Parenting and Theology
By Katey Zeh
In most instances when U.S. media portrays the birth of a baby, the storyline typically goes something like this: The woman’s water breaks in the grocery store. Her awestruck partner starts panicking that they need to rush to the hospital immediately. When they arrive the woman screams obscenities as she is wheeled into the delivery room where a doctor shouts like a drill sergeant for her to push a few times before the baby is born. It’s loud, exciting, and kind of terrifying.
The birth of my daughter was nothing like this. In fact, as it turns out very few women I know have had experiences like the ones we see in movies and on TV. But our consumption of this Hollywood narrative of childbirth—excruciatingly painful, lightening fast, always with a happy ending—shapes our collective imagination about childbirth in powerful ways. If the only births we ever see are fictionalized, sensationalized, and sanitized representations of the experience, what else do we have to go on?
There are consequences to this. I spent a good portion of my pregnancy trying to unlearn the culture’s explicit and implicit messages about childbirth that taught me to be afraid of it, to discount my physical and mental stamina; that told me to entrust my birth experience to medical professionals without complaint or question. I was shocked when a friend of mine shared that her OB, who entered the delivery room groggy from a nap, answered her cell phone and talked casually as my friend begged to push her baby out. Even as her daughter was crowning, the doctor said to my friend, “Hold on another minute.”
As a person of faith, I hold to the sacred truth that as children of God, all women and girls have innate sacred worth. No woman should have to beg for compassionate, respectful maternal health care.
In my advocacy for global maternal health, I am passionate about lifting up and honoring the stories of women’s births that we find in our ancient scriptures and connecting them with what is happening in today’s world. Even though these women lived thousands of years ago, their experiences are not unlike those of many women today. I’ve written about Mary as a young, poor teenager with an unexpected, high-risk pregnancy. I’ve shared about the story of Rachel in Genesis who died in childbirth, not unlike the more than 800 women this very day who will lose their lives bringing new life into our world.
This year on April 11th organizations and advocates who care about maternal health are calling for the day to be recognized as the International Day for Maternal Health and Rights. Communities of faith have a real opportunity to reclaim our collective stories, both past and present, to ensure that the sacred worth and dignity of every woman–no matter where she lives, no matter the circumstances of her pregnancy, no matter what access to resources she has—are honored during pregnancy, childbirth, and throughout her life. If you are looking for a way to get started, I invite you to take a look at our resources for how to get your congregation involved in the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project.
Birth is sacred. Let’s make sure it’s treated that way.
This was originally posted on the United Methodist Church’s Healthy Families, Healthy Planet website. Reprinted with permission from the author.
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. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with her husband Matt and their daughter Samantha.
by Jamie Mabe
We begin with so much inexperience; this inexperience is the necessary cornerstone to the hubris that is required to begin the journey of motherhood in the first place. We have no idea what we’re in for. We want to have a child, a baby, a family. What seems like a simple act; starting a family, is actually the first step of the epic journey that we didn’t really know we were starting on. It is leaving home forever, unknowingly.
We “prepare” for our journey with planning, purchasing, and “nesting”. We do all that we can to “see” what our journey will be like, but like a bad vacation, our well-laid plans are often ruined. We didn’t foresee that the journey would include death of self. If we knew that ahead of time maybe we would never have undertaken the journey in the first place, or we would try to outsmart the death and in turn create a monster.
We think we are brave but we’re not; you can’t be brave unless you’re scared first, and when we start on this parenting journey, we often don’t know enough to be scared properly. We walk out the door with our chin up and chest proud and immediately we are stripped of sword, pack, comforts and map. When the labor pains start our journey into the shadow of death begins. We descend to Hades, we leave our bodies. When the baby is born and our soul comes back it has been irrevocably changed. That is the first death of the many deaths that are necessary to be a mother. We learn that we will have to love with all our heart someone who will never be in our control. Great love and death are the same; they kill our ego.
When we get baby home, where we NOW feel so in control, we try to regain our footing, try to be the woman we used to be. But this is where we begin to realize that we are not the same person as the one who left for the hospital. The “heroine” has returned home but home has changed forever. Home is no longer comfortable. We keep trying to “put new wine into old wineskins”, and it doesn’t work. Our relationship with our partner has changed. Our relationship with our self has changed. Our new soul, reworked by the death of who we once were, now inhabits our bodies, and belief, faith, habits, thoughts, and actions of old are (in most cases) no longer useful and productive. Our selves are re-created like quilts, throwing out the old ripped cloth, patching it with new cloth, and becoming something altogether new.
It is necessary to let go of more of our ego, that is, our own exaggerated sense of self importance and control. This is not to be confused with selflessness, or having no concern for oneself. You should have an even greater concern for yourself. Remember, this baby thinks that you and s/he are the same creature, and in so many ways you still are. Putting yourself first means putting you both first- prioritizing health (mental, physical, emotional, relationship) is crucial in this new-found symbiotic relationship. Putting aside your control, however, is something new. You love this child as much as yourself – but you are not in control. Releasing this control (or ego) helps you become the new wineskin that can hold the new wine.
To let go, release, and re-make, we start out on another epic journey. This new journey is a little easier because now we have seasoned faith. We know that the outcome is unknown and out of our hands. We know that we have to rely on something that is not us. We have one of the key elements of faith, vulnerability, and it helps the next death not hurt so much. In fact, now that we realize that these personal deaths (or releases of control) are for our betterment, we welcome it. Our faith wrested from us the control that was never ours in the first place. We are now brave, because we are scared but we carry on anyway.
As mothers we are the shepherds, the ones covered in sheep poop, standing up to the wolves, taking care of the flock. Unfortunately, this holy work often comes without gratitude or rank. It’s not a sexy job. When we come back from our epic journey we aren’t put on the crowd’s shoulders and carried through the center of town. We come back and are celebrated in the smallest and most significantly insignificant ways: our partners are happier, our babies are comforted, we experience our selves as re-made. Our faith is seasoned, tested, transformed.
Jamie Mabe is a mother of two boys and lives in the triangle area of North Carolina.
By Claire Bischoff
Recently, it was President’s Day, one of those horrible Monday holidays that schools have off and corporate America does not, meaning I would be STUCK at home with my three kids while my husband went to work. I use the verb STUCK intentionally here; the weekend before all I could imagine was an endless day of interrupting sibling squabbles, refusing their requests for screen time, and trying to suppress my frustration when they whine, “There’s nothing to do. I am so bored!”
My first strategy to deal with this impending doom’s day was to make plans with another family and to get out of the house. When that option did not pan out, I decided to orchestrate an at-home Winter Wonderland Day, complete with an art project, an indoor “snowball”/sock ball fight, and a special lunch that my four-year had enthusiastically picked out of the kids’ cookbook he got for Christmas. As I puttered about on Sunday night, gathering the items we would need the next day, visions of sugar plums danced in my head, or rather, visions of my three angelic children and a completely calm and composed me spending a magical day together, laughing and cuddling, creating and cooking, making memories that would last a lifetime.
Do I even need to write the next paragraph? When my six month old daughter went down for her morning nap, I announced it was art project time. Groaning, my four and six year old sons said that they wanted to play “Run and Tackle” instead, a game they had just invented which involved one of them standing by a couch and the other one running at him and tackling him onto the couch. “Okay,” I thought calmly to myself as I put away all of art supplies that were supposed to turn into adorable doily snowmen, “At least they created their own game and are playing nicely together.”
When their sister woke up from her nap, the boys asked if we could have the snowball/sock ball fight. As it turned out, we spent more time gathering and balling white socks than we did actually throwing them at each other. (Although all four of us were all smiles for the roughly two minutes and eighteen seconds the fight lasted.) “We’re getting hungry,” the older one said. “Time to make my special lunch,” the younger one chimed in. “Okay,” I thought, a little less calmly to myself, “At least they are excited to do some cooking, even if it is only 10:30 in the morning.”
In the kitchen things really unraveled. My daughter, who is usually content to sit on the floor while I cook, sucking on an ice cream scoop and dumping spoons out of a mixing bowl, started to cry anytime I tried to set her down. She attached herself to my hip, leading me to employ the ever-tricky, making lunch with one hand maneuver. And the boys could not be much help; the only part of the recipe my son had picked out that was safe for them was spreading Nutella on crackers. The low point came when I was yelling at the boys to quit wiping Nutella on each other, trying to sush their crying sister, and crying myself because I had just spilled the soup I had made all over while trying to pour it from the heavy soup pot into a blender with one hand. When we finally got to the table, the crackers with Nutella were a hit, but the boys spit the soup out on their first bite, and I honestly could barely eat it myself. It tasted like I had just dumped tomato sauce into our bowls, and it took me all of my daughter’s afternoon nap to clean up the mess we had made trying to make incredible memories.
As I wiped spilled soup off the counter, the work of Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came to mind, which admittedly is not the usual place my mind goes when I am cleaning. While I have forgotten most of what I worked so hard to know about Rahner for my comprehensive exams in my PhD program, there is one line of his that sticks with me to this day and that seemed particularly apropos not only to my President’s Day morning but also to my experience of parenting more generally. Rahner asserts that human beings exist between our finitude and our openness to the infinite. In other words, what makes us human is that we have limits at the same time as we strive to overcome these limits. We live in this middle ground of ambivalence, aware of our dependence and vulnerability yet always aiming to step beyond this toward the infinite horizon that is God.
In my openness to the infinite, I dreamt of a wonderful President’s Day at home with my children. In my finitude, I could not will my sons to acquiesce with my plan for the day (nor, after careful reflection, would I really want to!). In my openness to the infinite, I strove to balance the needs and desires of the various members of our family. In my finitude, I got caught between the demands of a crying daughter, hungry sons, and my own sanity.
As I loaded the dishwasher that afternoon, I realized that I have gotten in trouble in the past when I have let go of one end of this tension. When I have quit reaching beyond myself in parenting because of a fear that my visions will not be realized or because I was simply too tired and sad to dream, I resign myself to existing only in the mind-numbing, soul-squelching monotony that parenting can be. Yet when I ignore the mind-numbing, soul-squelching aspects of parenting in favor of presenting a vision of our family life that speaks of “success” and “being all put together,” I silence an important aspect of the truth of my existence and make it impossible to connect with others in the human vulnerability that we share.
That evening when I finally got my sons tucked into bed, we proceeded with our usual routine of sharing our “ups and downs” from the day. Without hesitation, my four year old replied, “My first up was getting to have an indoor snowball fight, and my second up was having an awesome lunch!” Bless his heart! As he thought back on the day, it was not the limits that he remembered but rather the joy and wonder and fun. It was an important reminder to me that lasting memories are not made in some magical Neverland but instead are forged in that human place we cannot escape between our finitude and our openness to the infinite.
by Annie Hardison-Moody
For a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking this week about hope. Key among those reasons is a piece that Monica Coleman posted on her beautiful mind blog, Ordinary Saints. There, she writes about pregnancy loss and the trenches of grief that often surround us when we try to find hope or joy or life in the midst of loss. It’s difficult (and feels, at times, impossible) to see life where you only know death. But, she writes, there are saints among us who show us that hope is possible, even when we can’t find it.
With my colleague, Dara Bloom, I’m working on a project with the women’s committee at the Islamic Association of Raleigh (IAR). Maryam Funmilayo, a gifted and passionate nutrition educator, has been holding classes with immigrant and refugee women there through our Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More program (which I direct), to connect spiritual and physical health in an effort to help faith communities have access to healthier foods and physical activity. Through that project, we learned that the women at the IAR wanted greater access to fruits and vegetables that they grew or ate in their home countries. We started out with Maryam offering tours at the local farmer’s market, but the project has evolved into working on a community and school garden, and doing some container garden workshops so that women can grow food from their home countries here in the U.S. Dara and I have loved working with this group of women – when we show up on a Friday night for a meeting, the room is always filled with smiles, good food, hugs, and such care and concern for us. The project has been a model, for me, of what academic and community partnerships should look like.
So you can imagine how we felt when we learned that the three students who were killed in Chapel Hill this week were members at the IAR, and they grew up going to the Al-Iman school, where we are working with Cooperative Extension to revitalize the garden. The funeral was yesterday. It was across the street from the school, the site where soon we hope to watch the garden come alive again.
Yesterday at the service, Monica’s post kept coming back to me. Her words echoed as I saw them carry the three coffins away: “I want my babies back.”
I feel like all I write about on this blog is loss. But it is so hard to talk about, and so I write, hoping that in doing so I can better understand grief. But it’s incomprehensible. I try to imagine what might be going through the minds of the parents of these young people – Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. I hear Monica’s words again: “I want my babies back.”
The father of the two women who died, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, spoke at the funeral, encouraging all of us who were there to learn about Deah, Yusor, and Razan. He urged us to learn about the example that they set for others in the world – the way they cared for their communities, the way they honored God with their works.
The hope they had for a better world, where does (did) it go?
Their former teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, spoke to NPR this week, to follow-up on the beautiful Story Corps piece she recorded with Yusor in 2014. In it, Jabeen recalls their bright smiles, their caring hearts, and the hope that Yusor had for a world where we could show love instead of hate:
Jabeen remembers when Deah was growing up, he was getting so tall that he started to outgrow her.
“And because I’m a short person, he would stand behind me and put his hand over my head,” she said. “And I just told him, ‘Deah, you can never outgrow my heart.’ “
“You can never outgrow my heart.” Is that hope? If so, it’s still here, even if we can’t feel it right now.
One of the reasons that Annie, Claire, and I have embarked on this long journey of compiling an edited volume and launching this blog is that we see the everyday experiences of mothers as a valid, rich, significant, and potentially transformative source for theological scholarship. Yesterday marked the release of my first book, The Power and Vulnerability of Love: A Theological Anthropology, which is driven by this same conviction. In the book, I mine a diversity of maternal experiences in order to think in fresh ways about the human condition, the problem of violence, and the resources available for resilience and resistance that are located deep in the mother lode of the Christian tradition. It turns out that women’s experiences of maternity and natality, which have traditionally been marginalized in theology and spirituality, can help us to approach the human “problem” with greater clarity, deeper insight, and ever more expansive compassion.
Here are some things that some theologians that I admire greatly have said about the book. I share their comments with you only in the hopes that they will convince you to do me the honor of reading the book! My further hope is that a dialogue will ensue about its contents, so please let me know what you think!
“With this book, an important new theological voice challenges us to reconceive suffering and redemption through the lens of maternal vulnerability and resilience. Combining insights from liberation and contemplative theology, Gandolfo is relentless in her attention to the hidden corners of human pain and perhaps even more relentless in her witness to divine compassion. This is an important text for feminists and systematic theologians, as well as for Christians thirsty for hope that emerges from the depths of anguish.” Wendy Farley, Emory University
“It’s so refreshing to read a work that takes vulnerability so seriously. Our challenge is not sin but vulnerability. This changes everything (to see how, you need to read the book). Most impressively, Gandolfo could not know what she knows without direct encounter with mothering, including other mothers’ narratives and practices. I love how she weaves maternal knowledge and Christian sources into a conceptually rich portrait of what it means to be human.” Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Vanderbilt University
“As various scholars in the humanities increasingly name the temptation to deny our vulnerability as the source of so many of the problems facing our world, Gandolfo offers a heart-achingly stunning theological exploration of maternal experiences in a way that illuminates our human capability for the life-giving vulnerability that we so desperately fear and that our world so desperately needs. Since she plumbs the depths of suffering revealed in contexts of intimate relationships and practices of care in order to name sources of and resistance to violence, this is a must-read for constructive, feminist, political, and liberation theologians.” Maureen O’Connell, La Salle University
by Pamela J. Pettyjohn
It is after 1am in the morning. I’m writing this as I sit on the balcony of my oceanfront hotel, listening to the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach, a sound I don’t think I will ever tire of hearing. We are at a family reunion and blessed by the generosity of a family member, who makes such opportunities a reality for our family.
My husband has been asleep for over an hour at least. My son, staying in another room with cousins, is hopefully asleep, but I do not know. This not knowing is good practice for me, as he will soon be heading off to college and I often will not know where he is or what he is doing. And it is okay; I do not need to know. When I was younger, I always “had to know” – uncertainty, ambiguity, and being in limbo were to be avoided whenever possible. But I’ve had a lot of experience of not knowing in the last few years, as we’ve navigated multiple moves and job uncertainties, along with the need to provide a stable life for our son. I’ve had to surrender the illusion that I ever really knew as much as I thought I did. I’ve learned that sometimes all I can do is to throw myself into the arms of God, and picture myself cradled in the peace of Christ, where I can find rest. That is all. In that place, resting in the peace of my Savior, I can live with not knowing, and tonight I am reminded of that.
I am currently in the early years of a new career, serving as a minister. I think that all “working parents” face the tension between family and job; certainly women ministers, whose qualifications to follow our calling are still questioned by some, often hold ourselves to unreasonable expectations in both our ministerial and family arenas. The day we left for this family reunion, just a little over two days ago, I got a call about a near tragedy – a life hanging in the balance, with no way to know which way it would go…. Others went to the hospital and have kept me updated, and there is nothing I could or can do but wait… wait for each scrap of new information. Initially totally stunned by this bad news, I felt numb, and all I could do was pray, God of Mercy, hear my prayer when I do not even know what to pray.
I want to be at the hospital, keeping vigil, and yet I am all these miles away, and, truth be told, I want to be here too with my family. While I physically relax and re-connect with family members, some of whom I only see once a year, while I laugh, play games, swap funny stories, drink wine, eat food, and have meaningful conversations, I am also waiting. I wonder. I rehearse possible outcomes. And I acknowledge more and more that I just do not know. Tonight, I accept that I do not need to know. Somehow, I am able to manage these two parts of my life, the ordinary person-wife-mother-daughter-sister-aunt part, and the minister part, which both co-exist inside of me all of the time. Somehow, I let go of the ache from the impossibility of being in two places at once. I am able to let go of needing to know if this dear one will pull through, and if so, what the future holds for her. I can let go – again – of wondering what my own future holds, professionally and personally.
I am grateful for this opportunity to be in this place, recharging my internal batteries, even if I do not fully understand how or why it is so nourishing. I can listen to this ocean, this pulse of the globe that we call earth, and I can know that One bigger and greater than me is working to make all things new. And that is all I need to know for now. Tonight, knowing that is enough.
Pamela Pettyjohn is a licensed minister and certified teacher with an M.Ed. in Elementary Education from the University of South Carolina. She currently serves as an Associate Minister for Children and Families in Louisville, KY, while also working towards an M.Div. at Lexington Theological Seminary.
We here at Mothering Matters are coming back from a summer hiatus. Wait, that’s not the right word. A hiatus would imply that we’ve been hanging out, reading magazines, going on vacation. What we’ve really been up to is the business (or busy-ness) of motherhood. We are sorry for our time away, but we are very excited to get back to this blog and community, which continues to grow each day. Thank you for joining us.
Since this is your blog too, we want to hear from you. What do you hope to get out of this site? What do you want to hear more about? Who are the writers/moms/scholars/ministers on your Mothering Matters wish list? We want to reach out to others in the religion/theology/ministry worlds (and beyond!) to write for the blog – so who are your dream contributors? What would you like to hear them explore on the pages here?
If you are interested in writing for the blog, please send us some information about yourself and what you’d like to write about. You can learn more about how to contribute, and what we are looking for, here.
So thanks for visiting our blog and joining this community. We hope you continue to send us messages via Facebook or Twitter (@MotheringMatter), or you can feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are excited to continue this conversation about mothering, theology & religious practices with you.
Until next week,
Annie, Claire & Liz