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.
by Annie Hardison-Moody
Recently, I was reading Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s post at Feminist Studies in Religion, titled Writing and the Community that Sustains Me. It’s a lovely post about the ways that we don’t write on an island – there’s a network of people (friends, relatives, colleagues) who support us when times are good (hey! I wrote something today!) and when they are hard (when we struggle to write or work through loss, death, or hardship). I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my own community and the people who sustain me through the good times and bad.
I wrote a post on another blog last year about the friends who have seen you during what I call the “mom cry.” It’s that cry that happens when you think you can hold everything together – and you do – until you see that person (as a child, often your mom) with whom you can just let it all out. I don’t cry around people a lot, but my good friends and my family have seen my “mom cry.” They have held me when my heart was breaking over a miscarriage. They have listened as I ranted angrily (crying through it) about the unfairness of infertility and loss. They are the women who meet me when I’m at my wit’s end, my breaking point, when I just can’t hold it together any longer.
Recently, my friends have been going through some hard times. They are dealing with losses related to adoption (potential revocation of an adoption), losing a child during child-birth, dealing with a parents’ life-threatening cancer diagnosis, anguish over shootings at a naval yard where a spouse works, and the list goes on. They have been forced to confront our vulnerability as human beings head-on. We live. We love. We also lose.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few months with some of these friends, grieving with them, being angry with them, and also (sometimes) hoping with them. That’s what it means to be in relationship. You take and you give – knowing that the next time, you might be on the opposite end of the spectrum, needing support or needing to give it. That’s the wonderful thing about community, right? It’s that net that is there to catch you when you fear you might fall. And it’s that support that is there for you if and when (God forbid) you end up falling anyway.
I don’t have any novel theological insights about community and motherhood and loss to report…but over the last few weeks and months, being there for my friends, and also coming to know this little life that’s growing inside me, I’ve come to the harsh realization that we are remarkably vulnerable creatures. Torn apart by each other. Torn apart through loss. And yet, it seems to me, that this vulnerability is what reminds us of how much we need each other, and it demonstrates to us (in such stark ways) just how wonderful – and tragic – it is to love. When we are broken down, it’s that same love – found in relationship, in community – that can bring us back together.
I’ve spent most of the last three and a half years waiting.
Waiting for a cycle to start, waiting for test results, waiting for blood work, waiting for an ultrasound, waiting for a miscarriage, waiting for our home study to be approved, waiting for an adoption, waiting for a baby.
During the waiting period, I’ve been excited, frustrated, hopeful, scared, angry, depressed, and exhausted. We’ve tried many coping mechanisms to deal with the wait, including enjoying our lives as they are now (along with friends and family, we bought a boat!), going on vacation, talking with supportive friends and family, praying, grieving, spending time with kids, spending time away from kids, holing up in our house, going out and having fun…and the list goes on.
I’m part of an adoption support group on Facebook, and lately we’ve been talking about how we cope with the wait during the holidays. Some of us have to bite our tongues at family dinners, when family members ask us when we will finally have a family of our own. Some of us take vacations so that we don’t have to see the little ones at family gatherings, who are a reminder of the one thing we want more than anything else in the world. Some of us smile and laugh, then go home and cry because it’s one more year without a baby. Some of us have a glass of wine, to take the edge off. Some of us who are Christian have trouble feeling hopeful during Christmas-time, because we are too sad, frustrated, or tired. And some of us can’t listen to the Christmas carols and songs and sermons and prayers announcing the birth of a baby…
Advent is a season of waiting and anticipation. During this time, Christians await the coming of a baby who will bring peace, love and hope to a world that desperately needs it. We spend the four weeks before Christmas preparing for this miraculous birth, but for those of us who are waiting and hoping for a child, this season of waiting and anticipation can be so hard. We struggle to hope, because it has not been an easy thing to find in our own lives.
I realize that this post is a sad one, during what is usually such a beautiful, joyous time. And it can be joyous – even for those of us who are struggling as we wait to become parents. I for one, feel a little more hopeful when my family and friends acknowledge that this time might be hard for my spouse and me. They give us permission to be sad as we need to during the happy times. They let us duck out on events that we probably “should” attend. What also helps is when our church family provides space for grief and sadness during Advent. Each year, we have a service of grief and remembrance, for those of us who need a place where we can let down our facade, for just a minute, in the presence of God and community. These gestures of care and community mean so much. They allow us to see and feel the love and care that surrounds us, even in the hard times.
Not everyone will be comforted by the same things, so if you know someone who might be struggling with hope during this Advent season, consider asking how you can provide some support or what they might need. And for those of you who, like me, are waiting to become parents or grieving the loss of a child or pregnancy – be gentle with yourself. Take time to grieve. And try to find joy and hope where you can. As you find ways to experience hope and joy during the season, or ways to cope during this waiting period, please share them with me here or on our Facebook page.
I hope that we are all able to find peace, hope, love and joy during this Advent season.
by Annie Hardison-Moody
One of the things I’ll be writing about for this blog is something that I have experienced – pregnancy loss or miscarriage. Although it’s not something that we talk or write about very often, miscarriage is unfortunately common. The Mayo Clinic estimates that 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage. Although many women experience pregnancy loss, we don’t do a very good job of talking with them about it or understanding the grief that women and families face when they lose a pregnancy and all of the hopes and expectations that are lost with it. My journey to motherhood has included a series of early losses – seven in all – none of which have been explained.
I’ll be writing a lot more about my experiences of loss, grief & re-claimed hope in the future, but for now wanted to point to an article I found helpful from Huffington Post Parents, titled 5 Ways to Revolutionize How We Think About Pregnancy Loss by Jessica Zucker. I particularly liked this third point:
3. Honor Uniqueness. Even if your sister, best friend, colleague and/or neighbor had a miscarriage too, trauma reverberates, hibernates and maybe even evaporates differently for everyone. Rather than comparing and contrasting stories and possibly projecting our own experience elsewhere, we might simply ask how she is feeling and inquire about what her emotional temperature is at any given moment. Checking in again, even months after the trauma, might be the very thing she was yearning for. Every day is different and grief knows no timeline. It might be tempting to compare, by minimizing or magnifying, the pain of a loss at six weeks versus 20 weeks, but why go there? Loss is excruciating, no matter how far along we are in days/weeks/months. “Well, at least you were only six weeks. You can always try again in a few months,” doesn’t necessarily help assuage the sadness, the numbness or the fear of the future.
The article ends with a reminder to acknowledge the courage of women and men who have endured losses – whether they choose to “try” again or choose to pursue different paths. As Dr. Zucker relates in this piece, “It takes a certain kind of self-understanding to know when to stop, to understand our limits and to honor them.” Honoring the uniqueness and courage that accompanies loss is an important step in supporting women and families who have experienced pregnancy loss.
My experiences of grief and depression were at times minimized by those around me, who encouraged me to “be positive” and try to “move on” from the situation. These comments – while well intentioned – were at times very hurtful. I already felt like my body was failing me, and the injunction to keep moving, keep going, keep “trying,” despite all of this, and the extreme difficulty I faced in doing so, felt like another way that I was just letting everyone down. I had good days and bad days. There were times when I just couldn’t see a hopeful future, because I was so entrenched in my grief. So the advice we heard from others to think about all of all the “blessings” we had in our lives became another painful reminder of the one “blessing” we kept being denied.
Grief can be an extremely isolating experience, but I’m grateful for the brave souls who walked it along with us. Some of those folks were friends or family members, who just listened as I cried and questioned. That we expected (or hoped for, really). But we were surprised by the care we felt from others, like our extremely kind reproductive endocrinologists, who called and checked on us personally after each loss, and whose first question when we sat down in the office was always, “How are you doing today?” Those people who honored the uniqueness of each day, of each moment, during the years of loss we faced were often what helped me to “go on,” even on days when I felt like I couldn’t hold it together.
Living with loss is difficult, but there are ways we can make that journey a bit easier – and a first step is by acknowledging the uniqueness of loss and honoring the women and men who endure it as they endeavor to become parents.