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.

Parenting is Supposed to be Joyful

 

Parenting Is Supposed to be Joyful

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.

Mateo saving Nadia

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.

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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.

Experimenting on the Five Year Old

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We love games in our house and so much painless learning happens while playing them. So I recently purchased Games for Math by Peggy Kaye. I figured it’d be a fun way to learn some math concepts while spending some fun, quality time with my five year old. I didn’t expect, however, that it would lead to my 11 year old and I colluding together to experiment on five-year-old Nadia. Yep, I’m a great homeschooling parent. Math games, psychological experimentation, and a child development lesson all rolled into one engaging, fun-filled morning.

I didn’t even get to the first math game, however, because as I was perusing the introduction, something caught my eye. The author was explaining the strange view that young children have of certain mathematical concepts. She told about Julie, a girl of five or six years of age. When having two identical rows of pennies before her, Julie was asked which row held more pennies, or if they were the same. Julie said they were the same. Indeed, she was right. Each row held five pennies. When the author “stretched” out one of the rows of pennies so that there was more space between each penny, (but without adding any additional pennies to the row) Julie decided that the stretched out row held more pennies. Even when she counted and each row still held five pennies, it didn’t matter. The stretched out row had more pennies. As I read, my eyes got wider as I thought of all the fun we could have doing this same experiment on our own five year old.

I quickly and quietly summoned 11-year-old Felicia. “Read this,” I said to her, sliding the book across the table to her as if I were some sort of spy giving an agent their secret assignment. She read the section and looked up at me. No words were exchanged but she knew her mission. She quickly went upstairs to get some pennies out of her piggy bank and placed them in two rows.

“Nadia!” We yelled into the living room. “Want to play a counting game?” Felicia asked her, “Which row has more pennies; or are they the same?” Nadia looked, “They’re the same.” Felicia stretched one row out. “Are they still the same?” Sure enough, Nadia thought the stretched out row had more. Even though we had her count each row, the one row still had more pennies in her mind.

We moved on to the next experiment involving two parallel strips of paper. “Which one is longer, or are they the same?” we asked. Nadia said that they were the same. Felicia moved one strip over a little. Nadia thought the one that had moved was longer. Felicia and I were fascinated.

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Nadia also thinks warm weather means you wear a swimming suit. So here she is playing in the snow in a swimsuit, because that’s how we roll in Wisconsin.

The book explains that psychologists have a name for Julie’s and Nadia’s stage of mathematical thinking. They call it pre-operational and sometime between the ages of five and seven, children naturally and effortlessly move into the next stage of concrete operations. So I didn’t try to correct Nadia. I simply observed her normal (and funny) stage of development. I figure some time in the next couple of years, she’ll grow out of it on her own. In the meantime, it sure provided Felicia and me a morning’s entertainment.