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.

My Feminine Life

Ahh, light bulbs, grocery stores, Amazon Prime, and central heating and air-conditioning. They sure are convenient. They are so convenient they make it so that the change of seasons and daily weather often have a minimal impact on our lives. Unlike our ancestors, many of us don’t have seasons of planting, growing, and harvesting, followed by a winter of rest. We likely get up at the same time in winter as we do summer; we likely eat the same kinds of foods year around. If we are the outdoorsy type, what we do for leisure might change with the seasons, but otherwise, our habits and lifestyle likely remain fairly constant. Similarly our culture is pretty bad at taking the time to notice the “seasons” of a woman’s body and live lives in respect to those seasons.

Being the type to love an engaging book along with a hip coffee shop, I’m just as bad as everyone else at respecting nature’s rhythms. In fact, my family might be even worse. Being a stay-at-home mom, with a work-at-home husband, with children that we homeschool means that we spend many days not leaving our perfectly temperature-regulated house. I mean there’s yard work to do and living in Wisconsin means in the winter we will spend some time shoveling and snow-blowing, but that’s pretty much it. Scorching heat? No problem. Thunderstorms? Not an issue. Major blizzard and schools and roads are closed? Doesn’t affect us. When it comes to the rhythms that nature gave me as a woman, however, thankfully my family is much better at respecting those rhythms. So I thought I’d share what my family does and encourage you to figure out if there is something you can do to respect your own rhythms or the rhythms of the women in your life.

Autumn

Autumn

Trees turn red and shed their leaves during this time, and a woman’s body, if she hasn’t conceived a new life the previous cycle, is shedding the inner lining of her uterus. Physically, this is the Menstrual season of her cycle. Relationally, this is the woman’s Reflective time. Physically she does not have as much energy at this time as at other times of her cycle. Relationally, a woman feels more withdrawn and less social. Her spirit wants to reflect and reevaluate her life and how it is going. It is also at this time that she is most likely to “shed” unhealthy ways of thinking or acting, and it’s a great time to get in touch with her spiritual purposes.

What I do to honor this time: At other times of my cycle, I try to get up at 6:30 or 7:00. In my Reflective time, I don’t set the alarm. Instead, I wake up when I wake up. I also reflect more. I try to meditate for 30 minutes every morning regardless of the season, but I notice that during the reflective time my prayer shifts. I naturally ponder what is happening in my life and discern what is mine to do. During the reflection time I often experience a certain degree of clarity. I may have several options in front of me, all being good in themselves, but I know which of those options I need to let go of and which of those I am called to pursue. My husband and I use a Fertility Awareness Based Method, so once I identify my peak day (the most likely day of ovulation) I count ahead to determine when my period will begin and I put it in my calendar and label it “Rest Week”. Then when I am making appointments, I try to avoid scheduling too many social engagements or appointments during my Reflection Time. During this time my husband takes on some of my household chores to allow me the rest I need. He also cajoles the kids into helping out more. Once our daughters begin cycling, they too will be relieved of chores during this time and their dad will honor their need for rest and reflection by doing their chores for them (as I’ll likely be cycling with them).

Winter

Winter

In an agrarian culture, although there are obviously things to do in winter, it is less busy than the planting and harvesting times. Days are shorter and people gather around the fire to hear the stories of their ancestors from the village storytellers. For a woman, after menstruation ends, most women enter their early dry days. There is not a significant amount of activity in the ovaries. They are at rest.  Relationally, this could be called a woman’s Energy time. A woman’s normal level of energy returns after menstruation ends as well as her interest in socialization.

What I do: I emerge from my theoretical red tent. I begin to put into place those things that I discerned and reflected on in my menstrual phase and I resume all my usual activities and although the storytelling might be at a table in a coffee shop rather than around a fire, I gather with my friends and share the joys and sorrows of life.

Spring

Spring

Everything is in bloom and the birds are busy building their nests and making new chicks. For a woman, this is the time of her cycle when she is fertile. Unlike men, who are fertile all the time once they go through puberty, a woman is fertile about a week each cycle. Relationally, this is her Creative Time. She is bursting with creative energy at this time. She also feels selfless and giving. She is most attracted to her husband and she’s emitting pheromones that make her particularly attractive to him.

I was reflecting one day on the fact that, barring the use of hormonal birth control or medical issues, every woman in her childbearing years has this fertile/creative time each cycle. As a Catholic, I believe that creation means something. I believe that each thing in creation is a result of a loving decision by the Creator. I was struck with the observation that not only does God give married women this fertile time, but also single women, teens, religious women, and married women who have discerned that they need to hold off on pregnancy for whatever reason. Why would God give women this gift if He intended they not use it? But then I realized that God does wish for us to use this gift. Women, by our very nature, are life givers. I firmly believe that it is the special task of every woman in her creative time to discern how God is asking her to give life. Is she called to give physical life to someone through bearing a child? Or is she being asked to give life in another way? How can she use her God-given gifts and talents to give life to another? To give another encouragement? To witness to another’s dignity? In what way is she personally and specifically called to breath life into this often bleak and broken world?

It also struck me that of course the God who lovingly designed woman and created her in His image and likeness, respects our design and needs during each season. So God waited for Mary to enter her fertile phase before He sent the Angel Gabriel to her to ask if she would be the mother of Jesus. Being only betrothed but not yet married, for Mary to be found pregnant could have resulted in her being stoned to death. She was likely filled with fear and uncertainty about what God was asking of her. I think in our own spiritual lives, just as we want to be selfless and giving with others during the Creative Time, it is easier for us to be selfless and giving with God during this time. If there is something that we suspect God may be asking of us that we have been afraid to say yes to, now is a great time to give Him our yes.

How I honor this time: Well, if my husband and I have decided we want another child, then we have sex. The rest of the time, however, we abstain during the fertile time. Despite the sacrifice this entails, the Creative Time is my favorite season of the month. I have so much energy. I feel creative and alive. This time is really a woman at her best. She feels like she can tackle anything life throws at her and she probably can. During my creative time I often wake early because I don’t need as much sleep as at other times of my cycle and it is at this time that I often do my best writing. I’m certainly capable of being creative at other times, but here creativity is easy and just pours out. Though my husband takes on some of my chores during the Reflection Time, now, no such assistance is needed. I’m like, “Why don’t you put up your feet and rest, I’m going to clean the house top to bottom, write a best-selling book, and make this three course dinner all while nursing the toddler and do it all today!” Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but you get the idea. The energy and creativity of this time is something I’ve really come to treasure and enjoy.

Because I’m especially geared to connect with my husband at this time, I make sure to do that. It seems like if we can’t come together physically, my husband and I tend to come together emotionally. Over the course of our 12 years together, the times when we have gotten into the best, most connected conversations have often happened when I was in my fertile time but we were abstaining. Not that we don’t connect emotionally otherwise; we often make an effort to, but it just seems that hormones and other chemicals are aligned to really facilitate connection during the Creative Time.

Also, I pray and ponder, “How am I called to give life? In what way can I give my yes?” and “Let it be done to me according to Your word.”

Summer

Summer

For many people summer is a time of socializing at the neighborhood barbecue and swimming in the community pool. After a woman’s time of fertility ends, her energy levels return to their usual level. A few days before her period begins again however, (about two weeks after the end of her Creative time) her energy falls and she again turns inward. Relationally, this is her Sensitive Time. Although at other times she feels confident and capable, during her sensitive time a woman’s spirit is more vulnerable, and she is more likely to feel overwhelmed. Others should respect her needs and not make jokes at her expense. They should be grateful for the many ways she has given the gift of herself during the other times of her cycle and recognize that now she needs to be the one cared for with gentleness. During a woman’s sensitive time, her speech is often more blunt. She will speak her truth and speak it freely! If a woman is the type that usually speaks her mind, she should probably refrain from discussing sensitive topics if tact is needed. However some women have difficulty speaking up for themselves and keep many things inside of them (like me) and so the sensitive time might be a good opportunity for those women to just say what needs to be said.

How I honor this time: When I am in my Late Infertile Phase, I continue to create and do my normal activities until my energy and mood dip down again. At the end of this phase, when I notice that I am being bothered by things that don’t typically bother me, I look at my chart and think, “Yep, I’m due to begin my period in a couple of days.” Then I announce to my husband that I’ve entered my sensitive time. He appreciates this information because he loves me and really doesn’t want to hurt my feelings so it’s helpful for him to know that I’m in need of extra gentleness and care at this time, and probably some extra cuddles too. Although our culture likes to joke about this time and use PMS as an excuse to completely disregard what a woman is thinking or feeling during her sensitive time (or really any time) I really believe that you can learn secrets to her soul that are hidden at other times.

Night and Day

moon

Men are like the sun and women are like the moon. Men’s moods, hormones, and energy levels typically remain fairly constant day after day. Women’s hormones, energy levels, and relational needs change. Unfairly, this has often led to women being castigated as “illogical and unpredictable,” which makes as much sense to me as labeling the waxing and the waning of the moon, or the cycles of deciduous trees as unpredictable and illogical. Being cyclical doesn’t mean we can’t think logically and it obviously doesn’t mean we are without a pattern. When it comes to the moon’s cycle and the cycles of leafy trees we obviously can and do predict them. Women too have a pattern and that pattern can be understood and it is my belief that it should be respected. Although the sun often gets all the credit for life on earth, it is less well-known that without the moon there likely would not have been life on Earth either and that the moon’s absence around the Earth would mean death for us all just as assuredly as would the absence of the sun.

Women have a pattern of rest and reflection; energy, creativity, and socialization; then a return again to rest and reevaluation. I believe this pattern is good and healthy for women, and it is good and healthy for the culture in which each woman finds herself. I can’t help but wonder at the wisdom that could be gained and the gifts that could be shared if men and women were encouraged to understand and honor women’s cycles (both physical and relational) rather than suppress them. Women are a gift to the world, and the world needs us — just as we are.

Note: Much of the information on the relational cycles of women in this post was developed by Elizabeth Ministry Founder, Jeannie Hannemann. If you are interested in a resource to help your preteen or teen understand and appreciate their cycle, a great resource is “Celebrating the Passage to Womanhood” by Hannemann.