By Katey Zeh
Our class had been meeting for several weeks, and while the newness had worn off, I still wasn’t completely comfortable with my fellow moms-to-be. We exchanged brief “hellos” at the beginning of the session, but otherwise we mostly kept to ourselves. Yoga isn’t exactly a social practice.
We moved from our mats and formed a line by holding hands. I ended up in the middle with a woman on my right who appeared days away from delivering her baby and a woman on my left who seemed more uncomfortable with the exercise than I did. Standing in our line, our teacher told us to lean forward together as each of us balanced on a single leg. The main intention of the group posture was to experience the strength of community: with the support of our fellow classmates, it was easier to find and maintain balance than if we had performed the exercise as individuals.
Quivering limbs aside, the group pose was a beautiful embodiment of what community can be. When one falters, the others help to hold her up until she can reestablish her centeredness. But what I felt most acutely as we stood there was immense pressure to be an anchor of strength. As the center, I could not lose my balance or the others would tumble with me. In reflecting on that moment later, I realized while I’m often ready and willing to be in a position of being relied upon, I’m hesitant to accept the help of another.
It came as no surprise to me that living in a culture that reveres independence and self-reliance had shaped my experience of pregnancy. From my daily workouts to my relationships, I had internalized the message that I needed to maintain the intensity of my pre-pregnant life. Whether out of pride or sheer stubbornness, I was determined not to pull out the “pregnancy card” as an excuse to take a step back from my responsibilities and commitments. I will be the first to admit that I have a lot of personal responsibility in perpetuating this unhelpful way of thinking, but I also have to call out the culture on this one.
In the early weeks of my pregnancy, there were moments when I was desperate to share my first trimester suffering with others. For the most part I was met with sympathy and compassion, but there were times when I felt taken aback by the responses I got. One of the most common was the menacing retort to my complaints about feeling exhausted: “Oh, you think you’re tired now? Just you wait!” These off-the-cuff remarks not only left me feeling insecure about having complained about my symptoms, but also they fed into the self-doubt I already felt about my ability to handle the challenges of motherhood ahead.
I try not to harbor resentment toward these people because their behaviors point to a much larger cultural problem: we do not know how to care for women throughout the reproductive lifespan in ways that are respectful and affirming. So often we reduce women to their reproductive organs, either to be placed on a pedestal or to be condemned. Whether a woman is experiencing a planned or unexpected pregnancy, a struggle with infertility or pregnancy loss, or a question of whether or not she will have children at all, we do not know what to say. So we stumble over our words, often unintentionally speaking in ways that are hurtful and judgmental.
We can be better, but we must transform ourselves individually and culturally. First, we must be mindful of the truth that women have sacred worth, regardless of their ability or decision to raise children. This should shape our every word and action. Second, we must open our hands and hearts, so that we might be refuges where radical acceptance and hospitality are available to all who need to regain their centeredness.
In partnership with the divine, we can transform ourselves to become communities of healing and compassion. As I prepare to birth a new human life into this difficult, beautiful world, what else could I possibly hope for?
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.