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
Have you heard the story of Saint Ignatius? Being a Cradle Catholic, I had heard of him and knew some general things about some exercises having to do with him, but that was it. Recently, however, I read an article about his conversion, and it piqued my interest.
Saint Ignatius was born near the end of the 15th Century in Spain. He had grown up with the ideals of the honor of knighthood and wanted to do great deeds. As a young man, however, he was gravely wounded in a battle with the French and was bedridden for a time while he was recuperating. The only entertainment available to him at that time were some books on the lives of the saints and on the life of Christ. He spent time reading these books and also in his imagination. At times, he imagined doing knightly pursuits and gaining fame and “worldly” honor. Other times, he imagined himself doing great things for God and gaining a high degree of holiness like the saints he had been reading about. After a time, he realized that in both instances, the time he spent in his imagination was time that was enjoyable to him. He also realized, however, that only when he was imagining sainthood and performing great deeds in love for Christ did the peace he felt last after he had stopped imagining, whereas when he thought about gaining courtly fame, he had some degree of satisfaction while he was imagining, but once he stopped, he was left feeling dissatisfied. He realized that it was in these subtle movements within him, that God was guiding him in the way he should go and toward that path that could give him lasting satisfaction.
In some ways, I think I might be like Saint Ignatius. I have a vivid imagination and I like to imagine possibilities. It is definitely a spiritual discipline for me to be in the present moment instead of lost in the realm of ‘what if’. If you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs type indicator, I’m an Intuitor. Not that using one’s imagination is bad of course, but as Saint Ignatius discovered, there are some uses for it that are better than others.
In my case, I was often spending all the time nursing my toddler on my phone and all my “imagination” apps: shopping apps for clothes, home decor, and house design. I rarely actually bought anything, but I still spent a lot of time imagining what my house could look like arranged and decorated in various ways, what I would look like in various styles of clothing, what it might be like to live in a particular house, rather than the one I was in, and so forth.
After reading about St Ignatius, I thought about my own time in my imagination. Was I left with lasting peace and satisfaction? I had to admit the answer was no. In fact, all these apps filled me with stress as I thought about the time and money needed to acquire all these things. Also, feelings of gratitude for all I had were slowly being replaced by a dissatisfaction with the more-than-enough that I already had.
I think it might be different if I had a passion for fashion or interior design, and the time spent thinking about these things was part of me using my “blue flame” — that thing that gives me energy, that feels natural to me, and is a way to give to others, but fashion and interior design isn’t.
But sometimes I need new clothes; so at times I have to spend time thinking about these things. Also, fashion isn’t completely frivolous. Like it or not, what we wear communicates a lot about us to others. Fashion can help people see and get to know who we really are and it can also hide who we are and be a barrier to connection. I don’t want my clothing to be the most memorable thing about me. I want people to be able to get to know the real me, and if I’m dressed super dumpy, over-the-top extravagantly, too richly, or too exposed, people can focus on those things instead of just getting to know me as a person. Furthermore, depending on our roles, what we wear can help people trust in our abilities or encourage them to assume we are ill-prepared to handle the job. For many of us, simply wearing a potato sack every day might actually work against us achieving our God-given tasks in life.
I thought again about Stitch Fix, that clothing subscription that people can sign up for to have a personal stylist pick out five items and ship it to them on a predetermined schedule. I had ordered a Stitch Fix box right after the birth of my son over two years ago and loved it, but at that time, my husband and I decided it was just too expensive, so I didn’t keep up the subscription.
Now, I considered the time spent perusing clothing sites trying to figure out which styles might look good on me, and the money I had wasted buying clothes online that I thought would look good on me, only to get them home and realize they didn’t. I thought about the time and effort it took to get away to the clothing store by myself and the hours spent trying things on and figuring out what I liked, while also trying to imagine if the current purchase might go with other things I already had at home. There was some degree of pleasure in it, but also some degree of tediousness, and I often felt drained afterwards rather than satisfaction. Clothing shopping just took up too much time, and I’d rather spend that time pursuing my blue flame or doing the myriad other tasks involved in running a household than in trying to clothe myself appropriately.
So I subscribed to Stitch Fix again.
I signed up to receive a fix every three months. This allows me to get some clothes or accessories each season to replace those items in my closet that have worn out or become stained. In exchange, I deleted and unsubscribed to apps and emails that sent me clothing deals. Stitch Fix is, for me, at the same time both a splurge and a fast. It is a type of fast because I try not to think about clothing, and I don’t shop or look for clothing anymore. I don’t go on endless internet searches looking for that elusive outfit that I feel is perfectly representative of me. I don’t scroll Pinterest fashion pins trying to figure out what I like and then go on a hunt for items of that type. I don’t allow myself to buy any clothes or accessories other than what I am sent every three months by my clothing subscription unless it is clearly and undeniably a necessity. It’s a splurge because the clothing I get from Stitch Fix does cost more than I would typically spend.
I have overall been happy with the quality of the items from Stitch Fix, however. I remember the jeans I received in my first fix when I was four days postpartum. The jeans somehow fit like a glove and were the softest jeans I had ever felt. Apparently, my whole life I had been used to wearing cardboard that someone had marketed as jeans, and this was my first time trying on actual jeans. I also couldn’t figure out how my stylist, who probably lived in the San Francisco Bay area, managed to send Wisconsin-me a better-fitting pair of jeans than I myself could by going into stores and trying things on. Two years later, they are still holding up well, and yay for the elastic waist, because they still fit me, though slightly looser, even though I am two sizes smaller than I was then.
A clothing subscription has also allowed me to have a certain detachment from my clothes, perhaps not as much detachment as a potato sack would give, but a degree of detachment nonetheless. A box with five items gets sent to me without me spending any mental energy on what is in it, save for the initial questionnaire I filled out when I signed up for the service. If the items fit well and I like them enough, I buy them. For me, even if I don’t love them and even if I don’t receive the most awesome outfit I could have ever hoped for, I’ll usually buy it. I won’t purchase it if I hate it or if I just don’t know where I would wear it, or if buying the piece means I have to buy something else to go with it, but overall, if it looks fine and fits well, I usually purchase it. So in this way, I can have quality clothes that will hopefully last, but without me having to be overly solicitous about what I wear.
In the end, if I can spend more time and energy pursuing my blue flame and attending to the many other tasks I already have on my plate, while handing over my clothing conundrums to someone else whose blue flame is hopefully fashion, it’s worth the extra cash for me. Also, now that I’m not scrolling fashion and home decor apps during my son’s nursing/nap time in the afternoon, I decided to follow the example of St Ignatius, and do spiritual reading during that time instead. Like St Ignatius, I’ve discovered that when I spend that time in the afternoon attending to the state of my soul — praying the rosary or doing spiritual reading — I have a peace that stays with me throughout the rest of my day, and not looking at everything I can’t have has restored the gratitude I feel for the many blessings that I do have that are too numerous to count.
If you’d like to give Stitch Fix a try, you can use this link and you’ll receive $25 off your first order.
Advent is just around the corner so I thought I’d share what my Advent plans are for my family. Advent has become one of my favorite times of the year, and it has become for me a season of quiet and peaceful waiting. It wasn’t always this way, but through some careful decisions about how I’ve wanted to observe this season, I think it has become that season of joyful anticipation it is meant to be.
In this season that is typically high stress for so many people, I see more than ever the wisdom of Mother Church doing things differently. The Church says, “Right now is not the Christmas season. This is the season of Advent, which is a season of waiting and preparing. It can be hard to wait, but don’t worry; the celebration will come in its own time.” I think when we jump the gun and try to start the celebration too soon, it’s hard to fully celebrate. We may be trying to celebrate and get into the Christmas spirit, but our minds are so busy running through their mental checklists of all the things we have yet to do to get ready for Christmas: put up the decorations, bake the Christmas cookies, build the gingerbread house with the kids, see the lights, buy the gifts, wrap them all, send them out, plan the Christmas party, attend the parties, make and send the Christmas cards and on and on! Christmas Day happens which has its own kind of busyness, and then whew! Just like that it’s all over. Seems like a recipe for stress, guilt about all the things we couldn’t get to, and disappointment that things didn’t — couldn’t? — live up to all the hype.
So I’ve worked hard to reclaim Advent, which isn’t easy to do in this culture that tries to make Christmas barge in before Advent has even started. But here is what my family does, and if any of these ideas resonate with you, perhaps you can try them and see if you too can reclaim a bit of the quietness and peace of the Advent season.
I shop for Christmas all year long.
This is super important because gift getting takes a lot of time! Also, buying for everyone on the Christmas list in one or two months is financially stressful. If you haven’t done that this year, I know it’s too late, but you can definitely try this one starting in January. One year it dawned on me that I buy for the same people every year. Also, those same people have birthdays every year. So I made myself a schedule. In the schedule I listed all birthday and Christmas gifts I need to buy during the year, and I divvied it up throughout the 12 months. I have a monthly gift budget, and every month, I need to buy about four gifts. At the beginning of every month, I refer to my list to see what gifts I need to buy this month and then I get them some time during the month. It is sooo much more budget friendly and less stressful than saving all the shopping for the last month or two of the year. I store them all in an unmarked tote in my basement (amongst other storage totes) and my kids are none the wiser about what is in this one particular tote. Come December, save a few small items, nearly all my Christmas shopping is done.
We put up Christmas decorations on December 17th at the earliest.
I sort of feel like if I put the tree up before Thanksgiving, in my house with four kids, one of whom is a toddler, all the beautiful decor would be quite tired looking by the time Christmas actually rolled around. Or even if I managed to keep it looking nice, I might just be tired of looking at it by then. To try to live this season as a time of waiting, however, we wait until Christmas is right around the corner to put up the decorations, and my kids know that when the tree and lights go up, it’s time to get excited because Christmas will soon be here!
We put out an Advent wreath.
Advent is a season of waiting for the Light to come, and trying to prepare our hearts for that Light. So for the evening meal, we eat by the light of the Advent wreath. I got this idea from Mary Haseltine when we tried it last year and we loved it! The first week of Advent, we light one candle, and eat our supper in near darkness. Each week, however, we light one more candle on the Advent wreath, and as we get closer to Christmas, we can see the light grow brighter and brighter. There is something about the meal enjoyed in the darkness with the candle light that makes it seem more special. It marks Advent as set apart from all other seasons.
We put up the Jesse Tree.
Our Jesse tree is a small tree, about the height of a four or five year old, and each evening before bed, we read about one part of salvation history — about how God prepared the world for the coming of His Son through the people and events that happened before Jesus’ birth. This year, I bought Unwrapping the Greatest Gift by Ann Voskamp, and downloaded the free ornaments that come with it. So we’ll be reading her beautiful reflections each day and hanging one ornament.
I try to wait to celebrate Christmas until the Christmas season as much as possible.
When it comes to the celebratory events, I try to wait. We do drive around and look at Christmas lights before Christmas, mostly because I’m afraid if we wait until after Christmas, many of them won’t be lit anymore. If we are invited to a Christmas party or recital, I won’t decline. But, when possible, I save the celebrating. Last year, a local museum had guided tours through their large mansion with live performers dancing scenes from the Nutcracker with the tickets being available even after Christmas, so I bought my tickets for then, rather than going earlier. I usually make out Christmas cards during the Christmas season as well. Maybe everyone thinks I’m late, but I think I’m right on time! Things like making Gingerbread houses or other such Christmas crafts, I do with my children during the Christmas season, rather than try to fit it in before.
We celebrate the whole Christmas season.
Christmas day is just the first day of Christmas, and we aim to celebrate all 12 days. We don’t do any formal school lessons during the Christmas season; we simply relax and focus on celebrating. We watch Christmas movies; make Christmas crafts, enjoy Christmas stories, enjoy some Christmas treats, and the like. For the first time last year, rather than have the children open a mound of presents all on Christmas day, they opened one gift each day of Christmas. Last year, once all the gifts were wrapped and had arrived, I counted up the gifts from my husband and me, the gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and the small gifts the children had made for each other, and each child had about 12 gifts, which seemed rather perfect. So each morning, they opened one gift.
The year before, I had tried to write down each gift in order to have the children make thank you cards later, but in the chaos of ravenous Christmas-morning gift opening, it didn’t quite happen that way. Later I found some gifts that I hadn’t written down and I asked the children who gave it to them and they didn’t have a clue. So much for gratitude when they didn’t even know who gave it! That’s sort of the nature of things, however, when we have a pile of Christmas gifts to get through. We can try to instill gratitude and make the focus of Christmas less about materialism, but I feel like we can be fighting an uphill battle by trying to do that while observing Christmas as it currently exists in our culture. As Kim John Payne says in his book (my favorite parenting book, btw) Simplicity Parenting, nothing in a pile will be appreciated. So, by opening one gift each day, I felt that the children could really savor and appreciate each gift, while also preserving the anticipation of Christmas by knowing that the next day there would be another gift to open. This year, I asked the children if they wanted to open their gifts throughout the Christmas season again, or if they wanted to go back to opening them all on Christmas day. They all were adamant that they wanted to open them throughout the season, even the six year old, who sometimes has a little more trouble waiting for things.
I think by trying to focus our attention on waiting and preparing during Advent, and then fully celebrating during the Christmas season, I enjoy Christmas so much more. When “the holiday season” was a month-long sprint trying to do it all and get it all in, with the culmination of one epic Christmas day, I feel like I almost couldn’t avoid feeling a little let down and burned out by the end of it. And trying to fully enjoy Christmas celebrations when there was so much to do meant that the celebrations themselves were really just one more thing on my to do list. Now, however, with the attitude of waiting for the Light and preparing for Christmas during Advent, and then, when all the preparations have been made and the work has been done, to allow myself to fully relax and enjoy the Christmas celebration (spread out in small doable pieces), I can really enjoy and appreciate so much more the beauty of the Christmas season.
I often encounter the sentiment, whether by outright statement or by mere general attitude, that parenthood should only be undertaken in certain highly controlled and perfectly ideal conditions. Rather than seeing parenting and motherhood as the call of most people, it is often seen as the allowance of a certain privileged few — the well-educated, the financially stable, and the mentally healthy. While I encourage responsible parenthood and agree that there are certain ideal circumstances in which children should be born, (and we shouldn’t necessarily encourage pregnancy for those whose lives are in upheaval), the fact remains that tons of pregnancies happen in less-than-ideal circumstances. Regardless of the circumstances of conception, I believe that pregnancy is always a gift and something worth celebrating.
When I became pregnant with my firstborn, I was unmarried, with inadequate income to support a child, in the throes of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder-induced nightmares and daytime “triggers”. I also routinely cut myself as a way of coping with an emotional pain that I didn’t know how to deal with any other way. And I thank God every day that it was in these circumstances I was given the greatest gift given to woman — the gift of a child.
Let me back up a bit, however, to the occurrences that led to the circumstances above, so easy to type out yet so traumatic to experience, that is, the occurrences of my childhood sexual abuse.
It is impossible to say just how much this one phrase impacted my life. Being just six years old when the abuse started, I don’t have many memories of who I was before it began.
I know before the abuse I was headstrong and confident, even pushy. I was largely care-free. After the abuse I knew profound shame. Along with fear, it was my constant companion and dictated my every thought and action.
Like many victims, unable to process this kind of trauma and betrayal, I made sense of it by coming to the conclusion that it was somehow my fault. Being six, I didn’t really have a name for that elusive quality inside of me that made me different from everyone else. In my mind, it just came to be known as my “badness”. This badness was not even really a part of who I was; it was who I was. I was bad. I didn’t even have a name for sexual abuse or know that’s what it was. In my mind what happened was that this person that I trusted discovered that I was bad and so that is why those things happened to me. I didn’t deserve any better.
My abuser never outright said any of these things to me. He didn’t have to. He abused me and this is what abuse teaches a person. I know from experience that our sexual organs are intimately and powerfully connected to the very essence of who we are. When our sexual experiences are good, wholesome, safe, and loving, our whole person is honored and empowered. When our sexual experiences are abusive, coercive, painful, or associated with being used, the damage done is catastrophic.
At the age of six and thereafter, I knew with every fiber of my being that I was bad and utterly unlovable. I knew if anyone ever discovered the “real” me, they would stop loving me. I knew I couldn’t tell my parents, other family members, or anyone about the abuse. If they knew, that is, if they too discovered my badness, they wouldn’t love me either. For a young child dependent on the care of others, and of course loving her family members, this possibility was terrifying.
As a woman in her 30s writing this, looking back to a six-year-old child believing these things, my heart breaks for her. My heart breaks for me. I want to scoop that child up in my arms and somehow make her see her own beauty, innocence, and value. Eventually I did end up learning that I had worth and beauty, and it was I myself, in a way, who ended up teaching me those truths.
It happened when I was 27. That ‘s how old I was when I gave birth for the first time. I was induced because I was four days past my due date, but thank God, I somehow still managed to have a pretty natural birth. I say thank God, because labor was hard, and it was a great gift from my Creator that it was hard. Labor was painful (and made more painful due to the labor-inducing drug pitocin), but I experienced it, and through the attention and compassionate support of my husband I was able to find the strength within myself to handle it. I felt labor, and because of that struggle, I owned it. When my child was born I knew that this child came into the world not because of a team of medical specialists, but because my body brought her into it. I went through the pain and struggle and momentous effort. My birth was mine, and it was life-changing. When it was over, I knew I could accomplish anything.
In the weeks following birth, some questions began to form in my mind.
Question number 1: How could I be bad if I had created someone so beautiful and perfect?
As I persisted in nursing my daughter, desiring to give her the numerous health benefits associated with nursing — despite my feelings of discomfort at having an infant suck on a sexual organ — a second question formed: What if I have it all wrong?
What if my body wasn’t created as an object to give sexual pleasure to men but to nurture and give life?
So it was, through the nitty-grittiness of motherhood that my body undid all the lies I had previously believed about myself. My body empowered me. I knew that I was good. I knew that I was not a thing but a person who possessed an unfathomable power and dignity. I knew this dignity was inviolable — that nothing I could do and nothing done to me could change this fact about my personhood. I mattered.
In fact, I credit childbirth, breastfeeding, and continuing to honor and listen to my body through Natural Family Planning afterwards, as the biggest contributors to my empowerment as a female. The body parts that were so closely associated with shame and pain were the very parts that taught me so powerfully about my worth. Now, I see pregnancy and birth as a powerful and epic experience that God has designed to break into our lives, in all our woundedness, to give women a lesson and testimony of our worth. And who needs this lesson more than the girl or woman who has been used and broken by the men in her life? When we divorce sex from the possibility of pregnancy through birth control, or convince women facing hardship that they are not fit to parent and it is more logical to abort, we rob them of the very medicine that is designed to heal their deepest wounds.
It is my conviction that God intensified the pains of childbirth for the woman as described in the book of Genesis not as punishment for her sin, but as a remedy to it, because in man’s fallen state he seeks so often to dominate woman. Thus God, in love, provided her with a powerful lesson as the antidote to man’s domination, because we, women, are good and wholly loved, and God wants us to know it.
I often hear comments by people about “those” women whose lives are a mess and “have no business having a(nother) child,” and I always feel personally offended. I’m all for responsible parenthood and all, but I also believe that sometimes parenthood is often the impetus people need to lift themselves out of the muck. I’ve seen it again and again. Parenthood transforms people. Did I deserve a child? Of course not. No one does. God knew, however, that I needed a child, and that with the right support from others, I could embrace motherhood and in the process come to know my true self, as designed by God: wholly loved, gifted, and fully capable of achieving amazing things.
I recognize that not all women will become physical mothers, or that they should, but we should not act as though motherhood is so precise a task as to be undertaken only in the most ideal circumstances. The truth is, that whether by their own plan and desire or by other circumstances, many women find themselves pregnant. In whatever her circumstance, she should be surrounded by the support and care she needs on her momentous journey. I believe that motherhood, however it comes to be, is a gift and it requires our celebration. For me, my unplanned pregnancy was the best and most empowering thing that could have happened to me, and I’m so grateful for such a gift.
Although the mother’s tone was pleasant enough, every word that she spoke to her child was a directive, a correction, or a reprobation. “What color is the slide? I know you know it. No, it’s blue. I expect more from you than that!”…”I’m not going to push you on the swing unless you pump your legs. Bend them. Now straight! Bend! Straight! No, you are doing it backwards. You have to try. You are not trying enough.”…”You need to wait to climb up there until the other children are off. Get down and wait. You know better than that.” I see it all the time. I see it in parks, in stores, when I take my children to the children’s museum, and pretty much any place that families gather. I notice the commanding tone parents use and the stern look in their eyes when they speak to their kids. I observe the frequency with which they correct their children and the infractions they deem worth public correction. Often I see this happen not when the child is being truly unruly, but when they are just being curious, when they are simply unaware of social custom, or even when they are doing nothing wrong at all.
Even though I believe whole-heartedly in peaceful parenting and treating children with the same respect and consideration that one would show an adult — or perhaps even more since a child does not have the same abilities as adults — I don’t judge such parents. I used to be one.
I sometimes shudder at the things I hear parents say to their children, but I remember saying and doing similar things, and in my worse moments, sometimes I hear those things coming out of my own mouth still. Luckily though, even though I am by no means perfect, I’ve come a long way from where I once was. I once believed it was my primary duty to make sure my children acted perfectly polite and genteel at every moment of the day. Also high up on my list of parenting priorities was teaching my children obedience. The result of this way of thinking was that I monitored my children’s behavior like a hawk, swooping in at every hint of self-will. It was exhausting. Observing, correcting, barking orders, punishing every infraction all day every day. Toddlers, not being generally known for their polite, conciliatory natures, made this stage of parenting particularly burdensome on me. Although I loved my children fiercely, motherhood was absolutely exhausting, especially when I became a stay-at-home mom when my oldest was three and her younger sister, six months. As a new mother, it was a lot of pressure.
I also wonder about the children. What kind of pressure are they under when every action is monitored and corrected? What does it do to their psyches when it appears to them that those they love most in the world, their parents, are completely annoyed by their presence, and sometimes say as much to others within their earshot? I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that a child in these circumstances has two choices, to become angry and rebellious at the way they are treated and act out because they are not connected and grounded to anyone, or else to become a compulsive people-pleaser, unable to truly relax into herself but always feeling that she must try harder and do more to earn the love of others.
At this time of year, I also witness the memes about the parents crying tears of joy at the thought of their kids returning to school. I wonder if this mentality, this pressure, and the utter sheer exhaustion of this parenting paradigm is what fuels some of that, and the near-constant comments I hear about my lifestyle. “You homeschool? I could never be with my kids all day.” “You have four kids? I don’t know how you do it. Two was all I could handle.” I think behind their eyes I see some pity as they imagine me tearing my hair out all day from the frustration of having to deal with four of these little humans day in and day out, without break. I have my moments of course; frustrating and exhausting moments a part of parenthood. However — and this is a very important distinction — they should be moments, smaller pieces of time within the context of a much larger, joy-filled whole.
I think our culture has forgotten this. Parenting is supposed to be a joy. We are supposed to delight in our children and our children should see and know that we delight in their presence. Do parents need alone time? Absolutely. Do we need time and space to recharge and pursue our interests outside of childrearing? Of course we do. But if parenting feels like a burden the majority of the time and the hours with our children are characterized by stern words, and feelings of frustration and burnout, then something is wrong and it needs our attention. Don’t tell yourself that this is just the way parenting is. It might be the way parenting is in this culture, but it is not how it should be.
Luckily for me, I stumbled onto the notion of peaceful parenting early in my parenting journey – shortly after I became a stay-at-home mom and struggled with the exhaustion of it all. I remember one day, feeling defeated and overwhelmed, praying to Mary, the Mother of God, to help me to be the mother my children needed me to be. The very next day, my answer came, and I discovered a different parenting paradigm. This new paradigm said that a parent’s primary duty wasn’t to ensure correct behavior at all times, but to model respect. It was not to force obedience, but to nurture connection. This new paradigm held that children have as much dignity as adults and so we should not say or do anything to a child that we would not say or do to an adult whom we respected.
This was radical, but so appealing. I mean, it’s radical as far as treatment of children goes. It’s more commonly acknowledged that this is how our adult relationships should be managed. I don’t publicly correct my husband when it comes to his faults. Either I patiently bear with them, or I try to talk to him about it in private and with sensitivity to his feelings. Similarly, if I am crabby and being rude, my husband doesn’t ground me or yell at me and threaten me with punishments unless I get an attitude adjustment; he asks, “Is something bothering you?” because he knows there is something behind that behavior.
When it comes to children, it is stopping to consider their needs and feelings, and considering how to approach a situation while respecting their dignity. Maybe it means removing them from the situation if they are in danger, maybe it means taking them aside to address the issue in private or at a later time, and maybe it means not addressing it at all because who among us would want to be around someone who pointed out our every fault? It takes a long time to learn how to control one’s emotions and how to act in every situation. This is something I am still learning as an adult! So simply acknowledging that they are children and these things take time I think is often times sufficient.
Before I found peaceful parenting, my oldest had a habit of biting her nails constantly; once I started parenting differently, I noticed that she had stopped. Later on, I wrote this:
I realize now that a lot of the things that I said was for the good of my child, was really for my own convenience. I didn’t feel like playing at the park any longer; I didn’t feel like helping my daughter find a different outfit to put on that she would like better; I didn’t feel like fulfilling her requests that were inconvenient to me, so I said no. Of course, when I am with my friends I like to take as much time as I need; if I wish to change my outfit, I can do so. But small children are not able to do many tasks by themselves and they rely on our help and on our patience in taking the time they need to explore and play (which is their work). How ironic that we expect children to learn to be patient and thoughtful, but we can so often be impatient and dismissive of their wants! I must be thoughtful of my child’s wants before I can expect her to be thoughtful of my own or anyone else’s. I must be willing to change my schedule to accommodate her, before I can expect that she will stop doing what she is absorbed in to accommodate my needs. If children have equal dignity, then we should take their feelings seriously.
Although dealing with less misbehavior was not the goal of this way of parenting, it was a beautiful side benefit. Just like me, when I feel connected and accepted by someone, I am eager to help them however I am able and I am also free to work on my faults from my own self-motivation. I’ve learned children are the same. I’m positive many misbehaviors are prevented by nurturing a strong connection with my children, and when they occur, trying to connect with them instead of punish them has reaped many benefits.
When I came across peaceful parenting, on one hand it took a lot of effort, because it meant I had to learn new ways of handling situations and I had some bad habits to break. On the other hand, however, it was very freeing. I remember being able to simply enjoy my children, to be able to see them and to try to understand them as persons, instead of always evaluating and judging each thing they did. Maybe for the first time, I could enjoy them and try to get to know them instead of always coming at them with an agenda of what I had to teach them.
In this exhilarating, difficult, amazing journey called parenthood, if we are not enjoying it, it may be that, like I was, we are so busy focusing on ‘what’ our children need to learn (and all the things it is our responsibility to teach them) rather than taking the time to enjoy ‘who’ our children are and the moments we have with them. Of course, mental health issues, like depression, could be a factor as well. Or maybe we are trying to do too much and we don’t have the parenting help and the breaks that we need. Maybe our children need help, professional or otherwise, in learning how to deal with life. Whatever it is, I’m positive that lack of joy in the journey should be our wake up call. Being exhausted, stretched, and angered or miserable all the time is not “just the way parenting is”. We’re meant to take joy in our children, to enjoy their presence, and I’m sure it is a vital need of everyone — adults and children alike — to really see and experience that the people we love delight in being with us.
I read a couple news articles last night before bed. The news coming out of Pennsylvania, and the long-term, widespread sexual abuse of children and its cover ups by the hierarchy was sobering.
I experienced anger and disgust. When it comes to the abuse of children, I feel this is only appropriate. I hate that I even have to say that or justify feeling anger. But I know from experience that when it comes to every crime under the sun, people urge justice and encourage the victims to seek justice. Except sexual assault, that is. When it comes to the destruction of homes and property it goes without saying that of course the first thing one ought to do is to call the police and press charges. But when it comes to the holy temples of God that is our bodies, people urge forgiveness instead. “You can’t change the past,” they say. “You just have to get over it and get on with life.” “There’s no use bringing it up and ruining the abuser’s whole life because he made a mistake.” They forget that “bringing it up” doesn’t ruin lives; choosing to abuse and rape other people does. I’m not saying I don’t believe in forgiveness, I do. I believe in it whole-heartedly. But forgiveness doesn’t erase the need for justice and it doesn’t mean enabling a person to abuse again. Also, forgiveness is probably the last stage of the healing process, not the first.
Jesus’ most well-known instance of indignation was with the money-changers in the temple. He overturned tables and even made a whip out of cords to drive them out. He defended the dignity and worth of the temple vehemently, and time and time again Scripture tells us that our bodies are temples of God. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19) “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (1 Cor 3:16-17) So I always hear the Scripture story thinking that Jesus too feels great anger when thieves desecrate the holy ground of a person’s body and if we claim to be Christian, we ought to do the same. Our bodies are sacred. They are worth so much more than stone and they are worth passionately defending.
Of course I also feel sadness. As a survivor myself I know firsthand the devastation that sexual abuse causes. I know without a doubt that, despite the American culture saying that sex is no big deal and that sex can be casual, sex matters. What we do with our bodies and what others do to them matters. Our bodies — those holy temples — are sacred and our sexual parts are the most sacred. I’m positive they are closely linked to the very core of our being, of our personhood, and when a person chooses to sexually abuse another, the damage is catastrophic, life-long, and pervasive. I’m not saying a person can’t heal from sexual abuse; they can, but it takes a long time and they will never return to who they were before the abuse. Even healed, they will never stop living with its effects. I don’t think our culture as a whole understands how insidious and insipid abuse is, how it worms its way into every aspect of one’s life and changes everything. But it does, and until we as a culture and as a Church acknowledge that, we will forever give offenders a slap on the wrist and offer them more compassion than we do their victims.
Part of me also feels some sense of relief, because I see a lot of people getting angry, and I think, “Finally. Maybe we’ve finally acknowledged that sexual abuse is a big deal and its victims are worth getting angry about.” Indeed they are worth getting angry about. We should be very very angry at those who abuse children and those who enabled their abuse, and probably especially so clergy who represent and act in the person of Christ.
I used to be an Advocate for a Sexual Assault Resource Center. I was trained to answer the crisis hotline, to be a support person through medical examinations and evidence collection, during court proceedings, and police questioning or reporting. I’ve talked to tons of survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose families didn’t believe them. I’ve talked to some whose families did, but were so embarrassed by the shame that Uncle Joe’s or Grandpa Sam’s behaviors would bring to the family, they collectively chose to keep the abuse quiet.
I once remarked to a friend that people think honor killings don’t happen in the States, but they happen every time the body of a child is desecrated and the family chooses their own honor and good name over justice and healing for the victim.
I’ve seen mothers choose “not to ruin” the life of their friend’s son over seeking justice for their own daughter. Once I even saw an entire close-knit community choose compassion and support for the rapist over compassion and support for his victim who was also one of their own. In that case, it wasn’t even an issue of believing his word over hers, as he admitted to the deed, and in fact videotaped the assault. So even though everyone knew that, without any shadow of doubt, he abused the girl, the entire community expressed their support and “forgiveness” to him (even though they themselves weren’t the ones he assaulted). During the court hearing, his side of the court room was filled with his supporters. In contrast, the girl sat with her parents, and behind them a couple of advocates. Furthermore, outside the courtroom, she and her family were harassed so much that they ended up leaving town.
The tendency to side with the abuser over the victim is a thing, and it’s pretty prevalent. As a survivor, it’s something I have trouble understanding. Maybe it’s because people just don’t understand the destruction that sexual abuse causes. To us survivors though, it feels like we are being stripped of our humanity and dignity yet again, that our families and communities feel like we don’t really have any value and we aren’t worth defending.
So while I feel anger and sadness, I also form a question in my mind. Once we have demanded justice and the abusers and the enablers within the priesthood and the Catholic hierarchy have been appropriately dealt with, will we sit back in comfort and pretend that the problem has been dealt with? Or will we acknowledge the abuse that is ubiquitous in our society? Will we decide that other victims are worth defending too, and acknowledge that our own institutions and communities need repentance and reform as well?
As a Catholic, I don’t base my belief on fallible humans but on the doctrines of the Church that I believe with my whole mind and heart, but I will continue to be saddened, disappointed, and angered at the wolves in our midst. I will continue to pray for the many holy and faithful priests that have personally blessed me with their sacrificial witness to the love of Jesus Christ. I will be praying for healing for the Body of the Church who has been damaged — not by the report or by victims coming forward — but by the wrongdoing of abusers and enablers. I’ll be praying for the survivors. I’ll also be praying for the abusers because I believe that whenever we become aware of another person’s sin, that that is God’s way of asking for prayers for that person, and whenever a person sins against me I offer the very hurt they caused, all my anger, frustration, and feelings of betrayal and sadness as a prayer for them. It is what Christ did for us on the cross, offering the very suffering that we ourselves caused to win our salvation, and so we must do the same.