Sanity in the Tiny Years: A Manifesto

Originally published Wednesday, 12 August 2015.

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?