Month: April 2014

Advocating for Others, Ministering to Myself

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by Katey Zeh

scotuszeh11Ever since I moved away from Washington, D.C. nearly three years ago, I find myself in the midst of some strange weather event whenever I return. The day that I was scheduled to speak in front of the Supreme Court was no exception. Nearly a week after the official start of spring, our capitol city welcomed me with freezing temperatures and a heavy, wet snow, but the weather couldn’t put a damper on the rally, attended by hundreds of advocates defending access to contraception under the Affordable Care Act. As I spoke from the podium about my faith and my commitment to advocating for contraception access, the crowd whooped and hollered at all the right moments. It was a true highlight of my advocacy career.

What I wanted to say at the rally but felt like I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) was that I was ten weeks pregnant—and that thanks to my access to contraception, my husband and I had been able to plan our pregnancy. I can’t even imagine what the response would have been! But the idea of displaying that much vulnerability was too much. I wasn’t ready to make my pregnancy quite so public.

Therein lies the tension of my life as an advocate. Where does the self fit into advocating for others?

For the last four years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for global maternal health and universal access to contraception from a faith-based perspective. As a woman of childbearing age but with no experience of pregnancy up until this year, I could relate to the need for contraceptive care, but the world of safe motherhood was another story. I leaned on others—biblical mothers like Rachel and Mary, advocates from Kenya and Sierra Leone, statisticians with solid facts—to fill in my perceived gaps. Finding out I was pregnant abruptly shifted my perspective on the work I was doing because I could start to weave my own experience into the tapestry of stories of women past, present, and future. But I struggled over when would I make that apparent to the outside world.

Would I ever feel ready for this work to become more intimate and personal than it already was? I felt my call to advocacy when I was in seminary and saw how few faith voices there were in the world that affirmed the dignity of women and girls. God broke my heart through the stories of women’s suffering and pieced it back together with the hope that I could partner with the divine in creating a more just world.

Each day I approach my work as a holy practice, as ministry. The times when I feel most connected to the church have not been during traditional worship, but rather in the midst of teaching and learning with fellow advocates who share my commitment to the least of these. With these brothers and sisters I have experienced the beloved community I always longed for. I pour myself into the work and do so gladly. But soon after I become pregnant, I realized that suddenly, I was no longer in a position to give in the same way. In fact, I was the one who was in need of ministry.

Truthfully, the first trimester of pregnancy was anything but a spiritually deep time. I spent most of it tending to what felt like an unrelenting case of the flu—nausea, debilitating fatigue, and dizzy spills. I hardly had the energy to shower, much less engage in thoughtful theological reflection about maternal health or brainstorm new advocacy strategies for my project. I resented how my days had been reduced to just getting by until I could crawl into bed again. What was worse than the physical discomfort was how miserable I felt about my lack of productivity. My self-esteem took a massive hit when I realized I could not push through the pregnancy fatigue and had to put nearly everything in my life on the back burner. Worst of all, I was suffering internally and not allowing others in to provide the support I needed.

As I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court, nausea and fatigue in full swing, I somehow mustered up the energy to advocate for the millions of women whose access to health care was at stake. Suddenly it hit me—I wasn’t just advocating for other women; I was advocating for me! I had to ask myself, why is self-advocacy so difficult for me personally? How can I speak passionately about the need for others to experience health, abundant life, and well being when at the same time, I have trouble listening to my own needs for the very same things?

For me pregnancy has been an exercise of constantly letting go of any semblance of control I thought I had. I’ve had to learn and re-learn daily how to turn inward in order to listen to my body, mind, and spirit without resistance. Sometimes it’s about stepping aside to let others lead in my place, canceling speaking engagements, or taking longer to finish writing pieces (like this one). But, I am learning that this is part of self-care. Learning to advocate for myself is part of my ministry.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, and Feminist Studies in Religion. Her essay “A Pregnant Silence” was published last year in the book Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. She was recently named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with her husband Matt and their dog Lucy.  

The Pain of Passing Beauty

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by Liz Gandolfo

harried mother As I write this post, I am 38+ weeks pregnant with my fourth child and am eagerly awaiting my scheduled C-section next week. I must confess that I have reached my breaking point, both physically and emotionally. As a mostly stay-at-home mother to children aged five-and-a-half, four, and two, I spend nearly every waking moment on my aching, swollen feet—prepping and cleaning up after meals and snacks, dressing and undressing small bodies, wiping bottoms, supervising teeth-brushing, cleaning up toys, doing laundry, getting kids in and out of the car (harder than it sounds), food shopping, “nesting” for the new baby’s arrival, and more. This is an awful lot to ask of a body that is already doing the 24/7 work of gestation! To be fair, my pregnancies all have been relatively “easy,” and this fourth one has actually been better than the last two, during which I experienced relentless insomnia and excruciating sciatic nerve pain respectively (both of these have returned this time around, just more sporadically and much later in the pregnancy). But my body is persevering through these final weeks in a way that I didn’t expect it to—its caring labors are necessary for the well-being of my children and somehow it just keeps coming through for me and for them. In all honesty, I am kind of impressed by my own strength and endurance. But I am also pretty miserable: physically exhausted, extremely uncomfortable, unable to sleep, and enormously slow and awkward. The physical strain has taken its toll psychologically and my nerves are pretty much shot; my patience and usual sunny disposition are gone. The scheduled date of my baby’s arrival is circled on the calendar like it is the second coming of Christ. There is a reason why the birth of a baby is referred to as “delivery.” This child’s delivery into the world will mark my own deliverance from the physical (and emotional) trials of pregnancy.

Clearly, I am ready for this pregnancy to be over. And I am comforted by the fact that that it will be my last; of this my husband and I are 1000% sure. Strangely, though, I am facing the end of this pregnancy, and the end of my childbearing years, with a mixture of profound relief and nostalgic grief. While four pregnancies have taken a physical and psychological toll on me, the process of creating and nurturing a new life inside my own body has been one of if not the most meaningful and transformative experiences of my life. To feel the first flutters of a fetal kick, and even to groan in pain at the discomfort of little toes (or knees, or a butt?) underneath my ribcage, are experiences of relationality and interdependence that have been utterly amazing and spiritually empowering for me. Having babies has been such a huge part of who I am for the past six years now. Knowing with 1000% certainty that I will never experience this particular kind of embodied creativity and intimacy with another human being again has begun to sink in as the date of my deliverance approaches. There is a strange tug of regret at knowing that, in the moments before my C-section, I will feel the movement of a child within me for the last time. I suspect that each of the “last moments” with this new baby in the weeks and months ahead will be accompanied by a great deal of mixed emotions. I know that moving on to the next phase of familial and professional life is the right thing for me, my husband, and our family. But it will be hard to let go of each little phase of this baby’s life, knowing that it will be the last time . . . for everything. Clinical psychologist Daphne de Marneffe articulates this paradoxical experience of fulfilment and regret beautifully as she reflects back on the time when she was leaving her own childbearing years behind: “I could not have been more full; life could not have been more sweet. And at the same time, there was also that ache, at ‘the rustling of the grains of sand as they slid lightly away,’ that ache of beauty and longing and time and the unbearable fragility and surpassing preciousness of this moment.”[1]

prengancyDespite my profound relief at never having to endure the trials of pregnancy again, and despite the demands and sweetness of caring for the children that I do have, there is a certain quality of grief to what I am experiencing in this process of moving on to the next phase of life. This grief is by no means tragic, and there is no comparing it to the depth of sorrow experienced in situations of trauma and loss. With a slightly different focus on coping with the process of change in the lives of children as they grow and develop towards adolescence and adulthood, Bonnie Miller-McLemore refers to the kind of grief that I am experiencing as “mundane grief.” Caring for children and helplessly witnessing their flight into the world requires spiritual practices of what Miller-McLemore calls “blessing and letting go.”[2] I already foresee the necessity of blessing and letting go of my children (kindergarten looms large on my horizon for this year), but I can see that I will also need to bless and let go of this particular stage in my own life. While there is much to be celebrated in moving on from pregnancy and the rigors of caring for babies and small children, these experiences have also been incredibly transformative and fulfilling. The beauty of these years has not come without its anxieties and frustrations, but it has been beautiful. And, however transformative, fulfilling and beautiful the future will be, it is still painful to witness the passing of this particular beauty. Alfred North Whitehead calls this phenomenon “perishing.” On a mundane, day to day level, we often experience the passing of beauty as rather painful, even when the beauty involved negativity and even when what replaces a particular beauty is also beautiful. The co-existence of two goods is often impossible—e.g., my own physical/psychological/professional well-being and the prospect of more children. Some forms of beauty and goodness must pass away in order to make way for new possibilities. This is not only my experience of motherhood, it is life.

I have already warned my husband that there will be many tears in the days and months ahead. I can’t even bear the thought of the last time I will nurse this final baby. But there is a luxurious quality to the mundane grief that I am experiencing. I will mourn the passing of this beautiful time because it has been so beautiful. What a blessing that has been and continues to be. So I will do my best to bless the beauty, and to bless my own sorrow, and even to savor the sorrow as I let it go and move forward with my family into new forms of possibility, freedom, and grace.


[1] Daphne de Marneffe, Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004), 313.

[2] Bonnie Miller-McLemore, In the Midst of Chaos: Care of Children as a Spiritual Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), 176 ff.

Coming Home to My Body

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by Claire Bischoff

Towaswimsuitrd the end of February, as a treat for my children and myself for enduring a particularly long and harsh Minnesota winter, we went to an indoor community pool that has a wonderful zero-entry children’s wading pool complete with water slides and a spitting turtle fountain. Despite being five months pregnant, I decided that I would don my bathing suit so that I could wade in the water with my sons. As we were changing in the locker room, my three-year old pointed to my bulging hip and asked, “Mom, what is that bump?” In the split second that followed, options for responding flashed in my brain. I wished I were the sort of person who could gush on and on about how wonderful the human body is and the many ways that it changes to support the growing baby inside. But I am on a recovery journey from an eating disorder (and also a woman in our society), so part of me just wanted to yell, “Mom is fat!” In the moment, I settled for some middle ground, giving a tepid, “My body’s changing because of the baby,” before rushing us out of the locker room and onto the pool deck.

Not long after this, I attended the Ash Wednesday service at my son’s Catholic elementary school. The presiding priest opened mass by asking, “Who thinks that Lent is about giving something up?” A majority of the children, as well as a good portion of the teachers and parents present, raised their hands. The priest went on to say that Lent is not really about giving something up, but rather is about giving ourselves over to God. Giving something up usually only lasts for the six weeks of Lent, he told us, after which we tend to go back to our regular patterns or habits. In contrast, when we focus on giving ourselves over to God, we take steps on our spiritual journeys that stay with us for a lifetime.

As I reflected on what the priest had said throughout the mass, it slowly dawned on me that I had been misusing the Lenten practice of abstinence for years. When I gave up candy or chocolate, it was not about giving myself over to God. It about turning this abstinence into a religiously-swaddled stick I could use to beat myself into losing ten pounds or finally getting back to my pre-baby weight. Other years, I gave up television, not in order to spend more time focusing on my spiritual life, but so that I could prove to myself that I could do it. No matter what it was that I gave up, I simply willed myself to get through the six weeks. I gutted it out and then held up my accomplishment to God, internally saying to God, “Look at what I have accomplished on my own. Look what I did to be worthy of your love.” And then having crossed the finish line at Easter, exhausted by the will power it took to abstain for six weeks, I would promptly binge on Easter candy or the next season of The Wire (carefully requested from the library at the right time so as to be in my possession at Easter).

As I was rising to go forward to take communion, I decided that I still wanted to give something up for Lent (old Catholic habits die hard!), but to choose something of a different order and to do it in different way so that it would contribute to my spiritual growth. I wanted to give up hating my body and to ask God to help me to do so.

In her wonderful book The Dance of the Spirit, feminist Catholic educator Maria Harris writes about how the spiritual journeys of women begin with the step of Awakening, and that Awakening often takes the form of awakening our senses and coming home to our bodies. Thinking back to the locker room interaction with my son, I could see how I needed to come home to my body in a radical way if I was ever to be able to continue on a spiritual journey that resulted in giving myself over to God. Treating my body as a project constantly in need of work and viewing my happiness as always ten lost pounds away has been a great detriment to my spiritual life. But to correct this distorted way of relating to my body, I needed a spiritual practice that did not demand a further disconnect from my body. Further, in all practicality, as a busy pregnant mother of two young children, who also works part-time outside the home, I needed a spiritual practice that could arise from and fit into my everyday life, not something that took me away from the commitments I already have.

The first practice I thought of has been surprisingly easy: I gave up getting on the scale each day. I boxed itscale up and put it in the attic; I ask for blind weigh-ins at my prenatal appointments; and I save myself the mental and emotional energy drain that my daily weigh in had become.  It has been immensely freeing not to measure the success of my day (or myself or my life) by a number on the scale.

The second practice that seemed crucial, of accepting my body as it is in order to come home to it, has taken a bit more work. The morning after Ash Wednesday, I stood naked in front of the mirror, and I tried to pray that God would help me accept my body as beautiful, as made by God just for me. But I was so overwhelmed that tears started to fall as I backed away from the mirror and retreated to the shower where I could at least avoid looking at myself. Fortunately, a wise friend told me that trying to start with my whole body was like trying to teach someone to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool and hoping they would not drown. She suggested I start with just one small part of my body, one small part for which I had at least neutral, if not positive, feelings.

Holding fenceSo the next morning, in the shower, I took time to carefully look at and gently touch my forearms, praying that I would be able to accept them as they are. And this seemingly simple practice, done during my favorite quiet time away from the kids each morning, is already starting to work its wonders on me. After years of being starved for positive attention, I can feel the thankfulness in my arms at finally being noticed and cared for, and I hear other parts of my body calling out to be let in on the action. In these first few weeks of Lent, I have been able to add my upper arms and my hands to my daily shower practice of coming home to my body. These hands, which I once thought of only as the holders of ugly, stubby fingers, are the hands that God gave me. These acceptable-as-they-are hands are the ones I use to write this reflection, and they are connected to the acceptable-as-they-are arms which enable me to embrace the world and myself.