Woman: Icon of the Church

It was always there in the language and theology of my Catholic upbringing, but I never really gave it much thought, until one day there it was, fresh and new, a treasure hidden in plain sight. The Church is referred to as she, and she is called Mother Church. Scripture is full of references to Christ the Bridegroom, and his bride, the Church. Ancient iconography has depicted the Church as a woman. Theologians also speak of Mary, the mother of God, as the image of the Church, but perhaps it would not be wrong to say that all women have a share in this role as icons of the Church. In fact, it seems to me that the physical realities of femaleness reveal this spiritual truth: women are icons of the Church.

The Liturgical Cycle

Percentages are approximate. The times and lengths of each season vary slightly according to the calendar year.

Let us consider the Church’s Liturgical Cycle, that is, the Church seasons that order the year around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The first day of the liturgical year is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season of Preparation, in which we prepare our hearts (and environments) for the celebration of Christmas. Christmas day is the first day of the Christmas season, but the whole season lasts a couple of weeks. After the Christmas celebration comes the season of Ordinary Time, or, as it is sometimes known, the “Growing Time”. So we prepare for Christmas, we celebrate it, then we grow.

Then the pattern repeats. With Lent comes another season of Preparation in which we prepare our hearts to celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The Easter celebration begins on Easter day. It is the liturgical high point of the entire year, and so we really celebrate for a whole fifty days, in fact. Pentecost is the concluding feast in Easter, when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then comes Ordinary Time. This second Ordinary Time in the Church year is quite long, lasting almost the whole second half of the year.

The fertility cycle

Percentages are approximate. Exact percentages vary among women or among particular cycles.

One day, as I was studying a material designed to explain the Liturgical Year to young children it dawned on me that the liturgical calendar looks remarkably similar to a woman’s fertility cycle. And, in fact, my previous struggles in explaining and classifying the different parts of a woman’s cycle were clarified and resolved when viewed through the lens of the Church year.

Let me explain. We can separate a woman’s fertility cycle into three parts: the Early Infertile Phase, the Fertile Phase, and the Late Infertile Phase. The first day of a woman’s cycle is the first day of her menstruation. Physically, of course, this phase of her cycle is characterized by her menstrual flow. Interiorly, however, it is characterized by a heightened interest in reflection and reevaluation. She naturally feels pulled inward during this time and she wants to let go of unhealthy behaviors or thought-patterns that are not serving her well. This can be a powerful time of prayer with renewed clarity of her calling and her purpose. After menstruation ends some women have what we Fertility Awareness Instructors call her Early Dry Days. Not all women will have a time of infertility between menstruation and the start of their Fertile phase, as women with short cycles may go from menstruation right into their time of fertility. Therefore the Early Infertile Phase is typically the time of menstruation and it may or may not include some days between menstruation and fertility.

In the language of the Church, the seasons of Preparation are penitential, and there is a heightened emphasis on metanoia, that is a turning around to face a new direction. We are called to examine our lives prayerfully and discern what is holding us back from being who God is calling us to be. This is exactly what women naturally do during their Early Infertile Phase, and therefore I think we could call this time in a woman’s cycle a season of Preparation.

Following her Early Infertile Phase is a woman’s Fertile time. This is the time in which she is capable of becoming pregnant. Despite the fact that I have spent a significant portion of my fertile times avoiding pregnancy (and therefore abstaining from sex) the Fertile time has become a treasured season for me. It is the time when I feel my best. I feel energetic; creativity comes more easily; I’m brimming with ideas, and I’m ready to take on the world. Physically, a woman is most interested in sex at this time and wants to give her yes to a man (and she’s emitting pheromones that make her husband most want her as well), and this is also true in her spiritual life. She wants to be generous with what God may be asking of her. Like the Blessed Mother, she will more easily give her yes. Spiritually, it is the task of every woman who is in her fertile phase to discern how God is asking her to give life. Is she called to be open to physical life through the conception of a child within her? Or is she called to give her yes, and give life to the world through some other creative endeavor? Because a woman experiences peak creativity and energy at this time, physically feels her best, and is also capable of conceiving a new life, I think it is appropriate to call her time of fertility a season of celebration.

Previously, in my discussions and writings on the fertility cycle, I have always struggled to classify the Late Infertile Phase. What goes on interiorly? The couple of days prior to menstruation a woman feels more sensitive and vulnerable, but what about the ten or so days before that, when a woman is no longer fertile, but she’s not preparing to menstruate either? While the time of menstuation is certainly noticable, and the time of fertility is sort of epic the high point of the fertility cycle, what about after these times? In my experience I always just feel, well, ordinary. I’m not tired and super reflective, but not overflowing with creativity either. But perhaps that’s precisely it. Like the Liturgical Year, after Preparation and Celebration come the woman’s Ordinary Time.

The word ‘Ordinary’ though comes from the Latin ordinalis, which means ordered, but this understanding of the word is also fitting in regards to women’s fertility cycles. Like the Church calendar, a woman’s bodily calendar, and the pattern by which we are to live, has been ordered for her. In the Liturgical year, the second Ordinary Time lasts almost the whole second half of the year, and likewise, in a woman’s fertility cycle, her ordinary time (or Late Infertile Phase) is also almost the whole last half of her cycle. It would also be appropriate to call this phase in the fertility cycle the Growing Time because physically, the inner lining of the woman’s uterus is growing in thickness under the influence of progesterone and also, if she has conceived during her fertile phase, the new life within her is already growing, though she won’t know it until her missed period two weeks later.

universal church and domestic church

GreenCircleFractal

So in the Liturgical Calendar, the whole Church prepares, celebrates, then grows, and fixed into the body of every woman we see this same repeating cycle. Mother Church calls all her children to live by the rhythms of this cycle, this pattern around the life of Christ. Similarly, in my home, the Domestic Church, my family is pulled into my rhythm. My children all know that I have a “rest week” when I don’t have as much energy and my husband and children do some of my chores to allow me more time for rest and reflection. During my time of fertility they see me buzzing about full of energy and ideas (and maybe roping them into things), and then life is again ordinary.

My husband observed that a woman’s whole life also reveals this pattern. A young girl is in her Early Infertile Phase, a woman in her childbearing years is in her fertile phase, and a post-menopausal woman is in her Late Infertile Phase. Preparation, Celebration, Ordinary Time. My husband likened it to the self-similarity within a fractal, that is, the same pattern repeating at different scales. To be a woman is to enter into the lived experience of this repeating pattern, and hopefully, the wisdom that living this pattern inspires.

So it strikes me, if God has placed this pattern into the body of every woman from the beginning of humanity, and the Holy Spirit has placed this same pattern into the Church year, it must be important maybe even vitally important. God seems to be saying, “Pay attention! Something great and significant is here!” It seems to me that if the very physiology of women model the liturgical cycle of the year which is itself patterned around the life of Christ, then it is also true that women’s bodies, from the beginning of humanity have prefigured the life of Christ, and, from the time of humanity’s redemption on the cross we have modeled it. Christ is the blueprint for all creation and it is a singular gift to women that we physically image and model Christ’s pattern of redemption in such an incarnational way.

In its teaching on the Church as mother and teacher (and which I think could be applied to women as a particular image of the Church), the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

From the Church [the Christian] learns the example of holiness and recognizes its model and source in the all-holy Virgin Mary; he discerns it in the authentic witness of those who live it; he discovers it in the spiritual tradition and long history of the saints who have gone before him and whom the liturgy celebrates in the rhythms of the sanctoral cycle (CCC, 2030).

As the Church goes, however, so go women. To me, it is no surprise that a culture that has decided it no longer needs the Church, her sacraments, her rhythms, and her traditions has also decided that it no longer needs femininity itself. In fact, so useless does our culture deem our way of existing in the world, that it routinely convinces millions of women to expunge our natural rhythm from our lives entirely. I believe it is one of the biggest tradgedies of the modern world that millions of girls and women have been convinced that their time of peak energy, creativity, and generosity that they experience mid-cycle is of no importance or use, or worse, is actually a burden and thus better to just be medicated away through chemical birth control. And on top of this, so many fail to recognize the dignity of women and girls in their full humanity and instead view them solely as a means of their own selfish gratification.

you are beautiful in every way, my friend, there is no flaw in you! (Song of Songs 4:7)

Woman, the culture in which you live might not understand or value who you are, but your Creator does. I am convinced that each part of your being is the result of a loving decision by the One who made you. Furthermore, your value doesn’t come from your ability to emulate the masculine pattern of living. On the contrary, it is your pattern of reflection and reevaluation, of celebration and growth that should be the model of a holy life centered on the incarnate Christ because you are a woman, bride of Christ, and icon of the Church.

The Church is essentially both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities, zealous in action and dedicated to contemplation, present in the world, but as a pilgrim, so constituted that in her the human is directed toward and subordinated to the divine, the visible to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, the object of our quest.

O humility! O sublimity! Both tabernacle of cedar and sanctuary of God; earthly dwelling and celestial palace; house of clay and royal hall; body of death and temple of light; and at last both object of scorn to the proud and bride of Christ! She is black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, for even if the labor and pain of her long exile may have discolored her, yet heaven’s beauty has adorned her.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (CCC, 771)

Work Cited:

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 2030.
  2. St. Joseph edition of the New American Bible Revised Edition. (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1970).
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 771.

New Feminism is True Feminism

 

When people ask what I do, I typically reply that I’m a homemaker. However, I’m also privileged to walk with women and couples learning Fertility Awareness. I am incredibly grateful for having learned Fertility Awareness early in my marriage, and being able to teach others in its use is something that I love to do. I have many reasons why I love it, but one major reason is because I’m a feminist and I believe that Fertility Awareness is founded upon the ideals of respect and reverence for the female body and its use encourages an attitude of genuine self care for women.

In the 1960s, Dr John Billings began studying the female cycle, trying to understand its fertility cycle. After numerous studies and listening to the observations of hundreds (thousands?) of women, Doctors John and Evelyn Billings, along with the help of their colleagues, were able to set forth the first modern method of Fertility Awareness that, unlike the Calendar Rhythm method of previous generations, allowed real women to understand their individual cycles with great accuracy and to use their knowledge to plan their family size with great effectiveness. I love that their attitude was one of simply trying to understand what was, seeing the female body as good and healthy in itself, rather than trying to change or alter women’s bodies with an attitude of female inadequacy.

When it comes to artificial birth control, on the other hand,  its history is fraught with misogyny and racism. Dr. Ellen Grant, in her book The Bitter Pill describes how the first birth control pill was designed to be used by men, but because one male had slight shrinkage of one testicle, the whole endeavor was called off, and the pill was redesigned for use by women. In the first human study for the redesigned pill, three women died from it and all that was done in response was to adjust the dosage. The atrocities don’t end there. I’m not going to recap every cruel act that has been performed on women and particularly women of color in the name of birth control (I would need to write a book for that), but here’s an interesting article on the subject of the history of keeping birth control side effects secret from women (or even the knowledge of what the medication was designed for).

Unfortunately, the shady dealings of the birth control industry isn’t even relegated to the distant past. In the last 20 years several class action lawsuits have been brought against birth control companies. Yaz, Yazmin, Essure, Navaring, Orthoevra, and more have all been the subject of these lawsuits, due to the extreme side effects of death, permanent infertility, or various issues of permanent debilitation. In some cases, the product has been removed from the market, but in others, like Yaz, the FDA decided to simply add another warning to the birth control insert. When it comes to women making informed consent, I’m not sure the small insert goes far enough as many women don’t read them. As a Fertility Awareness Instructor, I help a number of women seeking to transition from the use of artificial birth control to a natural means of understanding and working with their fertility. When I discuss the fact that oral contraceptives were classified as a Group One Carcinogen by the World Health Organization in 2005 for breast, liver, and cervical cancer, and that the risk of developing cancer is highest for women who use oral contraceptives for four or more years prior to their first full-term pregnancy, in my anecdotal experience, I have yet to have one client who says that she was informed of these risks. The typical response I see from women is shock and anger that no one ever told them this.

I believe that artificial birth control, instead of being women’s liberator as it is often touted to be, is quintessentially anti-feminist. The whole mindset of birth control is one that values external control of the female body and disdain for our natural processes, attitudes which are completely at odds with authentic feminism. Again and again the well-crafted narrative is that artificial birth control is worth celebrating because it has allowed women to succeed and achieve their dreams. As a woman, I resent the insinuation that my natural functioning is flawed or that I need to handicap my fertility in order to achieve the goals and dreams I have for myself, especially when it means that the price for career advancement or furthering education is living at less than my optimum level of health. Because, of course, hormonal birth control does not just cease women’s ovulation in a vacuum. It impairs her whole systemic functioning, and decreases women’s overall well-being. It affects vitamin absorption, mood, memory, energy levels, alters the actual size of her brain, and even affects women’s choice of mate. Furthermore, rather than demanding real respect for our bodies and fighting for workplace and societal changes that accommodate women’s needs, like paid parental leave, flexible scheduling, and more, we are encouraged to deny our legitimate needs, and even risk our health — anything so long as we get a seat at the coveted men’s tables.

Not only does a birth control culture not advance the legitimate rights of women, it, in fact, sets us back because it perpetuates a culture that ignores women’s needs (like access to medical solutions that treat disorders rather than mask them, for example). To me, fighting for access to contraceptives is like fighting in support of the cultural narrative and belief that women, in our most natural state, are inferior to men and the only way we can reach our fullest potential is to handicap and assault our biology. It is fighting for women’s “right” to damage ourselves in accommodation to a misogynist mindset rather than fight for the culture to accommodate and honor women’s essential needs, and recognition of our equality just as we are. It is fighting for people to pity those of us who (in their opinion) have the misfortune of being born female, rather than fighting for a culture of care and reverence for the dignity of being female. It fights for women bearing the sole burden of side effects when our natural biology is assaulted rather and advocating for a culture of care and support for the unique and authentic needs we have.

Artificial birth control was founded in misogyny and therefore it will never bring the liberation or the recognition of women’s equality that women seek. Furthermore, it seems like fighting an uphill battle to ask men to recognize our dignity when we ourselves do not accept and respect our own bodies or really even view them as equal to men’s. With Fertility Awareness, on the other hand, women experience the real liberation of working with our biology rather than assaulting it, and our partners are expected to do the same.

 

 

My Feminist Home

My Feminist Home

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

  • equality
    for all human beings, regardless of gender, race, religion, politics, age, size, or any other circumstance.
  • non-discrimination
    because any act of discrimination (whether it be sexism, racism, ageism, or ableism) is contrary to human dignity.
  • nonviolence
    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.

Easter 2019

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.

As I wrote a long time ago on the Guiding Star Project blog, back when I was on the Board:

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

 

 

 

Let’s Stop Shaming People for Being Female

Let's Stop Shaming People for Being Female

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.

Footnotes:

  1. Emily Glover. “8 Women Share What It’s Like to be Shamed During Pregnancy.” Ravishly. Nov 23, 2016. Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.ravishly.com/2016/11/23/8-women-share-what-its-be-shamed-during-pregnancy
  2. “Contraceptive Use in the United States.” Guttmacher Institute. July 26, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/contraceptive-use-united-states
  3. “About Half of U.S. Abortion Patients Report Using Contraception in the Month They Became Pregnant.” Guttmacher Institute. Jan 11, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2018/about-half-us-abortion-patients-report-using-contraception-month-they-became   
  4.  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
  5. D. Paton, “The Economics of Family Planning and Underage Conceptions.” Journal of Health Economics. 21, no. 2 (Mar 2002): 207-25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11939239
  6. 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

I Believe in Motherhood

Motherhood

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.

baby Feli
Me in my first year of motherhood.

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.

sleeping baby Feli
Me and my firstborn.

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.

Firstborn
My firstborn today.