Maternal Identity

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.  

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Not Just An Other Mother, A Guest Post By Kate Lassiter, Ph.D.

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by Kate Lassiter

I started to feel the white hot flames coming off the top of my head as I read Abby Rosmarin’s article thanking women who choose not to have children and the comments from friends on Facebook who lauded this post for its forthrightness and thanked their own friends—me, I assume—for not having children.  Rosmarin writes, “To the women who choose not to have kids, I have one thing to say: thank you….Thank you for recognizing that childrearing isn’t for you and being true to who you are. It doesn’t mean you hate kids. It just means that raising one is not part of your path in life.”

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While the sentiment came from a place of gratitude on Rosmarin’s part, the academic in me wanted to cite the numerous reasons that many women do not have children, whether their own or adopted. I wanted to ask why the conversation centered only on women having children and not larger social issues of equity between partners, or support of single women having children.  Most of all, I wanted Rosmarin to carefully define how she understands the word ‘choose.’

I have never been pregnant or subsequently given birth vaginally or by Caesarian, but I have been a mom.  My sister lived in South America during the time of my niece’s conception and birth.  I flew down within that first month of her birth and stayed with them for 2 months.  As they returned to the United States, they came to live with me during the year that I was finishing my dissertation and applying for teaching jobs.  From the outside, it is easy for me to see how this makes me an “other mother” in the eyes of many—or no mother at all.  But I saw myself as a mom to my niece.  I held her when she cried in the middle of the night and made decisions that were in the best interest of all of us, not just me alone.  I watched and taught how to roll onto her stomach, crawl, eat solids, play with sundry toys, and walk.

Rosmarin’s article falsely assumes that a woman without child equals choice to not raise children.  Choice, however, is a delimiting concept.  As a theologian, being true to who I am has nothing to do with whether I have chosen to have children or not.  I think here about all the abbesses—mothers—in Roman Catholicism, the tradition I know best.  Abbesses mothered small children and adult children in multiple contexts—physical, emotional, and spiritual.  Some of their children were only with them for a brief period of time; some, much longer.

For me, I became a mom for a brief and intense time during my niece’s first year of life; I continue to be part of her life in a mother-like role, as my voicemail attests when I miss a call where she announces that she’s gone “pee pee in the potty.”  Raising a child is not just childrearing and it is not always a free choice.  Like many choices that we assume to be free choice, but are actually constrained, becoming a mother is a constrained choice, and sometimes made under less than ideal conditions.  Still, constrained choices do not lack the capacity for incredible personal spiritual growth.  Perhaps we could even say that the constraint makes possible the conditions for that growth.  I may not have freely chosen to become a mom, but it changed me in a way that revealed to me more of who I am, not less.  That’s something that all theologians, ministers, and faithful people should consider when we ask a woman if she is a mom.

Dr. Lassiter is an assistant professor in Religious and Pastoral Studies at the College of Mount St. Joseph.  She graduated from Vanderbilt University with her Ph.D. in Religion and from the University of Dayton with her M.A. in Theology.  Her primary research and teaching interests lie in the critical investigation of theological practices of ministry and faith, formation of the self, and advancement of social justice with marginalized and excluded persons.