contemplation

Courage and Faith: A Motherhood Journey

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by Jamie Mabe
file5581302923593We 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.

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Finding My Center in Community

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By Katey Zeh

file000441757195When my prenatal yoga teacher instructed our class to hold each other’s hands for a series of group poses, I felt my stomach drop a little. And no, it wasn’t pregnancy related.

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.  

Countering Consumerism

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by Elizabeth Gandolfo

Consumerism has been a topic of great concern in my teaching, research and parenting practices over the course of the Fall, and especially now that the Christmas shopping season is upon us.  (I actually had to tear myself away from shopping on Amazon to write this post!)  I am currently teaching a course on Religion and the Environment, which culminates this week with an exploration of religious resources for subverting the culture of overconsumption that is destroying not only the planet, but also human bodies and spirits.   This culture, which has been manufactured to meet the profit motives of market capitalism, consumes its subjects with dissatisfaction, anxiety, and insatiable desire.  It cannibalizes the lives of other human beings who pay the price (in low wages, poor working conditions, environmental injustice, etc.) for privileged communities’ access to cheap and convenient consumer goods.  And it devours the planetary ecosystems and atmospheric conditions on which our lives and well-being depend.  In her most recent book, Blessed Are the Consumers, Sallie McFague argues that “we are living in la-la land, a place that has no relationship to the finitude of our actual home, planet earth.  We are living beyond our means, both financially and ecologically.  We are consuming with an insatiable, and unsustainable, appetite” (18).  If we are to face this reality honestly and create a world in which other human beings and the planet as a whole can survive and thrive, posits McFague, then we the relentless over-consumers of the Global North must practice restraint in our personal and public consumptive practices and learn to share the world’s limited resources fairly.  It is in this process of kenosis, or compassionate self-emptying, that we might overcome the dissatisfaction and anxiety of consumer culture and find true self-fulfillment.  As a Christian theologian with liberationist, feminist, and ecological commitments to justice and sustainability, I couldn’t agree with McFague more.  As a suburban, middle-class mother of three young children, I am struggling with how to incorporate the practice of consumer kenosis into my family’s everyday life.

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Over the past half-century or so, middle-class parents in the United States have become excessively anxious about the health, safety, comfort, and future academic, social and professional success of our offspring.  In an attempt to protect, enrich, and entertain our children, we implicate ourselves in whole markets of vastly unjust and unnecessary systems of production and consumption that exploit other human beings and contribute to ecological destruction.  Most middle-class parents like myself are a long way from even imagining a world in which the material comfort and entertainment of our own children are relativized, let alone sacrificed, for the sake of children across the world and the health of the planet as a whole.  Parenting, it turns out, poses a unique and troubling obstacle to the kenosis of consumer culture.

I have found that my gendered role as a mother also plays into this challenge in very unsettling ways.  Since I have made the choice to stay at home to care for my young children, I am responsible for acquiring, organizing, storing, cleaning up, throwing out and giving away most of the consumer goods that enter our household.  When I first became pregnant, I found it surprisingly easy to get sucked into the massive and manipulative marketplace of baby registries, birthing balls, bella bands, nursing nightgowns, and parenting books.  After the birth of our first child, my husband and I began to accumulate (by choice and by chance, and mostly under my maternal direction) inordinate amounts of ‘stuff’: baby equipment, clothing, stuffed animals, toys, books, DVDs, arts and craft supplies, play dough, and much much more.   Even when we don’t do the shopping, it all just keeps coming as gifts, hand-me-downs, preschool-made crafts, and so on.  Rather than spending quality time with my children, I dedicate precious hours of each day to the frustrating and spiritually deadening task of maintaining all of their stuff.  When and how will it end!?

My acute academic awareness of social location tells me that I should tag this post #firstworldproblems.  Obviously my life is not threatened by the mountains of consumer goods that overcrowd our home.  But this is part of the whole point—however exhausting and spiritually deadening I find it to keep up with my family’s consumer lifestyle, it is not my well-being or that of my family that is most urgently at stake here.  Rather, it is the life of the planet and the well-being of human communities all over the world that suffer the adverse economic, social, cultural and ecological effects of our culture’s chronic problem with “affluenza.”

As Christmas approaches, I am finding it immensely difficult to restrain (and re-train) my consumer desires vis-à-vis my children.  I know what I should do—I  should go delete all (or at least most!) of the items I just placed in my Amazon shopping cart in the 15 minutes prior to writing this post.  I should spend time studying and implementing some of the counter-consumerist resources offered through organizations like Center for a New American Dream (which sponsors a “Simplify the Holidays” page) and Advent Conspiracy.  I should take the time to purge my household of at least half of our stuff (as suggested by Kim John Payne in Simplicity Parenting).

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And, finally, I should take a spiritual step back from the frenzy and contemplate, really contemplate, what it means that the infinite power of Divine Love became human flesh in the womb of a peasant woman, was born in a cold stall in the occupied territory of ancient Palestine, and was laid in a manger far from his parents’ home, all for the sake of compassionate solidarity with a suffering world.  I suspect that all the practical tips in the world will not help me to counter consumerism without the practical transformation that can come from this (or some other form of) liberating contemplative practice.

Do you hope to counter your own complicity in consumer culture this Christmas?  If so, what helps you to restrain your consumerist desires and how do you find the freedom to focus your time, energy, and resources on what really matters?