pushed away in the tension.

I will be honest with God and I will be honest with my people. To speak the ugly, hard truths of our souls is to bring them into the light, to trust those we bring them before, and to diminish the power of darkness.

And right there, on my knees and through tears and uncomfortable words, I will say thanks.

2. I will be thankful.
Gratitude is a choice. It lifts my eyes above the sleepless nights and missed opportunities and hours upon hours pouring into work that no one sees. Gratitude lifts up my face. There will always be a reason to be discouraged and there will always be a reason to be grateful. I will choose to be thankful.

3. I will accept the season (and I will enjoy it).
Through the generosity of a few precious friends, we went to the mountains this summer - all five of us. What wouldn't be refreshing about that? Grateful and optimistic, we packed everything we'd need for three nights. We're just going to go with it, we thought. No agenda. No toys. No noise. Just rest and be.  Whose kids did we think we were bringing?! They were running that show. BJ and I were simply along to keep them from getting lost in the woods. To "be" with three boys under age five, away from home and on the side of a moutain, is to embrace the insanity and accept substantial increases in your base stress level.

We packed it all. Three days worth of food. Clothes and towels and detergent and everything we might need to do all the little things of life there instead of here.

28 hours later, we were home. TWENTY-EIGHT-HOURS.

Recently, I shared a story about my Learning & Cognition professor in college and how her words have impacted my parenting (full article here)..."Towards the end of one class, a student asked, 'We use bark collars for our dogs. How can we train them not to bark?' She took a deep breath and paused before saying, 'If you don’t want your dog to bark, don’t get a dog. Dogs bark. It’s not realistic or fair to ask them not to.' Dogs bark. Babies cry. Toddlers demand. That’s how God designed them."

Back in the mountains, during a long night sleeping elbow-to-elbow with the boys (for the record, there were FIVE available bedrooms, but somehow, we still all slept next to each other, because you and I both know those trips are about survival), somewhere in the middle of that night, I saw our reality with shocking clarity. This is where we are right now.

Y'all, I've been trying all summer to write a book proposal. Trying. So. Hard. Guess what I have on paper...a title. That's it. And you know what? I'm really proud of that work. It's what I can do right now.

This is our season, and I'll only enjoy if I accept it. When I resist, trying to bend their natural way to fit the seasons I see other people in, I will be disappointed and resentful. When I embrace this season though, accepting both its gifts and its limitations, I'm free to enjoy it, without reservation.

4. I will love me as well as I love them.
I feed my children when they are hungry. I put them to bed when they are tired. I make sure they have time with family and friends and people who fill them up with love. I take them outside so they can run and play. I love them for their being, not their doing. I feel nothing but grace and compassion when they struggle. I don't compare them to other kids or measure their success by the success of their peers. I don't expect them to run like maniacs with no chance to recharge. I am proud of their effort and perseverance and strength. I am proud of their courage.

For their sake and mine, I will love myself the way I love my children.

5. I will see the big picture
"Our lives are subplots. When we think we are the whole story, things go wrong. The stage is too big." -Donald Miller

My soul understands that I was made for a story bigger than my own; it yearns for the landscape beyond our small life. When I try to make this story into The Story, I am ridden with anxiety and disappointment. When I try to turn my story into The Story, nothing about this life is enough. But when I bring my story into the light and movement of the big picture, the Kingdom picture, I find holy perspective, the gift of which is peace.

This is my list. What's on yours? How do you protect your ever-lovin'-minds?

Holding Space (The Motherly Art of Doing Nothing and Everything)

This post originally appeared at

I'll never stop being surprised by how much of my energy is spent trying to get my kids to sleep. Seriously. Who knew so many hours would be spent simply doing that one thing? It's 11:30AM. All of my people woke up just after 5:30 today, which means I've been jumping back and forth between kids for the past four and half hours trying to convince them they were ready for a nap. As of 10 minutes ago, all three are knocked out. However, it should be noted that I hear footsteps in the hall. I'm going to pretend I don't though. They'll find me eventually.

And it's not just sleep, is it? It's baths, play, everything related to food, witching hour - whoever claimed this to be a single "hour" was delusional. Or they forgot that we can count. Witching hour begins at 4pm and ends whenever all small people are asleep. It's a full quarter of the day, at best - so. much. time. just making sure they don't hurt themselves. I am a full grown adult women with a college degree and a job history that includes directing hundreds of teenagers at one time. Yet somehow, I can't figure out how to put laundry away without my two-year-old scaling the wall to the fireplace mantel. True story. I include them in chores and cooking and I let PBS babysit so I can have a few minutes of stillness, but it doesn't change the fact that an inexplicable amount of time is devoted to watching and waiting...especially when all three are awake together. There's just no point in convincing myself I can do something else. It's watch and wait.

In birth work, we call it holding space. As a doula, there are moments at a birth when I'm very busy - massaging a tired back, changing out cold rags, cleaning up, fetching water, whispering affirmations, offering suggestions, reassuring dads, answering questions. And then there are times when I'm not doing much of anything. Just sitting there on the floor. Standing nearby. Maybe my hand is on her back, firm but still. No words, just rocking slightly and smiling back at her.

The idea is that we (doulas) are holding room for a laboring woman to do her thing by creating a safe place for her to move, moan, cry, sleep...whatever she needs. We're protecting that moment for her, supporting her by being fully present.

That's what these days feel like. Wading through thick hours of trains and snacks and matchbox cars, lying in a bed and pleading with my eyes for them fall asleep, holding space for them to be curious little boys.

I seem to have a vague recollection of how I once imagined this stage of life. I think it involved smiling over a hot cup of coffee (hot, HA!), watching my kids play peacefully on the floor, working at my desk or reading a book or making dinner while they roamed, independent and content. It did not involve three hour bedtime shenanigans, smashed blueberries under my feet or staring at the clock with desperation because, heaven knows I love my children with a fierceness I can't put into words, but the road between 5:00PM and sleep is LONG.

I imagined I would give birth to these wild at heart babies and that I would give them all of the things they needed to play and thrive and learn through experience, and that they would do those things while I did the other things - like the laundry or the meals or the working-from-home things. I had no idea how, during this stage, so much of what I'd "do" would be holding space, nor could I have conceived just how exhausting that task would be.

And yes, you know and I know that these years are devastatingly brief. I have not once looked at my boys and wished they were older. Not for a second. I am kind of obsessed with this season and I'm immeasurably grateful for the chance to be with them for so much of it. All of that's true. But reflecting on the swiftness isn't what I need reminding of, because honestly, I can't escape being aware of that reality. It's the music underscoring the minutes.

Instead, I'm learning the importance of staying faithful in the small things. The unloading and reloading, the folding and putting away, the sitting and waiting and talking and watching, the wiping and cleaning and sweeping, the giving up my need to do and the being patient and still, the holding space for them to be.

To this sisterhood of weary women, rocking babies and gathering legos and eating frozen pizza for the third time this week, our presence is what's needed. Our faithful presence in the moments that feel small, that is enough. Even when we're absorbed in exhaustion, we're holding space for something sacred. Carry on mamas!

On Learning What Love Looks Like: A Letter to My Husband

(This post originally appeared on

Seven years ago today. It was hot. Literally, record breaking hot. With a heat index close to 110, the air was heavy and sticky and all the things we expect from Virginia summers. There were no quiet guests reading the program and waiting for the ceremony. Not at this party. Instead, a gentle roar filled the sanctuary of that Baptist church - my grandparents' church - packed wall to wall with more than 600 of our people.

Our village, 600 strong, filled wooden pews to stand with us at the altar. We made vows, promises to stay and sacrifice and work.

We were babies. BABIES standing up there, pretty sure we had it figured out, completely unaware of our own not-knowingness. Yes, we aren't that much older now. Seven years really isn't a long time. Maybe the biggest change today is that we see that we are but babes in a world of much wiser adults, finding our way with all the grace of a toddler learning to walk. We're clumsy and a little foolish, but at least we know it now. Our kids have a way of unveiling just how not-cool and not-together we actually are.

So here we are. Seven years, four babies, two college degrees, five homes, ten jobs and still hardly any money later. I love you even more today.

Recently, some artwork circulated the Internet. This is what real love looks like, it said. It was sweet and well intentioned and onto something important. Love looks a lot less like the sexy grandiose from Hollywood and a lot more like everyday moments. I looked at the pictures babe, and while I understood what they were trying to say, it didn't look like the love you've taught me in the last seven years.

We have different ways of communicating, you and I (hello understatement of the decade). You process internally and then, maybe, speak it out loud. I process as the words come out of my mouth and are picked up by my ears. Where I have ten words, you have two. You receive information based on what you see and hear. I receive information by listening to the gaps. In those differences, words can sometimes fall short, so you've shown love in action.

Your quiet faithfulness has taught me what love looks like. The quaint dinner and the card games and the holding hands contently, those are beautiful pictures of our first two years together and when those moments slip in today, they are lovely. But the part of love I couldn't find in those sketches, is the staying part. The planting our feet right where they are because we promised we would and doing the hard work of ordinary life part.

You taught me that love looks like saying the words you don't want to say, because you want this to work and you care more about us being healthy than us being superficially comfortable.

You taught me that love looks like lying side by side in the dark, still simmering from what we said before, choosing to breathe in peace and breathe out forgiveness.

It looks like crawling on our hands and knees with a bottle of bleach and some plastic gloves, cleaning up after the kid that got sick in the middle of the night.

It looks like taking turns...over and over taking turns. I'll stay home so you can go out. You'll get up with the boys so I can sleep a bit more.

It looks like showing up when we want to shut down. Lowering our voice when we want to raise it.

It looks like a determination to bring peace into conflict, a decision to speak gently over brashly.

It looks like taking out the trash in the rain and bringing me water during the night. It looks like sinks of dirty dishes and your incredible patience standing over them.

It looks like three births and 55 hours of labor. It looks like you holding me up when my knees quite literally gave way.

It looks like dreaming together and grieving together, regrouping and pushing forward.

It looks like knowing when to let it go and get over it. It looks like a willingness to stop and work it out when it matters.

You've shown me that love looks a lot like sacrifice - everyday, ordinary, not-so-sexy (but actually incredibly sexy) sacrifice. Thank you for your relentless love babe, for our family and for me. Our boys adore you because you are kind and intentional and present. I'm changed my your consistency, your steadfast pace and remarkable humility. Thank you for staying when it's hard, when it's boring, when it's heavy. Thank you for risking so much to speak truthfully. We're still just kids in many ways. Here's to the years ahead and continuing to grow up together. All my love.