Holding Space (the motherly art of doing nothing and everything)

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 (happy 7 years babe)

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.

Yes, I know where babies come from

Yes, I have three children and yep, I do know how they got here.

You're right, my hands are full.

No, I'm not pregnant again. This oven is closed for a while.

Yes, I said "a while," because I'm pretty sure we aren't quite done.

And no, if we have another baby, it won't be because we're "trying for a girl."

These days, leaving the house nearly always requires answering at least one of the questions above. I get it. Really, I do. But to the unsuspecting stranger that will one day say, "Three boys! You've got your hands full!", and then be witness to my collapsing into a sobbing puddle on the toilet paper aisle of Target, let me just apologize now. It's not you. It's me. It's all the questions before you and the lack of sleep and the privilege of showering that seems to elude me.

Recently, I can't seem to walk in and out of a store without hearing, "Three boys!" Some take it a step further, "I guess you just aren't meant to have girls." I nod and say, "It's busy in our house," and I try to shuffle away quickly, because I want to tell them I had a girl named Lily. Her life began in me and slipped straight into Heaven. I want to tell them that, but I recognize this to be difficult Target small talk. And I know that there's something sacred about her story...I won't just throw it around.

You guys, I can't believe how much I miss her. I'm shocked at how sad I still feel when I think about her not being here. And it's a strange sort of conflict, because the reality is that this guy is here because she lived and then died. 

He is joy embodied. I wouldn't change a thing if it meant he wouldn't be here today.

I don't miss her because she was a girl and he is a boy. I miss her because she was mine. And I want her here, with him. Fourteen months later and my heart still senses her absence almost daily. Even now, to stop and actually speak about her brings new tears; so when someone, with the best of intentions, laughs and says, "Three boys!", I want to tell them we have three boys and a girl.

Sitting here tonight, listening to the squeals and laughter erupting from the back of our house, I imagine her with us. All four of my children in one room. I wonder what she would be doing right now and what her voice would sound like mixed in with her brothers; and the grief I came to know last Spring revisits with surprising force.

Women told me it would be this way. They shared stories of children that slipped away and described the sadness that lingered decades later. I hated hearing that. I wanted to believe that with time would come forgetting. But our hearts were made for eternity and there's nothing natural about death. It isn't a part of the original design.

"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal." 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

When we lose babies before they come earthside, I believe that their lives are purposeful. I believe their being is intentional. And I believe their existence, however brief here on earth, matters for eternity.

My hope will remain rooted in eternity.

For tonight though, I just really miss her.

Those Days I Want to Hide From My Kids

When I worked in student ministry - back before I had children of my own, when I thought I had the answers about the "right way" to raise an independent, free-willing, tiny person - I enjoyed the best parts of spending a few hours each week with someone else's kid. I didn't have to make them brush their teeth, or go to bed, or deal with the fact that I said no and my no meant that I loved them, even if they thought they hated me. That was their parents' job. I got to buy them coffee and hear them pour out their beautiful hearts. There was plenty about the job and the vulnerability of those relationships that was difficult, even painful, but there was so much more that was fun. 

As someone who worked primarily with middle schoolers, I still remember the out-of-my-mind annoyance of calling to a group (normally a group of boys) and being 100% tuned out. No response at all. Maybe they didn't hear me. Maybe they were deliberately ignoring me. Who knows. I also remember thinking, "When it's my kid, that won't happen. No way. I will teach them to listen the first time I say something."

If you're a mom and you're laughing at me, it's ok. I'm kind of laughing at me too. Laughing through tears.

I know we have a new baby and that's not an easy adjustment...and I know we're talking about a preschooler and a toddler...but you guys, for every one time I speak and they listen, there are five times I speak and they just keep rolling. Running. Screaming. Destructing. Throwing pizza while standing on the kitchen table. It's as if I'm a ghost mom and no one even knows I'm here. 

To my friends with teenagers, longing for the days when the tough stuff was just about making them wash their hands and pulling them off the top of the piano, or sitting them in timeout for throwing cars at each other - to my friends dealing with the much heavier, social issues that we are still years away from, I see you and I'm not jealous of your battles. 

But while I'm floating around my house with what sometimes feels like no voice at all, I have to say that there are more than a couple moments in the day when I want to hide from my kids. I want to pick up Jack, close the door of my room and take a nap with a newborn on my chest, who really only wants two things from me - to be fed and to be held. 

I expected the adjustment from two to three to be hard, but I figured that would be about not having enough hands. As it turns out, the most difficult adjustment is not that I have three kids, but that having a third kid changes my relationship with the first two. The dynamics shifted without apology and all we can do is reorient ourselves to what is new.

This guy is trying to figure out what it means to not be the youngest; and I'm trying to figure out what it means to have more than one baby. He has been my easy-going boy for 21 months. 


The joke was that he never cried. If he was mad, he was MAD, but it was rare that anything upset him that much. In the last week, we've averaged 4-5 complete and total meltdowns per day. Now the joke is about trying to figure out what doesn't make him cry.

When they are screaming and taking their clothes off (why do boys want to be naked ALL THE TIME?) and tackling without mercy and climbing up my legs because I'm holding Jack and that makes them cry - or it makes whatever is stressing them out that much harder - and no matter what I say or how I say it, they carry on as if I said nothing at all...in those moments, I want to scoop up that quiet, sleeping baby and hide until BJ gets home.

Because if I don't hide, I'm afraid of what might come out of my mouth...and that scares me more.

Obviously, I can't run. I won't. Let's be honest, there's no time to hide, because stuff like this happens all day long.

So I stay to clean faces, wipe noses and vacuum up peas for the fourth time today...and I listen to the sobs - often from all 3 at once - knowing that there's not much I can do about it. In fact, staying present may be the only thing I actually can do.

As much as I am tempted to set up camp in my bedroom when I find myself holding a screaming, naked toddler while stepping over dried up pizza on the living room floor, I'm going to stand and breathe and try to say thank you for the whole story, because the whole story is so much bigger than these long days. It's a story of redemption and renewal, taking these long days and using them to write lessons I'd never have the perspective to learn on the easy days. The types of lessons you only discover when staying where you are takes real work.

In other news, as of 10:30 tonight, we will have survived our first full week with BJ back at work. Glory hallelujah! Tomorrow's celebrations will be in the form of many naps.


Jack's Birth: The Story

All birth pictures were taken by the talented and wonderful Layna Rae Photography.

"We didn't count on suffering, didn't count on pain. But if the blessing's in the valley, then in the river I will remain. Find me in the river, find me there. Find me on my knees with my soul laid bare." 

(Find Me In The River, Delirious)

Friday AM: Braxton Hicks...?

I had a feeling. That malaise the day before, the quiet sense to withdraw into the stillness of home, Braxton Hicks that seemed a little less practice and a little more warm up. 

First-baby-me would have sounded the alarm. Third-baby-me was reluctant to even pay attention. I'm no stranger to the prodromal game. There was no pattern. No clear signs pointing to imminent labor. Everything I felt could indicate he was coming in twelve hours or twelve days, so none of it meant much to me. Maybe it didn't mean much because I was only 39 weeks and all I knew of my babies was that they grew inside for 41+ weeks. Maybe it didn't mean much because I was afraid of what it could mean and I simply wasn't 'ready'. 

The crib wasn't assembled (as is still true today). The baby clothes were washed, but not put away. Instead of a nursery, there was a room with an empty dresser, the pieces of a bed, a box full of clothes and a disheveled pile of I-dont-know-where-to-put-that stuff. There was no hospital bag. No birth plan (bad doula). 5,000 articles of clothing in baskets, on the sofa and on the floor. Clean. But on the floor (as is also true today). Plus, I had a full weekend planned and it was my last pre-baby thing before sinking into the beautiful, messy, sleepy postpartum months.

So when my midwife offered to help move things along, I said "not yet." And when she suggested I bind up my belly to see if it started labor, I said I would wait until Monday.

Monday was my get ready for labor day. My day to write a letter to the baby and pack a bag and put the crib together and maybe even clean the bathrooms...eh, maybe not, but I planned to clean the bathrooms and that's the same thing. It really is. That was Monday stuff and this was Friday.

First-baby-me tried everything to get Ian out - castor oil, acupuncture, speed walking, eggplant parmesan...other stuff....and some of the saddest prayers you've ever heard from a girl who thought that being pregnant was the hardest part of motherhood and that having a new baby had to be easier than my end of pregnancy misery. 

Now here I was, turning down eviction offers, convinced everything was normal.

4:00 PM: Shower, time contractions, rest

Normal was unrealistic. A distracted dinner with the boys, group texts with my people, watching BJ take the boys to bed and wondering if they would wake up to a different world than the one they fell asleep knowing. Contractions that came 10 minutes apart, 5 minutes apart, 12 minutes apart...strong contractions doing the hard work they were designed to do, but unpredictable in their timing. A few phone calls to my midwife (Melanie), texts with my doula and dear friend (Amber). A little conversation with Jack promising him I was ready, it was okay, and we were excited to meet him.

9:30 PM: Bed

We prayed, said goodnight and I closed my eyes, thinking it might taper off with sleep.

Ten minutes in the dark, resting next to the man I feel the safest with, the one with whom vulnerability is wholly natural, ten minutes next to him and my body decided it was safe to have this baby. What had been strong contractions were now STRONG contractions. Each effort to sink into sleep was met with a longer, stronger, deeper wave. Or as BJ later described, I was "louder" now than I was before.

After THREE attempts to get the truck over the ice at the end of our driveway - I won't share with you the words I used in that moment, let's just say they were colorful - we were off.

Saturday 12:10 AM: Arrive, 3cm, Smile, Cry, Rest, Cry, Rest

 Parker and Jack were both born in this room

Parker and Jack were both born in this room

I know the third baby rule. The third baby rule says that all bets are off. I know they have a reputation of being unpredictable, but all my optimism wanted to believe this was going to be like Parker's birth - walk in at 8cm and hold my baby earth-side an hour later.

Apparently not. I was 3cm. THREE. I smiled and tried to stay positive, but all I could think was "This isn't fair. Somebody bring me the labor my body earned by pushing out the first two." Instead I smiled. And then I cried. Not once had I imagined a long labor, but there it was, staring me down and the only way to the other side was through it.

They gave us the room and we settled in. BJ stretched out behind me, holding me tight during contractions, both of us resting in between, drifting into light sleep.

I imagined a conversation with the nurse:

Nurse: "Do you need anything else?"

Me: "When you get a chance, could you please bring another ginger ale? Oh, and a bag of Pitocin and an epidural. Let's just crank that thing up. Thanks!"

I laughed a little and let it go, because that was not my most pervading thought lying there in the dark. So much larger than that little thought was an overwhelming peace. I remember BJ's arms around me. I remember how soft my pillow felt in contrast to the power of the contractions. I remember the dark room was soothing. And I remember the music. We cycled through Bethel's The Loft Sessions three or four times that night, but one chorus seemed to rise above the rest. It's all I hear as I think back on those hours.

"Spirit of the Living God, come fall afresh on me. Come wake me from my sleep. Blow through the caverns of my soul, pour in me to overflow." 

That peace carried me through the night, through breaks in rest and more tears, and a return back to bed. 

6:00 AM: "Okay baby, time to listen to mama. Today is our day."

I was done being still. I was as rested as I could be on this side. BJ slept. I opened the blinds to let the first hints of sun sneak into the room and Jack and I walked. We moved together, rocking, swaying, listening to music, praying. Soft whispers sent out in trust, believing that today was the day. That early morning hour was about the three of us - me, Jack and a faithful, sovereign God. 

The simplest definition I've heard for the word "holy" is set apart for God. Sometimes we can't recognize the holiness of a place until we look back on it. Sometimes we are acutely aware of the sacred as our feet move through it. This was the latter and I was thankful to be there, in an hour set apart.

7:40 AM: 5-6cm

A few more tears. Melanie's voice reminding me that I was more than half-way through. I knew she was right. Fresh tears. Regroup. Refresh.

8:20 AM: Into the water

   "Find me in the river, find me on my knees. I've walked against the water, now I'm waiting if you please. We didn't count on suffering, didn't count on pain. But if the blessing's in the valley, then in the river I will remain. Find me in the river, find me there. Find me on my knees with my soul laid bare. Even though you're gone and I'm cracked and dry, find me in the river. I'm waiting here."   This shuffled into our playlist while we were in the bathroom and we smiled. It so perfectly summed up the moment and helped lift us to the next.

"Find me in the river, find me on my knees. I've walked against the water, now I'm waiting if you please. We didn't count on suffering, didn't count on pain. But if the blessing's in the valley, then in the river I will remain. Find me in the river, find me there. Find me on my knees with my soul laid bare. Even though you're gone and I'm cracked and dry, find me in the river. I'm waiting here." This shuffled into our playlist while we were in the bathroom and we smiled. It so perfectly summed up the moment and helped lift us to the next.

First-labor-me was scared and too lost in my own head to be present with BJ.

Second-labor-me hardly had time to look him in the eye before Parker came flying out.

I had two dreams for Jack's birth: (1) To be present and enjoy the experience with BJ. (2) To pull Jack straight to my chest and for him to stay there (both Ian and Parker needed extra encouragement that required they move to the warmer before coming to me).

My first dream came true 100 times over. Holding me during the night, walking with me in the morning, holding my hand by the water, he never wavered. BJ isn't a man of many words when it comes to support. Instead, he quite literally held me up when my knees gave way. He switched out cold rags, brought food, organized care for our boys, and he never looked away.

Labor is beautiful and messy and bloody and smelly and exhausting. It is a raw, desperately vulnerable kind of beauty. And he never backed down. I walked away from Jack's birth more in love with him than just 24 hours before.

10:45 AM: Out of the tub, 9cm

11:30 AM: "Being pregnant and giving birth are like crossing a narrow bridge. People can accompany you to the bridge. They can greet you on the other side. But you walk that bridge alone.”  -African Proverb

There are times in labor when we need other women to walk us to that bridge and we need them more than anyone else, even our partners. Those moments were spread throughout our time at the hospital - encouragement here, birth wisdom there, a hand that understands the pain in my back and understands how to ease it, eyes that can say "I know."

And for me, in Jack's birth, there came a point when it was the women I needed fully and completely. I needed BJ there and he never left my side, but I needed those women too, with all their strength and grace and empathy. Squeezing my hand, holding my face, kneading my back, standing with me in a solidarity that knows. Standing with me in the tradition of women for thousands of years - reminding us that childbirth, like motherhood, is not something we do alone.

11:50 AM: Crazy Town

So much of Jack's birth was marked by peacefulness. It was still, dark, quiet. In those last twenty minutes though, whatever calm I had, I lost. My team never moved, holding me tight and promising me I was safe, but I had already hit the panic button.

Up to this point, a year of birth work had been my ally. But here, in this moment, my mind flashed with memories of things I'd seen go wrong; and even though my circumstances were different from theirs, the reasoning part of my brain had signed off.

Melanie, in all her wisdom and years of experience, knew what needed to happen. She got me up, made me move and sat me down on the birth stool with BJ behind me. I sank into the arms that had held me for so many hours.

Four minutes later, Melanie said, "Cara, reach down and pick up your baby!"


Welcoming Jack-0120.jpg

My second dream, that Jack would come straight to my chest and not need to leave, is exactly what happened. He was healthy and perfect in every way.

I could hear BJ crying behind me, his chest moving against my back, his face next to mine. We both knew what a miracle this moment was. We remembered how Jack's story began last summer, and we praised God for the immeasurable gift of this day and this child.