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.

Thoughts on Sexual Abuse and Cover Ups

Sexual Abuse and Cover Ups

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.