by Claire Bischoff
Toward the end of February, as a treat for my children and myself for enduring a particularly long and harsh Minnesota winter, we went to an indoor community pool that has a wonderful zero-entry children’s wading pool complete with water slides and a spitting turtle fountain. Despite being five months pregnant, I decided that I would don my bathing suit so that I could wade in the water with my sons. As we were changing in the locker room, my three-year old pointed to my bulging hip and asked, “Mom, what is that bump?” In the split second that followed, options for responding flashed in my brain. I wished I were the sort of person who could gush on and on about how wonderful the human body is and the many ways that it changes to support the growing baby inside. But I am on a recovery journey from an eating disorder (and also a woman in our society), so part of me just wanted to yell, “Mom is fat!” In the moment, I settled for some middle ground, giving a tepid, “My body’s changing because of the baby,” before rushing us out of the locker room and onto the pool deck.
Not long after this, I attended the Ash Wednesday service at my son’s Catholic elementary school. The presiding priest opened mass by asking, “Who thinks that Lent is about giving something up?” A majority of the children, as well as a good portion of the teachers and parents present, raised their hands. The priest went on to say that Lent is not really about giving something up, but rather is about giving ourselves over to God. Giving something up usually only lasts for the six weeks of Lent, he told us, after which we tend to go back to our regular patterns or habits. In contrast, when we focus on giving ourselves over to God, we take steps on our spiritual journeys that stay with us for a lifetime.
As I reflected on what the priest had said throughout the mass, it slowly dawned on me that I had been misusing the Lenten practice of abstinence for years. When I gave up candy or chocolate, it was not about giving myself over to God. It about turning this abstinence into a religiously-swaddled stick I could use to beat myself into losing ten pounds or finally getting back to my pre-baby weight. Other years, I gave up television, not in order to spend more time focusing on my spiritual life, but so that I could prove to myself that I could do it. No matter what it was that I gave up, I simply willed myself to get through the six weeks. I gutted it out and then held up my accomplishment to God, internally saying to God, “Look at what I have accomplished on my own. Look what I did to be worthy of your love.” And then having crossed the finish line at Easter, exhausted by the will power it took to abstain for six weeks, I would promptly binge on Easter candy or the next season of The Wire (carefully requested from the library at the right time so as to be in my possession at Easter).
As I was rising to go forward to take communion, I decided that I still wanted to give something up for Lent (old Catholic habits die hard!), but to choose something of a different order and to do it in different way so that it would contribute to my spiritual growth. I wanted to give up hating my body and to ask God to help me to do so.
In her wonderful book The Dance of the Spirit, feminist Catholic educator Maria Harris writes about how the spiritual journeys of women begin with the step of Awakening, and that Awakening often takes the form of awakening our senses and coming home to our bodies. Thinking back to the locker room interaction with my son, I could see how I needed to come home to my body in a radical way if I was ever to be able to continue on a spiritual journey that resulted in giving myself over to God. Treating my body as a project constantly in need of work and viewing my happiness as always ten lost pounds away has been a great detriment to my spiritual life. But to correct this distorted way of relating to my body, I needed a spiritual practice that did not demand a further disconnect from my body. Further, in all practicality, as a busy pregnant mother of two young children, who also works part-time outside the home, I needed a spiritual practice that could arise from and fit into my everyday life, not something that took me away from the commitments I already have.
The first practice I thought of has been surprisingly easy: I gave up getting on the scale each day. I boxed it up and put it in the attic; I ask for blind weigh-ins at my prenatal appointments; and I save myself the mental and emotional energy drain that my daily weigh in had become. It has been immensely freeing not to measure the success of my day (or myself or my life) by a number on the scale.
The second practice that seemed crucial, of accepting my body as it is in order to come home to it, has taken a bit more work. The morning after Ash Wednesday, I stood naked in front of the mirror, and I tried to pray that God would help me accept my body as beautiful, as made by God just for me. But I was so overwhelmed that tears started to fall as I backed away from the mirror and retreated to the shower where I could at least avoid looking at myself. Fortunately, a wise friend told me that trying to start with my whole body was like trying to teach someone to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool and hoping they would not drown. She suggested I start with just one small part of my body, one small part for which I had at least neutral, if not positive, feelings.
So the next morning, in the shower, I took time to carefully look at and gently touch my forearms, praying that I would be able to accept them as they are. And this seemingly simple practice, done during my favorite quiet time away from the kids each morning, is already starting to work its wonders on me. After years of being starved for positive attention, I can feel the thankfulness in my arms at finally being noticed and cared for, and I hear other parts of my body calling out to be let in on the action. In these first few weeks of Lent, I have been able to add my upper arms and my hands to my daily shower practice of coming home to my body. These hands, which I once thought of only as the holders of ugly, stubby fingers, are the hands that God gave me. These acceptable-as-they-are hands are the ones I use to write this reflection, and they are connected to the acceptable-as-they-are arms which enable me to embrace the world and myself.
by Claire Bischoff
In the middle of the coldest January most Minnesotans can remember, our family spent the late afternoon and evening at a large indoor amusement park (things that are usually outdoors, like playgrounds and amusement parks, get built indoors in Minnesota so that we can use them for more than two months a year). Since I am pregnant, I did not pay for the wrist band that would let me accompany my family on the rides. I contented myself watching them and reading a good book when the lines were long.
At one point, my husband and older son ventured off to go on the scary rides, while I chaperoned my younger son. As it turns out, a grown up can ride for free with a child when that child is not yet tall enough to experience the ride alone. So I went on the carousel with my younger son before he pulled me into the queue for Swiper’s Sweeper. I had been on the ride the year before and remembered it as being fairly harmless. As we waited our turn, my son pointed at the sign advertising the risks for the ride, saying, “Look, mom, no babies.” Indeed, the sign had an image of pregnant woman with a big line through her growing belly. I considered telling my son he would have to wait to go on the ride until we found dad and his big brother, but then I thought of all the times he has to wait or has not gotten to do what he really wants to do because he is the second child. So we went on the ride. He loved it; I spent the whole time trying to brace my body with arms and legs so that my midsection would remain motionless.
Fast forward to midnight. I had been in bed for two hours and could not sleep. I was in the middle of an anxiety spiral, sparked by the thought that I had done irreparable harm to the baby growing inside me by going on that one amusement park ride. I could not shake an image of the fetus’s neck being broken by the centrifugal force of the ride. Then I started cataloging everything else I had done in the first fourteen weeks of my pregnancy that could have negative repercussions. I had fallen hard on my backside at least a dozen times when we had gone cross country skiing the week before. I had eaten cold roast beef on a handful of occasions simply because I love a good roast beef sandwich. I had not taken my prenatal vitamins and DHA supplement for a number of weeks in the first trimester because my nausea was so bad I could not bear to swallow them. Underneath all of this cataloging was a heap of guilt and shame that I had not always done the absolute best thing for this baby. How could I be so selfish as to eat roast beef? How could I be so careless as to go cross country skiing?
In the more rational light of morning, I started to interrogate my anxiety using a question I ask my students to use when doing cultural analysis: What human hands are work here, how, and why? Certainly, the consumer economy benefits from the anxiety of mothers. We are encouraged to buy a slew of products to safety-proof our homes and to enroll our children in activities starting just after birth to insure their well-rounded development (the newest trend: baby DJ classes). Toys increasingly are marketed to more and more defined age groups, so that every six months we find ourselves wondering, “Are these blocks made for a one-year-old challenging my eighteen-month-old enough? Might was well recycle the Harvard application.”
Mothers’ anxiety also can trap us in an individualism that allows us to focus on the well-being of our own children while ignoring broader issues that affect the well-being of all children. (This dynamic is similar to what Elizabeth Gandolfo wrote about in her post “D-E-A-D Is A Four Letter Word.) We are so sapped of energy from worrying about our children that we do not have energy left to organize and campaign to insure that all mothers have access to proper nutrition, clean air and water, and adequate prenatal health care. In the end, our anxiety is a force for separation, since it is born from a sense of scarcity and impending danger that drives us to get what we can for ourselves and our families, often at the expense of what others need.
So how can mothers break out of the anxiety spiral and its inward focus? There are two things that have tended to help me. First, I try to talk about my anxieties with others. Knowing that I am not the only one who feels guilty for feeling relieved that I have not signed my son up for a spring sport or that I am not the only one who spent an entire pregnancy feeling that I was one bad burrito away from disaster can help loosen anxiety’s hold. When we come together, rather than keeping ourselves apart, we may find out that what was not imaginable alone suddenly becomes possible in cooperation.
Second, I try to pray. By invoking a greater power in the universe, prayer reminds me that I am only human and in control of very little that affects my family and me. Far from increasing my anxiety, this frees me to attend to that which I can control and to let go of worry about that which is beyond my influence. This feels like grace.
We would love to hear your comments about factors you see contributing to an increase in mothers’ anxiety and what you have done to help loosen anxiety’s hold in your own life. Please don’t hesitate to comment (either here, on Facebook or via Twitter @MotheringMatter).