It just so happens that I have been re-reading one of my favorite parenting books in preparation for a talk I was scheduled to give at my alma mater next month. I don’t know if the talk will actually proceed as scheduled now, but the book, fortunately enough and so fresh in my mind, has so much excellent advice to parents on what and how much to share with your children about Covid-19.
The excellent book is titled Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids by Kim John Payne. He has been a school counselor, researcher, and educator, and a family counselor. In the book, he discusses how he had worked with children living in refugee camps in war-torn countries who, with little surprise, exhibited many signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After this time, he then spent some time in a school with children in London, and began to see some surprisingly familiar behaviors. Payne writes:
I had been trained to associate PTSD with very large wartime events, with life-changing traumas that leave their victims shaken in no small measure. My work over the last twenty years has taken me to many war-torn areas: Africa, Israel, and Northern Ireland, as well as to Russia and Hungary during and just after perestroika. I didn’t expect to find “War-torn” children in this relatively affluent area in England, but sure enough, that’s what I was finding. What struck me first were the similarities in the problematic behaviors adopted by these seemingly disparate groups of children. After so many instances of clinical deja vu, I couldn’t ignore my instincts. Certain of the symptoms and behaviors, I was becoming more and more convinced of the cause. And as I looked more closely at their lives, I realized that for both groups the sanctity of childhood had been breached. Adult life was flooding in unchecked. Privy to their parents’ fears, drives, ambitions, and the very fast pace of their lives, the children were busy trying to construct their own boundaries, their own level of safety in behaviors that weren’t ultimately helpful. The children were suffering form a different kind of war: the undeclared war on childhood. (8)
Payne goes on to explain that the first-world children, though never having experienced the horrors of the refugee children, nevertheless, experienced such a consistent threshold of small stresses, and rarely dissipating, that they developed a form of PTSD, that Payne coined, Cumulative Stress Reaction, or CSR for short.
The cause of CSR was too much. Children’s lives are often led at the same pace as adult life with too much information, too many possessions, too-filled schedules, and too few grounding rhythms. The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining how many families have been able to reduce or entirely alleviate their children’s behavior problems by implementing a program of simplification.
Although I recommend the whole book, the one aspect I’d like to discuss in this post is Payne’s advice to protect our children (and their childhoods) by being careful of how much information is presented to them. Payne describes how one couple was so proud of their “citizen of the world son” who was incredibly well-informed about the issue of climate change and seemed to be on his way toward becoming a little activist. Payne writes, “James’s understanding of global warming seemed to rival Al Gore’s. That much was apparent. James was also, clearly, becoming a very anxious little fellow.” (4) Payne advocates treating childhood as a sacred time to be safeguarded and protected which allows for the slow development of identity, well-being, and resiliency.
One aspect of children is that they exist so effortlessly fully immersed in the present moment. The younger the child, the more “in the moment” they are. However, not having lived life long enough, children don’t have the perspective of adulthood that comes with time. We may have learned that there are times in life that can be really challenging, but the difficulty doesn’t last forever and things can get better. Children may not know the human history of survival. They may not know of past generations surviving war, threat of starvation, plague, natural disasters, and all the other things anyone’s ancestors are sure to have experienced. For children, when the “now” is scary and uncertain, it can be so much more stressful than for an adult.
The solution then, is to protect childhood. Don’t give your kids all the information. Tell them what they really need to know. Obviously probably nearly every child in our country has been affected by the pandemic, there is a certain amount of information they need to know. Don’t lie to them, but don’t make them privy to too much information. They don’t need to hear about the coffins piling up in Italy, the numbers of people dying around the world. They don’t need minute-by-minute updates from the constantly-on news channel on how fast the virus is spreadingand if its getting ever closer and closer to you or spreading there. Tell them the necessary information, but strive to make your home a safe place, safe from Covid but also safe from the stress of too much information.
In this time when so many adults must be feeling enormous stress and many must be facing the real possibility of losing their livelihoods, protect your children from these fears and burdens until they need to become informed of them. Confide your fears, worries, and stresses in other adults, and protect your children’s childhoods. Of course children will experience some stress—it is part of life—but by safeguarding childhood from the constantly encroaching adult world, we are actually wiring them for resiliency.
Payne, Kim John. Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009)
Early in our marriage, my husband and I were dirt poor, and I’m happy to say that now we aren’t. When our circumstances changed seemingly overnight with a new job for my husband, I vowed to myself that I would always be satisfied with what we had and not strive for the ever elusive “more”. I had seen firsthand how well-off people could still perpetually want “just a bit” more than they had. The pull of more can be hard to detach from and recently I was reminded that sometimes smaller and simpler can definitely be better.
I have always felt that our house was made perfectly for our family (despite the fact that it was built a few decades before either my husband or me were born). When I was house-hunting, I wanted a house with lots of bedrooms and functional spaces. With five bedrooms and well thought-out shelving in several spaces throughout the house, my priorities were met. But, among the first-world problems that I have to deal with in my home, is the fact that that I don’t have a family room in addition to a living room. We have just the one living space, so if the kids have made a mess in it and then someone knocks on the door, our guest gets treated to our very “lived-in traditional” decor. So, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a front room that we didn’t use much and always stayed tidy for guests?
Oh, and there’s no master en-suite in this house. Can’t forget that. It has two full bathrooms: one upstairs and one on the main floor. Yes, the bathroom on our main floor is really stellar and, with its dual sinks, glass shower enclosure, and plenty of storage, it was a huge selling point. The bathroom upstairs, (the one near all the bedrooms) however, has just a little storage and one sink. Because of this, my husband and I keep all our bathroom items in the main floor bathroom and shower there typically, rather than in the bathroom that is upstairs nearer our bedroom. So, you know, sometimes I think an en-suite would be nice.
In November, however, we got some new flooring installed in our main floor. With the installation, staining, and drying that had to happen, our family couldn’t even walk on the floor for a few days and so we stayed at an AirBnb in our area during that time. The house had five bedrooms with one bedroom set up like an office, just like my house, which was important since my husband works from home and is in the office eight hours a day. The AirBnb house, however, had a nice white and beautiful living room (which I vowed I would not let the kids even look at for fear their glance would stain the host’s beautiful white furniture), and an additional family room downstairs, which would be a perfectly acceptable place for the children to hang out. It also had a master bedroom with an attached bathroom.
When we arrived, seeing the modern layout, the gleaming white spaces, the sprawling square footage, I thought, “I can see myself living here.” Just a few days later, however, I began to appreciate my house more and more. It ended up that sprawling spaces and dual everything wasn’t everything I thought it would be. Firstly, because AirBnb house had a master en-suite in addition to another first floor bath, I knew there was no reason for anyone to enter the master bath. So we ended up being much less concerned about keeping it tidy. Rather than putting our toiletries, hair dryer, and other items in the drawers and off the counter when not in use like we do at home, we kept all our stuff on the counter. So every morning and every night I was treated to a cluttery bathroom.
The same thing happened with the family room. There was no need for, say, my daughter’s math tutor to see the family room downstairs so that didn’t really need to be tidied up too much. In the end what happened was that the spaces that we used and inhabited most frequently were messy and often cluttered with our stuff. In contrast, in my own home with just one living room, and “my” bathroom being the main floor bathroom, we continually tidy to keep those rooms looking pretty presentable. The living room and the main floor bathroom are never more than a five minute tidy away from looking clean and put-together. Therefore, it ends up happening that the spaces that I myself inhabit most frequently — the space I go to when I first wake up, the last space I go before bed, and the space that my family just hangs out in — is typically fairly clean and put together. And all this means that I am calmer and happier in these spaces than if these spaces were always messy.
It’s like when we moved into our house about five years ago. I was looking forward to finally having a school room for all our homeschooling stuff. Finally, I thought, I wouldn’t have to spend half my day cleaning up the dining room table: eat a meal, clean the table, do some school work, clear the table, eat again, clean the table, do more school work, clean the table, and on and on. In our new house I would have a space designated for school projects and we could spread out and if the school stuff stayed out, it was fine. What ended up happening, however, was that with the art projects and other random stuff spread across the school room in varying stages of completeness, we rarely used the school room. It was always too messy. So we ended up using the dining room table for school stuff anyway, and every so often I would tackle what would be the monumental task of cleaning the school room. So recently, we got rid of the school room and turned it into the shared bedroom of my oldest two girls, and our designated school space is, once again, the dining room table.
Ironically, the ample square footage of AirBnb house has helped me appreciate the fact that I don’t have the “luxury” of extra living spaces that can stay messy. It means we frequently tidy and the rooms don’t get so messy that they become overwhelming to clean. I’m definitely happier when my private spaces (that a guest might also use and see) are clean and organized. I know when my own spaces are generally well-kept, I feel happier and calmer, and if an unexpected guest gets treated once in awhile to the lived-in look, well, a little humility and keepin’ it real probably does me good. Cheers to smaller, more manageable homes!
I typically don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, or if I do, I make them at the beginning of the Liturgical Year starting with Advent. The end of 2019 was full of letting go, though—lots of it—so the beginning of 2020 seemed a natural time to think about some goals for myself moving forward.
I do have a couple rules about resolutions, though:
They can’t be based in guilt! That is, they need to be things that I want to do but just haven’t made the time for or sat down to figure out exactly how I will fit those things into my life. So if I’m thinking I should do it, but I really don’t want to, I know I’m not going to end up sticking with it.
My goals should be achievable. I can’t overwhelm myself with trying to make big changes or trying to accomplish too much. I start very small. I think this mentality has helped me make a lot of lasting changes. As an example, some years ago I didn’t give myself the goal of completely overhauling EVERYTHING we ate and how we prepared it. My goal was to simply learn to make bone broth, and that was it. Once I had that down and that one routine was incorporated into our lives, then I learned how to make sauerkraut. Now, years later, my family has come so far in our food journey, and my husband and I make many things ourselves from scratch, but it didn’t happen overnight. It was the accumulation of lots of little steps, as we just incorporated the next right thing when the time felt right. I think if my goal had been huge, I would have stopped before I even got going.
With those rules in place, these are the goals that I’ve been working on for these first few weeks of 2020:
Exercise. I know, I know. It’s cliche to have this goal for the New Year, but this is something that I need to do for myself. I have a bum knee, and when my legs aren’t toned, my knee really feels it. When I am fit, my knee gives me no problems. And let’s face it, we mothers often are so busy taking care of others that we put ourselves last. But, although our diet is really excellent, my exercise level is not. I follow a couple fitness people on Instagram and they get up at, like, 5:00 am every morning to exercise vigorously. This concept of getting out of bed to exercise makes every fiber of my body scream out in protest. I like to start my days slowly and quietly. I wake up, make my coffee, meditate for 30 minutes, and then peacefully begin my day. So with the idea of making a small do-able change, I am using an exercise app to exercise 10 minutes every evening. Sure it’s small, but I’m already noticing improvements, and it’s something I can do right now that is not overwhelming. Also importantly, if I miss a day, no guilt! If I exercise five days a week, or three, or even one, that is all better than exercising no days a week which is what I was doing before, right? So I celebrate progress, not beat myself up for not attaining perfection.
Blog more. I set the goal of blogging every week (which I’ve already broken), but even if some weeks it doesn’t happen, I think overall, writing regularly will be a good thing. Writing is what I love doing, and I want to develop and keep at my craft.
Learn to make sourdough bread. This is one of those things that I’ve been wanting to learn how to do for years now but have never gotten around to actually doing it. But then I came across the Sourdough Schoolhouse. I took advantage of a sale and the fact that a class was starting in early January to jump in. So far I’ve made my own Sourdough starter from scratch, and I’m planning on making my first sourdough bread this week. One thing allowing me time to bake is the fact that my work-from-home husband did almost all the cooking over Christmas vacation. In doing this, he discovered that he really loves to cook (and he cooks better than I do). So he decided to rearrange his work schedule to be able to cook dinner every night. Now, he goes to work an hour earlier in the morning (at 9:30 am) so that he can take that hour break around dinnertime to cook. When he decided to do this, I was like, “FAR BE IT FROM ME to discourage my husband in pursuing his hobbies!” I mean, of course, whatever goals and healthy leisure activities he has for himself, I want to support him in those, right?! And this leads me to goal four.
Celebrate and observe more feasts. I follow lots of Catholic accounts on Instagram and so many beautiful moms are really superb at living the liturgical year with their families. For each feast day they make special desserts or have special activities they do as a family, and watching them has been very inspiring to me, but I always felt too busy to plan and implement this. Or maybe I’d plan it, but when the feast day came around, I’d get too overwhelmed to actually do anything about it. Now, however, with my husband taking over the chore of dinner that I am supporting my husband in his cooking hobby, I’ve decided to make dessert every day. Most days it’s something simple, like sauteed apples topped with a dollop of cultured cream, or a simple pudding. I don’t make dessert on Fridays, as Friday is a day of penance, but my goal is that on Sundays and special feast days, I will make a bigger dessert, like cake or pie. A special dessert plus lighting candles at the dinner table will go a long way, I think, at helping to set those special days apart.
Well, that’s what I have been up to these first few weeks of 2020. Are you working toward some goals? New Year’s or otherwise? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.
Thus far in my husband’s and my parenting journey, every August when everyone jumped in to their back-to-school frenzy, we completely ignored it all. Back-to-school clothes shopping, school supplies, curriculum purchases, changing schedules, early bedtimes, and all the rest of it just passed us by. Being unschoolers, who believe that the world is an inherently fascinating place for us to freely explore, we mostly eschewed curriculum, school-like schedules and lesson plans and simply lived our lives, and tried to make that life interesting and supportive of our children’s interests and curiosities.
This August, however, I found myself taking my daughters shopping for school clothes and being in the most crowded Target school supply aisle with most every other parent because in early September, my daughters started going to school — a real brick and mortar school. And oh it has been an adjustment for us all.
Last year, I just found myself needing a change. It seemed that I always had these great intentions of everything we would explore and do, but I so often found myself too busy with other things to do them. And despite the fact that some people think “unschooling” means “uneducating” it’s not. Unschooling parents put a lot of time and effort into exposing their children to a variety of experiences and topics and helping their children follow the rabbit holes of their interests. As my family grew and some outside commitments grew as well, unschooling was getting harder for me, so last Spring I decided to look into the school we ultimately chose as I thought it could be a good fit for our family.
The school itself is a public school but it is not a traditional type of school. The school values family time and so does not expect homework to be done in the evening. Also, it is a hybrid between homeschooling and school, as the kids have three home days a week where they are expected to do their online learning and school projects at home, and two days a week where they are at school from about 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. So we still get to sleep in on mornings! The school also does not have traditional grades and report cards. The school is big into developing growth mindset and they say that wherever a child begins is fine, they just want the child to improve, so I love that when we get this school’s version of report cards we will see where our child started and how far they’ve come, rather than seeing that they get an A in this and a C in that. For myself, I remember that when I was in school, math took so much effort for me, and I would work my tail off and get a C. English, however, was easy and I knew that I could whip out an essay the period before it was due and get an A, so why try my best, when my minimal effort would get an A anyway? So I love that whether a child has a natural affinity or talent in a particular area or not, wherever they start, they can get better.
Originally, I was exploring the school as an option for my two youngest daughters, and figured my oldest daughter would continue to stay home. Being older, she simply requires less time on my part to help her explore her passions. Also, being on the Autism spectrum and having some anxiety in social situations, I thought she would fare better continuing to homeschool, but as I told her sisters about the school, my oldest piped up that she maybe wanted to go. “If you want to go, you can go,” I replied. So she did.
Now, we are a semester in and doing school has definitely been an adjustment for all of us. This school is a definite fit for one of my daughters. Ironically the one of the three who didn’t want to go to school loves it (and she is the whole reason I explored school to begin with). The other two? Right now they are saying they want to be homeschooled next year. For my first-grader, it’s a lot of computer work. While she’s happy to do projects and one-on-one lessons with me, she has a hard time sitting and staying focused on all her computer lessons. For my 13-year-old, who has always been unschooled, I think just the concept of being given assignment after assignment that she must do with not much opportunity so far for her to explore her own interests freely is a shock to her system. The idea of dividing the world into “subjects”, having to listen to a lecture, do an assignment, take a quiz, then on to the next topic is foreign to her. She’s actually begun studying (on her own) educational models and has decided that the best education should be primarily self-driven; allow time for the information to really be processed, absorbed, and applied — rather than moving through material at bullet speed then to the next thing. Of course, as an unschooling parent, I’m glad that she now approves of the method of education that we have picked for her all these years.
Nevertheless, I’m glad we also chose this school for this year. One of my hopes was that my girls would make friends, and that is something that school helps with, I think. Although we got out of the house and did stuff with other homeschoolers, my introverted kids never found anyone that they just clicked with. At school they have. Also, I think it’s been great for them to get a taste of school to see what it’s like for themselves and see what they like and what they don’t like. For my middle daughter, I hadn’t really seen her be self-motivated to explore lots of things at home, but at school with the positive peer-pressure of all the other kids doing the same thing, a great teacher who can motivate her, (and the simple fact that for her strong-willed temperament it’s not her mom telling her to do these things) she is more self-motivated and is enjoying school.
Anyway, despite the ups and downs of this first semester of schooling, the biggest thing I’ve experienced is that everything is a trade-off. There are benefits and drawbacks to unschooling. There are benefits and drawbacks to sending kids to school, and I’m sure there are benefits and drawbacks to every possible way of educating a child. I think schools in this country typically choose breadth, wanting kids to learn about so many possible things as quickly as possible and they try to cram in so many topics. With unschooling, we’ve typically chosen depth, wanting our children to explore deeply the things they are most passionate about. As parents, I know we agonize about how each child is doing and we ask ourselves if we are doing the best thing for them, and on and on. My takeaway is this. Nothing is perfect. Families aren’t perfect, you the homeschooling mom aren’t perfect and you never will be, and schools definitely aren’t perfect. Also, each child is so different that what works for one might not work for another.
So I guess the lesson I’ve learned this first semester is one I think I already knew, but needed to learn again – that nothing is perfect and it will all be okay in the end. So choose a path, then be at peace. Agonizing homeschooling/unschooling or regular schooling moms, just do your best. Pick what you think is the best option for your family in your circumstances right now and trust. Whatever form of education we choose, there will be gaps (because it’s impossible to learn all there is to learn in this world) but do what you can and it will be enough. Place the rest in God’s hands, and let go.
God is there in these moments of rest and can give us in a single instant exactly what we need. Then the rest of the day can take its course, under the same effort and strain, perhaps, but in peace. And when night comes, and you look back over the day and see how fragmentary everything has been, and how much you planned that has gone undone, and all the reasons you have to be embarrassed and ashamed: just take everything exactly as it is, put it in God’s hands and leave it with him. Then you will be able to rest in him-really rest-and start the next day as a new life. – Edith Stein
Shortly before Thanksgiving, I learned, for the ninth time in my life, that God chose my body as the place where He would create a new person. Someone got his or her beginning inside my body — someone who has never existed but who will exist for all eternity. A couple days later, I learned that, for the fifth time in my life, I will not get to meet that person this side of heaven. The gift of life and the reality of loss is at once beautiful and tragic.
Despite this pregnancy being something of a surprise, and despite my history of pregnancy loss, I had no fear. I was just completely and utterly happy. I wasn’t afraid of motherhood this time or fearful of the demands this child would make on me. I was just filled with gratitude. I remember when I was pregnant for the first time I wondered if I would be a good mother and if I would bond with my child. I wasn’t a woman who particularly liked children or who enjoyed being around them. But when my daughter was born I was totally blown away by the intense love I felt for her. When I was pregnant with my middle daughter I worried if I would love my second child as much as my first. How could my heart stretch that much again? At times I’ve worried about having a child with a choleric and strong-willed temperament. I’ve worried about having a child on the Autism spectrum, and I’ve even worried about having a boy. Would I love my son as much as I love my daughters? I just absolutely loved having a bunch of daughters and wasn’t sure how I would react to having a son. God, in His wisdom, however, has brought me a child “on the spectrum”, a choleric child, and eventually even a male, (and luckily in the middle of all of that a sunny, easy-going girl). And I love them all so much and so fiercely and can’t imagine my life without each of my children. Are there challenges, and have I been brought to my knees wondering how to parent them all in the way that each of them needs? Yes, but there is also joy — so much absolute and intense, soul-warming joy over each one of them.
So this time, when I learned I was pregnant, I wasn’t afraid. I’ve finally learned that whatever is the personality of this new person, whatever the sex, whatever his or health status or ability, I will fall in love again, and physically and spiritually I will grow to meet the needs of my child, and physically and spiritually my child will fill me up in a way I didn’t know I was lacking. I knew, too, that my other children would grow to love this new person, and our family would be blessed. We would grow together, stretch together, laugh and cry together, and this person would be just who our family needed, perfectly designed and willed by God to both form us and to be formed by us.
So the day I learned I was expecting again I was just happy with anticipation, and the next day too. By the third day, a Sunday evening, however, I had begun to bleed. I opted to avoid the emergency room and to wait it out until I could hopefully get in to see a NaPro physician in the morning. In the middle of the night, in addition to bleeding, I began to experience pain on my left side. I had had four miscarriages so I knew this bleeding was different, and the left-sided pain was definitely different. I suspected a tubal pregnancy. I knew it was an emergency situation, but as the pain was not severe yet, I said a prayer that things would be okay until the morning.
Having been to a number of emergency rooms in a number of hospitals through many miscarriages, I have unfortunately always found lacking their level of compassion, their trust in my knowledge of my body, and their ability to do anything to prevent a miscarriage. On the other hand, when I began to show warning signals of a possible miscarriage when I was pregnant with Nadia, my NaPro physician increased my dose of progesterone and overnighted some HcG shots for me. My bleeding stopped and I was able to carry Nadia to term. So I felt that if anything could be done to save my baby, a NaPro physician would do it, and if it could not be prevented, I trusted that my baby and I would be treated with compassion and dignity.
In the morning, as workmen arrived at my house to begin tearing up old carpet in preparation for new flooring, I called the medical clinic. A friend was able to watch my children for the day, and after dropping them off, my husband and I drove to the clinic. There, I learned that I did indeed have a tubal pregnancy. Though an ultrasound revealed that the gestational sac was in my left tube, the baby could not be found within it, so he or she must have died early in development. Nevertheless my tube was actively bleeding and filling my abdomen with blood. The situation was serious and I would need to have surgery as soon as possible. Before noon I was in surgery. In the end, my Fallopian tube could not be saved. Despite various efforts, it wouldn’t stop bleeding and the doctor had no choice but to remove it.
Though the situation was so serious and big, the procedure itself was a simple outpatient affair. Around dusk, my husband and I left the hospital to go home. My in-laws had picked up my children from my friend’s house earlier in the day and took them to their house for the night. So my husband and I went home to a quiet house, ate some take-out pho that we had picked up on our way home, and just went to bed. The next two days I lay in bed while the workmen banged around downstairs installing the new floor, and on Wednesday afternoon, we packed up our four kids and three cats and went to the AirBnB we had rented as we wouldn’t be able to walk on our floors for a few days once the stain was applied. The week after that we celebrated Thanksgiving and had my middle daughter’s 11th birthday, and then Advent began.
I more or less went through the motions of lighting the Advent candles and putting up our Jesse tree. The children were the ones reminding me to light the candles and to read the story about each ornament this year instead of the other way around. And now we are in the Christmas season, what the culture says is “the most wonderful time of the year”, a season about creating picture-perfect moments and cramming as much fun and happiness into as few weeks as possible.
Perhaps now more than ever, I’m so grateful for the way my faith celebrates this season. Maybe I never noticed it before. Maybe I never needed to notice it before, but it’s decidedly less happy-clappy than the cultural Christmas. I’ve noticed, in fact, that Catholic Christmas is decidedly darker. The Church, in her wisdom, always holds the duality of both life and death together. In Catholic Christmas, this season of celebrating the birth of our Savior into the world, we are constantly reminded that Jesus came to die, and that, this side of heaven, there is suffering. So even at Bethlehem, Calvary is present. We are reminded of this the day after Christmas, when we celebrate the Feast of Stephen — the first Christian martyr, whose death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Two days after the feast of Stephen we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, all those baby boys who Herod had murdered trying to kill the long-awaited Messiah.
Also during Christmas, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, when the three Magi from the East came bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold was an appropriate gift for a king, frankincense a gift for God, and myrrh was an oil used to anoint dead bodies. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were quite strange gifts for a little boy, but perfect gifts for Jesus, who is God, who became man, and who was born in order to die. Some Christian communities celebrate the Christmas season until the Feast of the Presentation, on Feb 2nd. At the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Simeon celebrates Jesus’ birth, but also warns that he will be a sign that will be contradicted and that a sword will also pierce his mother’s heart. Simeon celebrates with joy this little baby — a Savior, come into the world, but does not shy away from the reality of his painful mission.
And so this Christmas, I am enjoying family, and all our Christmas traditions. I am celebrating the greatest gift of God coming to earth to save me, but I am holding this tension between sorrow and joy, and even holding and experiencing them both in the same moment. I am rejoicing at my children in heaven where there is no pain or sorrow and still mourning that I don’t have their physical presence with me now. I have truly enjoyed feasting and laughing with family, and still at some moments grief feels like its wrapped around me like a blanket. And I suppose it should be so because this is Christmas, a season of celebrating life, even life that ends in death.
As someone who has had four miscarriages (and who has been very open about each pregnancy from the beginning), I often get questions from friends and family when someone they know has lost a child through miscarriage. Since October is Miscarriage and Infant Loss Awareness Month, I thought now might be a good time to share a few things I have learned about supporting others after such a loss.
It’s important to acknowledge the enormity of their loss. The simple fact is that losing a child is a very big deal, and this is true whether their child was only a few weeks old and in utero or older, whether they have other children or if this is their only one, and whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned. I think for the one grieving, minimizing their loss in some way may be a coping mechanism, because I have observed nearly every grieving mother I have talked to doing it. They say, “It could have been worse. At least I lost my child so early on.” Or if they were far along they say, “It could be worse, at least I have other children.” If they don’t have living children then they come up with another reason why “it could be worse.” Maybe it’s a way of looking on the bright side, or maybe it’s a way of avoiding grief. However, even if it is “just” losing a baby very early in pregnancy without any other compounding issues, their child died. That in and of itself is big, and it’s important to acknowledge that because it allows the grief process to begin.
Allow your loved one to grieve. Grief is like childbirth. I have written before that in labor the woman has a choice. She can tense her body and disallow the fullness of the contractions, though doing so will prolong labor. If she can fully allow the contractions and relax into them, labor will progress more quickly. Similarly, grief can be rejected, but it cannot be avoided altogether and doing so may actually prolong the grieving process. When speaking to women and couples grieving the loss of their child, I often see tears as a sign of a “successful” meeting. I don’t want people to cry for crying’s sake, but I know that the only way out is through and the mother and father will be better in the long run if they can grieve. Though not everyone will grieve with tears, and that’s okay, the physical act of crying can be very cathartic and comforting in and of itself. Often, simply saying, “Your child died, and that’s a big thing to deal with,” is all that’s needed for the tears to come. It’s like they were trying to hold in their grief and that permission and acknowledgement of their loss from someone else is all that’s needed to allow this release. Sometimes, friends and family are afraid to mention the baby that died for fear that mentioning him or her will “make” the mother cry. I assure you, mentioning her child will not “make” her cry but it may allow her to cry.
Grief is often different for an early loss, but it is still grief. When an adult or older child dies, the parents and loved ones have to grieve the person who was known and now has been lost. When a child dies in utero or shortly after birth, often the parents will have to grieve all the unknowns, and the earlier the loss the more unknowns they will have to grieve. When an infant dies, loved ones have to grieve what they don’t know and will never know this side of eternity. What would their child’s favorite color have been? What would their personality have been like? For an early miscarriage, they may even have to mourn that they don’t know what their child would have looked like, or even something so basic as not knowing if their child is a boy or a girl. The earlier the loss, the more unknowns they will have to grieve.
When a couple experiences multiple losses, their grief will likely intensify with each loss, so it’s important to keep showing up for them. Each time a person experiences a loss, it will bring up all previous losses, and any unresolved grief will surface. So when a couple experiences their second, third, fourth, or more loss, they will grieve not just for the child they lost at this time, but each additional child that was lost previously. Furthermore, they will likely grieve even any unrelated losses that they haven’t fully dealt with, like lost relationships, previous traumas, or any other events not fully grieved. While it is common for a couple to receive an outpouring of support for their first loss and then the support to decrease with additional losses, it is more important than ever to keep expressing your love and support and offering assistance each and every time.
Remember that not just the mother grieves. While people may remember to express condolences to the mother, it is appropriate to acknowledge the loss that is often felt by others who knew of the pregnancy. The father of the baby, siblings, grandparents, and others may all be grieving the loss as well. In fact, when it comes to grandparents, it has been said that they sometimes grieve the most, since they grieve for the pain that their child is going through and they also grieve for themselves at having lost a grandchild.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. Sometimes when a miscarriage occurs, loved ones can unknowingly leave the parents to grieve alone for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. I have found, however, that simply acknowledging their loss and making an effort to express a simple, “I’m sorry,” will go a long way in giving the parents or others comfort in the knowledge that you care and can help them begin their healing by giving them permission to grieve.
I said in my last post that my family’s healing came through no merit or action of my own, but I suppose the truth is a little more nuanced than that. It is absolutely true that healing is not earned, and it is also true that it was not my own doing that brought it about. Christ is the doer. However, I did try to be open to healing if that was what God willed for us at this time.
Just as a woman must try to relax her body and allow the contractions for birth to come more quickly, so in healing and in all the invitations God sends to us to come into our lives, I believe God asks for our yes. Scripture recounts the story of Jesus visiting his hometown of Nazareth. There everyone knows Him as the carpenter’s son and saw Him grow up and they take offense at His preaching and His wisdom. The Gospel of Mark says, “So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there […]” (Mark 6:5a). It doesn’t say that Jesus would not perform any mighty deed because of their lack of faith; rather, it says He could not. Could it be that the God of the Universe stoops down to ask our permission to act in our lives?
But I should back up.
The healing itself happened on a Saturday in Lent. My diocese had decided to offer a number of healing masses in the area with Bishop David Ricken and Father Ubald, a priest from Rwanda known for gifts of healing.
On the day of the mass, my three daughters and I got into our van and set out to the church. Father Ubald’s masses have the reputation of being quite lengthy, so I opted to have then two-year-old Mateo stay home with his dad. Also, my son was born while we were transitioning to the GAPS diet, so he has had a pretty excellent diet from the beginning and has no known health issues.
On the way, my daughters and I talked. I wanted them to trust that Jesus could heal us, but I also didn’t want them to be disappointed or lack faith if that wasn’t God’s will for us at this time. I don’t believe that God wills suffering, as suffering and death entered the world with sin and was not part of God’s original plan. On the other hand, God can use suffering to bring about amazing transformations in us. Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity said that when we are suffering we should think of how God is increasing the capacity of our soul, making it infinite, indeed, in order to hold He Who is infinite. In our fallen state, suffering can be the antidote against selfishness that we need. “As the angel Gabriel told Mary at the Annunciation,” I told my daughters, “nothing is impossible with God. God has the power to heal us, so we should have faith that He can. But no matter what happens, we should know that God loves us so much and wants what is in our best interests.”
When we arrived at St Gabriel’s church, both large parking lots were filled, and cars were lining the streets. My heart kind of sank. “There probably won’t even be room for us in the body of the church,” I thought. With the assurance that everything was in God’s hands, we got out of our van and walked toward the church. Once we entered, an usher saw me and my brood and motioned for us to come forward. So we went up to him and he led us to the very front row. Four spots right there as if they had been reserved for us. I tried not to read into it too much, but part of me was thinking, “This is a really good sign! Maybe we are going to be healed!” I didn’t want to be presumptuous, but I also didn’t want to doubt, so I knelt in the pew probably over-complicating things with my inner dialogue trying to figure out the balance of trusting that we could be healed without presuming that we would be, while also trying to be humble enough to let God act as He saw fit.
The mass lasted two hours, but the children did marvelously. The six year old was sort of at her wits end by the conclusion of mass, but I explained to her what would happen next and she seemed interested in that and calmed down. Being in the front row where we could see everything certainly helped. During the homily, Father Ubald told us of his experience surviving the Rwandan genocide, but also of the fact that his parents, most family members, and tens of thousands of his parishioners didn’t survive. He believes real healing can only come with forgiveness, and he spoke of his process of forgiving those who killed his family members. He also told us of the time that he met the man who murdered his mother and speaking to this man and forgiving him. When he preached forgiveness, he spoke with the authority of one who has himself forgiven in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
When mass ended, the Eucharist was exposed on the altar and placed in the receptacle. Father Ubald guided us through his process to help open ourselves to the healing of Christ.
The first step to open ourselves is to have faith, and we are helped in this when we take time to recognize and be grateful for all the gifts that God has already given us.
The second step is forgiveness. Father Ubald believes that lack of forgiveness is the greatest block to healing. So he asks us to offer forgiveness to anyone who has wronged us and to ask forgiveness of those we have harmed. Forgiveness is hard, but we need to ask for the grace to forgive.
The third step is to renounce evil and take authority in Jesus’ name. For example, a person struggling with feelings of bitterness and resentment could say “In the name of Jesus I renounce the spirit of bitterness and I command you to leave. In the name of Jesus, get out.”
The fourth step is to make a decision to change one’s life and to decide what one will do to live for Jesus. This should be a concrete, actionable step. Our culture acts as though happiness comes when one has accomplished his or her life goals and the circumstances of one’s life is ordered to one’s own preferences and liking. The Church reminds us, however, that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that “This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium Et Spes, § 24). I believe the gifts that we receive in life are not meant simply for our own enjoyment, but rather we are to act as a reservoir, letting whatever we have been given overflow to benefit others.
After this, Father Ubald took the monstrance, carefully descended the steps, and walked directly over to me where he paused for a few moments. Then he continued on to process through the crowd, pausing every now and again. When this was finished, the Eucharist was placed back on the altar, and Father Ubald went to the podium. Father is not completely comfortable speaking English, so when he wants to speak off the cuff, without having to translate his thoughts into English, he will speak in French. A French-English interpreter went to the podium and Father Ubald stood aside and just seemed to enter into himself. After a moment, he began to speak quietly to the interpreter. “There is a woman here who has a lump in her left breast,” said the interpreter into the mic, “Jesus has healed you. Several people are praying for healing from their Parkinson’s. Jesus has healed you.” This continued for quite some time, perhaps half an hour or more. Father would pause, then tell the interpreter of several healings that had taken place. Some healings were physical, some spiritual, some emotional or relational. “There are several people here praying for healing of their food allergies,” said the interpreter toward the end, “Jesus has healed you.”
I looked at my children, and they looked at me with excitement.
On our way home I was filled with hope. I was also filled with questions. “There are several people here praying for healing of their food allergies. Jesus has healed you,” the interpreter had said. That crowd was pretty big. How was I to know how many people there could have been praying for the same thing? Was everyone who was praying for the same thing healed? Were just some of us? Was I one of them? My children? I mean, how does this miraculous healing thing work, exactly? So despite my excitement and hope, I was still trying not to get my hopes up too much, but also trying not not to get my hopes up because maybe that wasn’t trusting. My daughter Eva in particular was simply happy. She couldn’t wait to eat a variety of foods without feeling sick.
Later that evening, my husband (who is agnostic) said to me, “So, Eva is convinced that she’s been healed and she wants me to buy her some ice cream when I go grocery shopping tomorrow.” “Buy her some ice cream, then,” I said. What was the point of going to ask for healing, if, when it comes, we don’t believe that we were healed and so we continued to avoid all allergens the same as before? “If she hasn’t been healed,” I said, “we will know soon enough, because she WILL have an eczema flare up otherwise.” I made a new grocery list. I wanted to continue to eat healthy because I didn’t want to be given the gift of healing, only to ruin our health again by eating poorly, but oh, was I excited about the variety of foods we could eat. We would even be able to eat grains again! (In moderation and properly prepared, of course.) I bought a cookbook based on the Weston A Price diet, which takes into consideration the wisdom of many traditional cultures that ate quality, high-fat diets, with properly prepared grains, nuts, and vegetables, and a wide variety of whole, natural, unprocessed foods. In my opinion, this is the diet humans probably should eat, but if their gut has been damaged, they need the stricter GAPS diet (or something similar) to heal it before they can enjoy the variety.
For myself, avoiding my food sensitivities without cheating was my Lenten practice. So whether I was healed or not, I felt I should continue avoiding my allergens through Lent. We could, however, incorporate back into our diet all the things that Eva couldn’t eat previously, and that alone was heavenly. For some weeks, I would check the inside of her elbows and her knees for dry, itchy eczema flare ups, but they didn’t come. She ate whatever and didn’t feel sick, didn’t get rundown, didn’t look grey and pasty. Her cheeks kept their healthy, rosy glow and she stayed healthy.
After a few weeks went by, I read to the children the story of the 10 lepers who were healed. All ten were healed, but only one returned to give thanks. I said I wanted to be like the one who gave thanks, so we should be thinking about what we can do to say thank you for our healing. I also read them the story of Peter’s mother-in-law who was healed. She was healed of her fever, and then she arose and waited on them. I told them that when we are healed, like all gifts from God, He gives them not just for our benefit, but for others as well. We are healed for service. So I asked them to think of ways that God might be asking us to be of service to others.
After some praying and researching, I came across the “gratitude rosary”. I had never heard of it before, but basically, for every ‘Hail Mary’ bead, one says one thing they are grateful for. So for each gratitude rosary, one comes up with 50 things for which they feel gratitude. Many people have said it transformed their lives because it trained them to see all the good things in life instead of just focusing on the negative things, because people generally start by saying the big things they are grateful for—family, children, maybe some possessions, but before the end they have to get creative and really pay attention to the many small things that would have gone unnoticed to them before. So the children and I decided to do a novena of gratitude rosaries in thanksgiving. Sure enough, it forced us to see and express gratitude for many of the things that we were taking for granted, like, for example, not having our arms or legs amputated (in the words of my 12 year old daughter)!
Easter arrived, and oh, I celebrated and ate all the things for 50 days. And guess what? I didn’t get itchy, or belchy, or nauseous. I felt fine. Like I said, we still try to eat wholesome, nourishing food. But life gets busy, and so sometimes we go out to eat or buy convenience foods. We accept invitations to things and eat whatever is set before us. This summer we took a 24 day road trip where most of what we ate was definitely not very traditionally wholesome or nourishing, and it was okay. I think the biggest gift for me is to see my children remain healthy and to be able to not eat perfectly without guilt.
I also enjoy cooking now. I’ve come to enjoy the process of it. I remember early in my marriage when we were too poor to buy many Christmas gifts, so out of sheer necessity, I learned to craft a number of things. I learned to sew, crochet, bind books, and more. I wasn’t crafty at all before, but necessity forced me to learn to be a maker. I found the act of making things with my own hands empowering, more thoughtful, and so much more enjoyable than shopping for things. I think one of the problems in our culture is that on the one hand we have this cult of productivity where people feel like they have to do all the things all the time, and simultaneously, so little of what we do is actual physical work. So often we are not making things that we can touch, hold, smell, and see before us. Many of us live most of our lives and do most of our work in our heads. As a result of my family’s health issues, however, I get to cook now. I mean, really cook. I peel carrots, chop onions, squeeze lemon, chop and dry herbs, mash squash with my potato masher, roll out flat bread, check on the broth or dried beans that sit simmering for hours on my stove, and more. It’s creative; it’s physical; and eating it is enjoyable, filling, and nourishing.
I still ponder the gift of healing. I feel like I had faith before, but nonetheless, being healed of our food sensitivities reiterated that God sees my littleness. He sees me trying my best, and He has compassion for me. He saw my struggle and He accomplished our healing in an instant. It makes me think of my little son trying with great effort to put his shoes on himself. When he can’t do it and he needs me to put them on him, I don’t resent him for being small and unable. His littleness gives me greater tenderness for him. So I believe it is with God and us. We do our best and it is enough. God will make it enough. We don’t have to know everything and have it all together. Our littleness endears us all the more to Him and He will pull us close and accomplish with ease everything that we struggle with trying to do ourselves. Whether in the struggle of carrying our crosses, or in the gift of reprieve, God will be with us every step of the way. We can count on it.
The New American Bible, Revised Edition. 9 March 2011. USCCB.
Let me just start by saying that my family received a miraculous healing from Jesus. That probably makes me sound like a crazy person, but so be it. Jesus healed us, and I believe that to be the truth.
Before I get to the healing though, I have to tell you about my life before the healing, because it’s important to know where we came from. My journey started some time in 2011, after I had experienced my third miscarriage. Finding the medical communities (at the various hospitals in which I had miscarried in) all to be rather indifferent to the whole thing and seemingly unconcerned to do anything to prevent the deaths of my pre-born children, I started searching around for alternatives and found a NaPro clinic within driving distance. It’s not the purpose of this post to go into my whole NaPro journey, but I will just say that I have nothing but praise for NaPro-trained physicians. It was such a relief to have a doctor understand and value my fertility charts. At her first glance she suspected right away that I might have low progesterone, but she wanted to do some more testing. Long story short, through the help of my NaPro physician, I was able to carry to term my daughter Nadia and my son Mateo.
As grateful as I was for their medical expertise to help me carry to term by supplementing me with bioidentical progesterone and giving me HCG shots, I wanted to know why my body wasn’t making the progesterone that it should be. Was there something I could do with diet or lifestyle to support my body in this way? Being the hippy that I am, I sought out the advice of a Naturopath and Chiropractor. He believed that I might have some unknown food sensitivities, that, though they may not be causing big noticeable reactions, could still be causing gut inflammation and impairing my overall functioning. So he ordered a Specific IgE allergy test. Again, it’s not the purpose of this post to write a treatise on IgE vs IgG allergy testing, but just know that the allergy test offered in most clinics is IgG, which in my understanding measures anaphylactic allergies; it does not, however, detect more subtle food sensitivities. So I was tested with a simple blood test and discovered that I was sensitive to beans, wheat, milk, eggs, bananas, chocolate, and a handful of other foods. The test revealed that I didn’t have any IgG allergies, though my IgE sensitivities were numerous. So we became gluten free and overhauled our diet to avoid all those things, and when I avoided those things, I felt great! I stopped being so itchy, and I had energy! Since my ailments had all developed little by little, I didn’t even notice many until they were gone and I suddenly found myself living without them, like my usual itchy arms, feeling generally kind of belchy and tired after meals, and kind of nauseous in the evening. On my new diet I had energy, I rarely burped anymore, and meals were satisfying but without the accompanying lethargy. It was great.
A few years later, when one of my daughters was diagnosed with Autism, my mother-in-law lent me a book called Gut and Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. Dr. Natasha believes that our standard western diet is wreaking havoc on our digestive systems. When our gut is damaged, we are unable to absorb the nutrients we need and also unable to efficiently remove toxins. This double-whammy of insufficient nutrient absorption and toxic overload causes wide-ranging side-effects that at first glance seems unrelated to the gut and unrelated to one another. In its essence though, if our bodies can’t absorb the nutrients we need, then our bodies can’t function properly. She believes autism, food allergies, many mental illnesses, eczema, many auto-immune issues, and more all begin in the gut. The book was mostly understandable to me, the laywoman, and it clearly showed me the connection between my food sensitivities, my one daughter’s autism, my other daughter’s eczema, and other various issues in my family. The book seemed like a gift, showing me the one solution to really heal every member of my family.
So we began our transition to the GAPS diet, which , let me just say, is intense. Basically, all processed foods are out. We bought just the grass-fed organic meat, just the vegetable, just the fruit, just the nut or seed and processed it ourselves. On GAPS everything should be organic, or organic as possible to avoid further toxins. Nuts contain phytic acid, so after purchasing raw, organic nuts, they were soaked and dehydrated. We began eating large amounts of self-fermented vegetables (after first learning how to do so, of course). Vegetable oil is a big no no, as are grains and potatoes (including sweet potatoes). Traditional fats, grass fed butter, ghee, or cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oil are acceptable for cooking. If the food comes in a box, or is somehow commercially prepared or preserved there’s probably something that makes it unacceptable to the GAPS diet. There’s more to it, but hopefully you get the idea.
I really believe that food is medicine, and on the GAPS diet, we all improved. At this same time, my daughter who has Autism also began getting cognitive behavioral therapy and so were all the strides she made since the beginning a result of dietary changes or therapy? I don’t know, but my hunch is both. Her excellent and committed therapists have helped her gain confidence as she achieved difficult things, and they have given her skills to interact with the world around her successfully. What seems most clearly associated with diet, however, is that her frequent stomach upsets and the fact that she would randomly throw up every few weeks without any flu or other symptoms, just stopped. Physically, she felt healthy.
At some point, after my one child was getting therapy and was experiencing improvement, but my other child’s eczema and frequent and severe sicknesses were not really improving, I decided to get her IgE allergies tested too. No joke, she would spend every other week in bed from a series of long-lasting and severe colds. Her blood test revealed that she was sensitive to about 30 different foods, including wheat, eggs, milk, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms, ginger, celery, cashews, peanuts, cherries, sweet potatoes, cabbage, pumpkin, tomatoes, and more. No wonder she was always sick! I thought I was feeding her healthy food, but every single meal her body was taking a hit as she ate things she was sensitive to. Like me, she had no IgG allergies, so if she had been allergy tested in the conventional way, the test would reveal that she had no allergies. Her numerous food sensitivities, however, were clearly having an impact on her health!
So, we cut out the things she was sensitive to. Basically, for six months the only vegetables we could eat were squashes, zucchini, salad greens, bell peppers, and eggplant. For my sanity, I prepared a single meal that every member of the family could eat, rather than try to make different dishes for different members. For my daughter, the results were phenomenal. If we avoided her sensitivities, her eczema cleared up and stayed away, and the dark circles under her eyes disappeared. She got one or two minor colds, but not the major colds that would keep her in bed for a whole week. She could eat without having to lie down on the couch for awhile due to feeling sick and nauseous. She also had chronically inflamed tonsils that may have led to her snoring, but her snoring disappeared too. And I was so grateful to God to have given me the knowledge of how to heal our bodies and improve our health.
Life was good. But it was still really difficult.
Trying to manage the household, food preparation according to the GAPS diet, and homeschooling was a lot. We did hire a housekeeper to clean the main floor every other week, which was such a God-send. After the housekeeper left every other Thursday, I would just wander around my immaculate main floor for a few minutes and feel all my stress leave me. I could breathe; my mind felt uncluttered, and I was peaceful. People are incarnational beings, and I’m certain our physical environment affects us more than we know. Our culture acts like cleaning and cooking are unimportant, and that homemaking is for those who don’t have real aspirations, but feeling so powerfully the health of my family being in my hands, and feeling the emotional effects of the housekeeper’s efforts, convicted me in a new way of the value and importance of these traditional homemaking skills.
The thing is though, I’m not a mother who can stay home all day doing homemaking tasks and be satisfied, and believe me when I say I’m not knocking those who do. Catholic author and speaker Jennifer Fulwiler, says that in addition to having a personality type, like being introverted vs extroverted and so on, each person has a particular pace of life that ideally suites them. Some people are most content sipping tea on a porch while reading a good book after they’ve spent the day baking and sewing their own clothes. Some people are more suited to a faster pace that has them writing, speaking, traveling across the country every other week, while running the non-profit that they’ve founded all in the midst of raising their numerous children. For me, I know that I’m not a happy person when I “just” stay home taking care of my family’s needs. I’m a compulsive volunteer-er and I often somehow find myself involved in or running big projects. So while I definitely need to carefully discern what things God is asking me to do and to balance those things with my family life, I repeatedly discern, and my Spiritual Directors have affirmed, that God isn’t asking me to step away from everything outside the home.
So, technically, I’m a homemaker I guess, since that’s what they call women who don’t earn an income and whose husbands pay the bills, but I always have lots of outside things going which keep me pretty busy, and often away from home. Presently, I’m Vice-President of the Board for Elizabeth Ministry International which always involves me in tons of projects from helping guide the direction of the ministry, to writing, event speaking, gift shop helping, and more. I also founded the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program in my parish and am the highest-trained catechist, which means I am super busy making materials for this Montessori style of catechesis. (If you are involved with CGS, you know the work this entails.) I also do other tasks to try to support the other catechists and other miscellaneous tasks to help CGS get off the ground successfully. I also am a certified Instructor for the Family of the Americas Ovulation Method of Natural Family Planning. So I’m a bad business woman (which is connected to being a bad blogger) who could do tons more to promote my NFP business but I just don’t have time for that. So honestly, I get most of my clients from word-of-mouth referrals. But I’m passionate about all these things and they are so needed in our culture! Also, each of these things gives me energy, which to me is a pretty significant consideration when one is trying to decide which things to spend time on and which things to let go.
Although these things take lots of my time, I feel so blessed that I can spend my time doing work that I am passionate about doing without having to take a job that I am not so passionate about just to pay the bills. As my husband and I lived below the poverty line for the first six years of our marriage, we’ve both had to do that at times, but thankfully we are not in that situation now. My husband’s job pays the bills, and me? I get to do a lot of charity and volunteer work… and once in awhile actually earn a little money from teaching Natural Family Planning.
So, we loved the GAPS diet, because we really felt healthy on it, and surprisingly, learning how to really cook felt empowering to me. It was like breastfeeding in a way. As a new mother I had felt so empowered to see my infant thrive and grow numerous fat rolls from the milk that my body produced. Now, similarly, I felt the full weight of the dignity and importance of this traditionally female task of preparing food for one’s family and I could see we all noticeably improved from the food prepared from my labor.
We never were able to follow the diet 100%, however, because life was busy, and on particularly hectic days we would go out to eat or buy some convenience foods. I also didn’t want to completely isolate ourselves from all human contact, so we accepted invitations to things which meant that we would be eating food that we were sensitive to and also that we might not feel the best afterward, but we made that trade-off sometimes.
I was grateful that our allergies were not anaphylactic ones and so we could cheat on our diet if we chose to. Nevertheless, it was always accompanied by certain feelings of guilt and failure because usually it would be my middle daughter who would first feel the ramifications of bad food with an eczema flare-up or just feel sick and need to lay down for a while, and I would feel like if I just tried harder, if I was more organized, if I had planned better and prepped some food the day before, and if I would just buck up and get rid of my outside commitments for the sake of my family, then I could keep up with our diet.
After six months or so after having been tested the first time, I had my daughter IgE allergy tested again, and some allergens had come off her sensitivity list, so I felt hope that the diet was healing her gut like it was supposed to do, even if we weren’t doing it 100%. A couple of new foods were added, but more things had come off, so there was only about 26 foods she couldn’t eat, instead of the original 30. We had never been so grateful to eat carrots, celery, tomatoes, and pumpkin like we were when we got the latest test results. I truly rejoiced.
And life was still really difficult.
I often felt like I was in a Catch-22. There honestly didn’t seem like any plausible solution to change my family’s circumstances. We could be constantly sick and likely get worse over time by not following our strict diet and lifestyle, or we could follow it the best we could and just accept all the sacrifices that that entailed. I could give up all outside activities and feel miserable, or keep doing them and accept the trade-offs. Was I being selfish? Was there any solution I wasn’t seeing? Was there any possible way we could hire a home cook who only made GAPS foods at an affordable price? So that was my life. On the one hand I felt inspired and convicted to keep doing the ministries that I was involved in, and on the other hand I felt guilt about the limitations on my time this imposed on me. And don’t even get me started on the mommy-guilt of not dedicating as much time to homeschooling as I would like through all of this! But that was my life. Until one day, through no merit or action of my own, things changed.
I love my home, and the people who live in it. Not one of us is perfect, of course, but it is filled with pretty amazing human beings nonetheless, and my husband and I work hard to build a home that honors and meets the needs of each member. We have introverts and extroverts; we have adults and children; we have members of every temperament; we have members who are neurotypical and some who aren’t. We have males and we have females. It can be a delicate balance and we don’t always get it right, but our goal is always to come up with creative ways where the needs of everyone can be met, rather than trying to choose whose needs will be met at the expense of someone else’s.
And this belief in the equality of all members is what makes it a feminist household, because as the back of one of my sweatshirts reads:
Core Tenets of Feminism
for all human beings, regardless of gender, race, religion, politics, age, size, or any other circumstance.
because any act of discrimination (whether it be sexism, racism, ageism, or ableism) is contrary to human dignity.
because non-discrimination in practice means that every human being has the right to live a life free from violence.
I’d like to share with you one way we do this in our everyday lives, specifically how honoring the needs of women plays out in our home life. As of writing this, I’m the only woman in the house, but I have three daughters ranging in age from 12 down to 6. Each of them knows that there is a special day, already known and planned by God, when they will become a woman, and each of them, even the six year old, knows what will happen on that day and what to expect.
When they were small children, young enough to still be accompanying me into the bathroom, I never hid from them what was going on in my body. They saw me change my menstrual products, and when they asked I explained that every month a woman’s body prepares a kind of nest to make a home for a new baby. If no baby begins to grow, then the nest comes out as blood and her body will create a new nest the next month. They also witnessed me checking my mucus as my husband and I use a Fertility Awareness Based method for family planning (and I’m a certified instructor) and they know that doing this lets me know many things about my overall health, and about what time in my cycle I am in so I can honor how God made me. I remember when my middle daughter was three being in the bathroom with me and playing with a toy. At some point she looked up from her play and noticed me making observations as to the type and quality of cervical fluid I was seeing. Very nonchalantly she asked, “Checking your mucus, mom?” She said it as though it were the most normal and everyday thing in the world, “Making supper, mom?” “Typing on the computer, mom?” Yep, I said, and she simply went back to her playing. (In reality, in our house this is the most normal and everyday thing in the world.) And if I were to be blunt, women being weirded out by their bodies and living in complete ignorance of their basic female functioning should not be the norm.
Being a feminist household doesn’t stop with basic education of how women’s bodies work, however. Knowledge is just the first part. We also have to honor and respect how we’re made. All members of my household know, save my two-year-old son, that when a woman is menstruating, she has less energy than at other times of her cycle. She feels pulled inward and naturally wants to reflect more. In my house, we call it her “rest week”, and when I’m on my rest week, I clear my schedule of all unnecessary appointments and events, and I allow myself more rest. My husband and kids take on more chores to allow me the rest and time for reflection that I need. And, in fact, the biggest thing my husband does for me at this time is to encourage me to rest. Even though I preach the need for women to be rather than constantly do, it can be hard to not feel guilty about ignoring the to-do list and emails and to go take a nap. We live in a culture that bows to the cult of endless productivity, but women don’t have stable energy levels like men do. We have seasons of low energy and seasons of high energy; we ebb and flow. So I love that my husband tells me to go to sleep or go read a book and then he cleans up the kitchen, and he doesn’t want me to feel bad about it. He honors me. Our daughters also know that when they begin having rest weeks, they will be relieved of all their chores during that time.
Women have times when they are bursting with energy and are naturally very selfless and giving (if she is not artificially suppressing ovulation), but they also have times when their spirits and bodies are particularly vulnerable and they need others to nurture them (such as the menstrual time, the sensitive time right before menstruation, and when women are pregnant or postpartum). Of course other times of stress will mean a woman needs extra loving care as well, as it would for anybody.
And that mindset is basically the exact opposite of the message we get from our culture. There’s a very strong cultural message that women’s bodies are a liability and that the responsible thing to do is to take dangerous (and carcinogenic) chemicals and insert unnatural devices in order to bring them under control, and that changing the normal and healthy functioning of women is preferable to an unaltered female system.
I have said before that true Feminism should fight, not for our right to escape the physical realities of being women, but rather for our right to exist as women in whatever sphere we choose to participate in. Cultural norms should change to accommodate women’s bodies, not the other way around.
To me, to be a woman is another (equally valuable) way of being human. We are cyclical. We don’t just go about our days and our lives each day feeling typically the same way and doing the same things. We have this whole inner world that colors each day with a different palette. We have a cycle of needing rest and reflection, then a time of energy and creativity, then a return again to rest and reevaluation.
It is this cyclical way of being that is perhaps the essence of womanhood. Our culture likes to paint caricatures of femininity, but real womanhood has nothing to do with whether we like the color pink or blue or any other color on the spectrum. It has nothing to do with whether we like to wear make-up and get our hair and nails done or whether we consider ourselves a tom-boy. It has nothing to do with whether our body shape is delicate and petite or whether we are larger than most men. To be a woman is a way of existing in the world that is different than the way men exist in it. Therefore to me, the essence of true Feminism is to assert women’s right to exist as women. Furthermore, it is to assert that the way women are is every bit as valuable as the way men are.
True feminism works for the right to participate in the culture, in the home, in business, in politics, and any other sphere not on the pretense that we de-feminize ourselves and become like men, but that we can participate as women because our way of existing in the world is every bit as valuable and necessary as the way men exist. When women have to change the way our bodies function (and our accompanying relational cycle with it) through abortion and birth control this is proof that women have accepted the misogynist ideal that we truly are inferior and that the masculine way of being really is the superior way.
Though our culture has convinced millions of women that their femininity itself is a burden that modern science has freed them from and that we cannot be equal unless we have access to it, I feel that such “solutions” to gender inequality keeps us more in chains than perhaps ever before. It is a whole culture that has accepted femaleness as less than maleness and believes that we are deserving of pity and need alteration in order to be all that we can, that is to be more like men. When a woman can be a woman and still use all her gifts, both intellectual and reproductive, in service to her family and to the wider culture, and receive equal honor and respect for what she does and who she is, then I will celebrate our cultural progress.
I may not be able to change workplace culture around the country or alter how grueling the hours are for grad students and many professions, but I can change the schedule and rhythms of our home. I can set the culture of our home and my husband and I can do our best to make sure we notice and respect the dignity and equality of each family member, and we can hope and pray that one day more families and institutions will follow suit.
The world doesn’t need what women have. It needs what women are. – Edith Stein
Pregnancy shaming. It’s a thing, and unfortunately it’s super common in this era when so many people feel entitled to have an opinion about other people’s family sizes. Pregnancy shaming is nothing new of course. Unwed pregnant women historically (and still in many countries) faced a ton of shame (or worse). In the West, although unwed pregnancy itself is not quite so shameful as it used to be, plenty of women—married and unmarried alike—are still shamed for being pregnant.1
Who is shamed? Sometimes it is the poor woman who has dared to get pregnant despite the fact that she is not financially stable. Sometimes it’s the married woman who has her boy and girl and so the culture has deemed that there is no need for her to have another child. It is every woman who dares get pregnant in any circumstance that is less than the perfectly ideal. Previously the pregnancy revealed that an unwed woman had had sex, and so the sex was shamed. Whereas before women were shamed for a behavior, now they are shamed for being female—that is, for having a body that functions the way female bodies naturally do. Now, so many people view it as everyone’s right to be having sex, but being in denial about the failure rate of contraceptives, many believe pregnancy to be perfectly controllable, and therefore evidence of the woman’s irresponsibility.
So I think some education is in order. Firstly, it is a myth that practicing “safe” sex erases the possibility of pregnancy. No method of birth control is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy. If we look at “the pill” for example, the most common form of contraceptive used by women and teens today, the user or typical effectiveness rate is about 91%. In the US, about 9.5 million women are on the pill.2 If every woman on the pill were sexually active and capable of becoming pregnant, we would see close to a million unintended pregnancies. That is just the women on the pill. We haven’t even looked at the failure rates of any other contraceptive. In fact, if every woman of childbearing age in the US used a contraceptive method with a 99% effectiveness rate, that’s still over 600,000 unintended pregnancies in just a single year. If we assess this risk over the course of the woman’s lifetime, the result is millions and millions of unintended pregnancies.
We have convinced at least two generations of people that sex no longer has to lead to pregnancy as long as we are responsible, but this simply isn’t true. This often overlooked reality is why in 2014, a little over half of women getting an abortion reported using some form of birth control the month they got pregnant.3 A Spanish study, published in 2011, found that a 63% increase in the use of contraceptives was accompanied by a 108% increase in the rate of elective abortions.4 David Paton, author of a number of studies on teen pregnancy and contraception in the UK, in “The Economics of Family Planning and Underage Conceptions” wrote that he found no evidence “that the provision of family planning reduces either underage conception or abortion rates.”5 These aren’t the first studies to find such results. We often assume that contraceptives prevent tons of pregnancies, but the reality is that women make different sexual choices if they believe they can’t get pregnant.
So it’s possible that society is shunning a woman who was “responsible” and was using contraceptives when she became pregnant. If we still choose to shame women for pregnancy, does that mean we as a culture are okay with shaming women for not choosing abortion? Are we at that point? This unfortunate reality happens of course. A study in the Winter 2017 issue of Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons reported that almost 60% of women who “chose” abortion did so due to significant pressure from others,6 but are we now as a culture going to be openly okay with that, rather than acknowledge that this is an atrocious thing to do? Because shaming women for not aborting is basically what we are doing when we make women feel embarrassed for being pregnant, when we deride the mother with lots of children, or when we act like we have a right to have a say on others’ family size.
The number of women who have said to me that they are done having children because their mother or mother-in-law would freak out if they became pregnant again is very telling. I’ve actually heard this from women as the reason given for limiting their family size more often than I’ve heard women tell me that they themselves don’t want more. In fact, it has often seemed to me that the women would be open to more and be joyful to have more but they fear the scorn of others. I’ve known a number of women pregnant with their fourth or fifth child who felt embarrassed. They want their child and are happy to have him or her; they just hate the looks of exasperation and the comments of others every time they leave the house with their children.
All of this shaming women for pregnancy just seems to me like the same old misogyny promenading around the city square. It’s the same reason that, culturally, we look down our noses at all work traditionally performed by women but treat traditional male roles as the height of success and achievement. It’s the reason we treat the pill as a right of passage for teens and why we are so convinced that women are better off having their normal and healthy physiology altered through artificial contraceptives despite any side effects. As a culture, we are incredibly suspicious and disdainful of the functional female body.
I believe that every woman deserves to be congratulated and have her pregnancies celebrated, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the conception. If we want to create a culture that really celebrates and empowers women, there are many steps we can take to create such an environment (such as developing family-friendly work policies and culture and maternal health benefits in student and work health plans), but the first step is to simply stop shaming people for being female.
J.L. Dueñas, I. Lete, R. Bermejo, A. Arbat, et al. “Trends in the Use of Contraceptive Methods and Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy in the Spanish Population During 1997-2007.” Contraception. 83, no. 1 (Jan 2011): 82-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21134508
Priscilla K. Coleman, Kaitlyn Boswell, Katrina Etzkorn, Rachel Turnwald. “Women Who Suffered Emotionally from Abortion: A Qualitative Synthesis of Their Experiences.” Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. 22, no. 4 (Winter 2017) 113-8. http://www.jpands.org/vol22no4/coleman.pdf