In college I had two French professors whose advice I sought out during senior year.
That angsty season of trying to figure out what on earth one could do with a liberal arts degree, thanks to four delightful years of studying the humanities. And what on earth one should do with a heart that was getting ruined for Christ, thanks to four discomforting years of learning about service and theology and ministry.
The first professor had been a favorite since freshman year, first semester. I landed by luck in her Freshman Seminar and took every course she offered after that. She was brilliant, engaging, encouraging, funny and charming. (It didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous and lived all over the world and had a beautiful home where she hosted dinners at the end of every semester.) She mentored me through choosing a major, finding a study abroad program, and starting graduate level work in the department.
The second professor was a medieval scholar with whom I had several classes during junior and senior year. She was calm and quiet, patient and thoughtful, dedicated and hard-working. (Plus she had the most amazing curly hair that she could pin up in gorgeous buns a la the Renaissance damsels she studied.) She understood my passion for languages and let me explore creative approaches to her assignments.
So faced with the college senior’s perennial dilemma of what to do next, I thought of both of them. And in the span of one short month, tulips miraculously springing along every footpath on campus, I stopped by both of their office hours to pick their brains about how I might spend the next year of my life.
The first listened to me babble (in French! those were the days) about how I wanted to do something with my French degree but wasn’t sure anymore if the academic track was right for me. I’d found a few programs that would let me volunteer abroad in Francophone countries, and I wondered if I should try that while I figured out whether I wanted to be a professor.
She listened, nodded, asked good questions. I don’t remember anything concrete she said during the span of that conversation, but I left feeling affirmed – like this mentor of mine understood why I might not want to follow in her footsteps, yet encouraged me anyway.
The second listened to me just as attentively. But my concerns and questions didn’t seem to resonate in the same way. Sensing that she might not be seeing the crux of the question at the heart of my wrestling, I stopped and posed her a question. How did she integrate her faith and her work? This was really the weighty load I was carrying around for senior year – what did this nagging sense of God’s call for my life mean for the clear path I thought I’d set out on?
She looked me straight in the eye and said, You just have to learn to compartmentalize your life. I’m a Christian, and I do that.
She went on to talk about working during the week, dedicating herself to her students and scholarship, and then going to church on Sunday. And as she spoke, I realized with perfect clarity that she had helped me make up my mind. This kind of segregation was not the life I wanted.
At the end of our conversation, I thanked her for her time and stepped back into the corridor, closing her office door behind me.
To this day, I’m sure she has no idea that our conversation changed the course of my life.
. . .
Who are the midwives of our dreams? The ones who believe in our power, encourage our laboring, promise us that the end result will be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears?
For my first two babies, I saw a nurse-practitioner in my regular OB clinic. She was smart and sharp, witty and understanding, clear and confident. I liked her style.
But towards the end of my second pregnancy, I started noticing that perhaps she wasn’t as supportive of my questions as I’d hoped.
I asked whether it would be ok for our doula to be with us during the whole labor again, and she shrugged. Sure, I suppose. As long as she’s not in the way.
I asked whether I could deliver without drugs, free from pressure from the nursing staff, and she smirked a little. If you’re a glutton for pain, I guess. But you’ll probably end up wanting an epidural again.
I asked if baby could room in with us if everything went smoothly with the birth, unlike last time when our son had to stay in the level 2 nursery for the week. If you really want that. But you should give yourself a break and get some rest, too.
I started to leave my appointments with more confusion than clarity. And after a birth that went beyond my wildest expectations – so fast the doula couldn’t get there, so strong that my own power could match it, so smooth that we got to leave the hospital early with our healthy baby – I realized that I wanted something different from a future health care provider.
I wanted someone who understood.
. . .
Only a few months into this pregnancy, I realized why I love my current practice of midwives so much. It’s not because they encourage natural birth or talk about the emotional side of pregnancy or keep prenatal care as non-invasive as possible, although they do all these things beautifully.
It’s because they remind me of the other midwives in my life.
Friends who walked with me through the biggest decisions of college and grad school. Family members who coached me through challenges big and small. Teachers and mentors who guided by example and instruction. Even the 85 year-old Benedictine sister who has graced me with her wisdom as my spiritual director.
I see glimmers of all of them in these midwives. A spirit of gentle encouragement. A strength of loving support. A source of powerful wisdom.
And I wonder if I can be this for my own children one day, too. A midwife for their dreams.
The Psalms speak of God as midwife, guiding us from the first moments of our journey, caring for us from our mother’s womb.
Maybe we are all called to be midwives for each other, no matter our age, stage or situation. Maybe we are called to mirror God who companions us in our most vulnerable, painful moments and assures us that we are strong beyond our fears.
And maybe sometimes we are called to let others serve as midwives for us, too.
To accept their care and support. To surrender to their wisdom, even when we are so wrapped up in our worries that we cannot see clearly what lies ahead. To place our trust in their skilled hands and know that we will emerge safely on the other side.
“Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me
you have been my God.”
Who has helped midwife your dreams?
I do not like the experience of pregnancy. There. I said it.
I like the fact of being pregnant. I love the gift of life, the sheer blessedness of getting to bring a child into this world. I love the answer to prayer brought by pregnancy after infertility and miscarriage, the undeserved grace that this is how our story turned out. I love the overwhelming abundance of a healthy pregnancy, knowing that – for now – everything looks good with the baby growing within me.
But I hate the way I feel and think and act while pregnant.
I hate morning sickness that drags months beyond what every expert tells you is “normal.” I hate taking medicine merely to function beyond the overwhelming nausea. I hate the exhaustion that sends me to bed at 8:30 most nights. I hate the nagging back pain and the chronic discomfort and the unmentionable side effects. I hate how big I get so quickly, how eyebrows raise when I tell my due date because it doesn’t fit anyone’s mental math of how I must be packing my hospital bag already.
I do not glow. Mostly I glower.
And then – because of the infertility and the miscarriage and the awareness of how pregnancy and parenthood have brought unexpected suffering to so many people I love – I feel guilty on top of everything else.
No wonder the baby’s estimated arrival date is circled and highlighted and exclamation-pointed on every calendar I can find.
. . .
When I started reading Sarah Jobe’s Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy, I was wary. Of course I love a good practical theology as much as the next girl with a Master of Divinity degree, but I could not bear a feel-good tribute to pregnancy’s bountiful blessings.
Thank God, the author felt the same:
Pregnancy is at the heart of God’s work in the world. Pregnant women are the image of God among us. But those truths are sometimes hard to see…I still can’t bring myself to say that I love pregnancy. But deep down, I really do. Pregnancy is a place where heaven and earth meet and constipation takes on cosmic significance. What’s not to love?
I decided I could stomach this spiritual spin on What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Over the past few weeks, Jobe’s book has made me think about pregnancy in a different light.
When I threw up in the kitchen sink on the morning of week 22.
When I admitted to my husband that the maternity coat that was supposed to last the long Minnesota winter was perhaps getting a teensy bit snug.
When my chiropractor whistled and said, “Wow, you’re one tough cookie,” at the last adjustment to relieve my throbbing low back pain.
None of this was what I wanted. But this is simply the reality of pregnancy in my life.
So where is God in all that mess?
Jobe’s book reminded me to look at the flip side of pregnancy’s suffering. To see the grueling work of creation, the giving work of laying down your self for another, the groaning work of birthing new life into the world.
All of it is shot through with God. But not the doe-eyed Precious Moments God plastered across Hallmark cards and nursery decorations.
The God I meet in pregnancy and the work I do in pregnancy are nothing like I expected. But I’m realizing that they might reveal even more about God’s truth than I want to admit.
God’s work in the world is nauseating. Feed the poor? Care for the sick? Visit the imprisoned? Most of what that demands makes my stomach churn.
God’s work in the world is uncomfortable. Love your enemy? Give all you have to the poor? Forgive 70 times 7? I’m already squirming just thinking about it.
God’s work in the world is unpredictable. Set my people free? Come and follow me? Go and make disciples of all nations? None of those detours were in my plans.
God’s work in the world can be peaceful and glowing, joyful and thrilling. But it can also be tumultuous and dark, unsettling and disruptive.
And if the work we’re called to do in the world is God’s work, and if the image we’re called to bring to the world is God’s image, then I don’t get a nine-month reprieve from this deepest calling of the Christian life.
If I’m trying to see the God-image in other people, I have to try to find it in the mirror, too.
. . .
So maybe it’s ok if strangers stare when they see me pregnant.
Maybe it’s fine if I look bigger or feel sicker than everyone thinks I should.
Maybe if we all bear the mystery and likeness of God to each other – and I believe we do – then pregnant moi is a visual reminder that the image of God stretches far beyond our expectations.
Whether we feel beautiful or broken, sick or strong, there is still God behind our eyes and in our bones.
Even tired mama eyes and aching pregnant bones.
Mama, do the Our Father in French tonight.
He whispers his request as he burrows under the comforter, eyes flashing bright in the dim of his bedroom draped in night. Of course, I agree. And in an instant we’re off. I close my eyes and start to sing, and for a moment I drift back.
The cold stone church, frigid even in summer. The rows of plain wooden chairs with ancient woven seats. The prayers of the Mass turned to poetry in another tongue, the words I committed to heart to keep from flipping through my missal every moment like the obvious outsider that I was, even after a year.
I’ve forgotten so many words from that time – the names of strange vegetables at the market, the polite way to ask for directions, the slang on the corner store magazines. But still the language lingers, if not on my lips then deeper.
Even when I thought I’d left it behind.
. . .
Some choices seem definitive. I dropped the journalism minor when I fell hard for the humanities. I left the English major behind when art history flared its passion. But I could never quit the French. Even when it was impractical, indulgent, unemployable, save for the doctorate too many professors tried to push me towards.
So when I finally had to admit to myself that there was a turning, that the longing was no longer for language, that the tug was towards theology – the deepest of the humanities, the heart of the cultures I loved, the Word before all other words – I had to grieve the loss.
There were dreams – of a Parisian address, of doctoral programs abroad, of years spent pouring through poetry – that I had to let slip away.
Maybe somewhere deep down I wondered if it might bubble up again, if I could come back to the conjugations and the circumflexes and pick back up where I’d left off.
But I never really thought it would happen.
. . .
People would ask sometimes: you’re teaching the boys French, right?
And I’d look up at them with dark circles under my eyes from bedtime battles and mid-night nursing and early morning rising to tug soaked sheets off the crib again, and I’d think to myself: you’re kidding, right?
But then little by little, it started to creep back in.
A nursery rhyme here, a church hymn there. A few cooking words in the kitchen while we’d bake. A simple grace before meals. Then one rainy afternoon I taught the oldest Notre Père and we were off.
Suddenly he was digging out the children’s dictionaries and asking me to tell him words-in-French from his favorite books and correcting his little brother’s toddler version of Frère Jacques.
How did we get here? I’d wonder.
. . .
I’d only grabbed the church bulletin out of habit, something to read for the thirty seconds between strapping the last kid in a car seat and starting the car to drive home. But that Sunday a small notice in the corner caught my eye: French translators needed.
Turns out our sister parish in Haiti was sending a team to visit us this fall. Since they didn’t speak English and our folks didn’t know Creole, everyone’s non-native tongue was the only way to email back and forth.
You’re kidding. I thought to myself. I could actually help them with this from home?
So here I am now, the giant black French dictionary back on the desk, the dusty Micro Robert off the shelf to check verb tenses, even the Google Translate cheat to look up words that didn’t exist a decade ago in my college texts. I’m back in the world of delighting at what translates well and laughing at what’s impossible to culturally correspond, back in the world where we reach across differences through the power of language, back in the world where words matter deeply.
And with each email request that pops in my inbox, I remember how much I love this world.
Would I have had the courage, the confidence, even the chutzpah to blow off the dust and start the rusty wheels squeaking again, if it hadn’t been for these little boys who dragged me back first? It’s a terribly humbling thing, to spend years of your life perfecting a language and then fumble for the most basic turns of phrase years later.
But my son’s Montessori teacher talks over and over about synapses, about stretching out the tiny tendrils of a preschooler’s mind so that years from now, when he comes across rhombus or ovoid or quadratic equation, the synapses will already be reaching out across the divide to let the spark jump that much quicker.
Maybe callings run across these same impulses and energies. When we spend years chasing one dream, plowing into the work and sacrifice it takes to strive for a worthy goal, then even when we turn and take up another direction, the pathways do not close completely behind us. There’s still electricity waiting to leap across the now-dark abyss.
In all my work on vocation, these are my favorite stories. Not I knew I wanted to be a doctor from the time I was 5 years old. Not I stumbled into this work, though looking back I can see God’s hand.
But I had this dream once, and I thought I let it go, I thought my life turned in a very different direction, but then it turned out that years later, I did get to follow that dream after all.
So when he cuddles under the quilt and asks me to sing Je vous salue Marie again, I always say Yes.
You never know where Yes will lead.
It was an ordinary moment, during an ordinary day, in an ordinary week.
(Which, in the midst of life with littles, means complete chaos.)
Ordinary is never boring, never dragging these days. Our ordinary is unexpected, our mundane is a mess.
With each new dawn, schedules get shifted and plans get changed. One boy rises early, the other sleeps late; one naps like a dream, one wrestles like a nightmare; one gobbles three plates, the other shoves the spoon away. The next day they switch roles and everything changes again. Never a dull moment.
It was one of these everyday-crazy moments that I paused, my attention caught by turning leaves on the tree near our window, flashing orange in afternoon sun. Ordinary, I thought, such an ordinary day.
Even in the midst of mania – one child spilling CDs from the cabinet, the other pulling paints from a drawer – my thoughts tended theological, as they often do.
I thought about ordinary time, where the church spends most of its year. I thought about all of Jesus’ ordinary time, the years before his public ministry. So much of what matters is ordinary – the regular season, the everyday work.
In a season of life when so much seems ordinary, preparation for what’s ahead or maintenance of what’s right now, I sometimes think about all the ordinary years that Jesus spent. Scripture goes silent on the subject; the Gospels skip from twelve-in-the-temple to thirty-in-the-desert in the flip of a page. But those long lost years must have held quiet growth, careful learning, hard work, cultivated relationships, deep prayer. It made all the difference how Jesus lived his ordinary years.
So many days I dream, amidst the cries and chaos, about the years to come. When the house is finished. When my kids are in school. When I have more time to write. I often wrestle with the waiting, the reality of so much ordinary stretching out in front of me.
But when I stop, seized by an extraordinary ordinary like autumn leaves in October sun, I realize how much God must love ordinary. Because all of life is wrapped around it.
The sacred ordinary of every day.
The baby is nine and a half months old.
I could say I don’t know where the time flew, but I do. Newborn blur, life with two littles, the months when he stopped sleeping, the months when we started moving. Since his arrival on this spinning planet, we’ve been whirling fast.
But the nine month marker makes me stop and take notice.
He’s now been on this side of life – the bright, busy, bustling side – for as long as he grew in silence and darkness within me. It’s the tipping point towards life ex utero.
When I marvel at how much he’s changed since last August, I realize it’s matched only by the astonishing growth that took place in his first nine months, the ones wrapped in mystery. Before my eyes he’s learned to smile and laugh, crawl and creep. But before I ever glimpsed him, he transformed from two cells into a complete, complex human being. A holy mystery.
In Scripture, the Hebrew word for mercy is related to the word for womb. Thus, to live within God’s compassion is to rest within God’s womb. A reassuring image of God’s mothering love.
Yet as I reflect on my son’s nine months within and nine months without, I realize that God’s womb is also a challenging place to be.
We think of the womb as a place of protection, creation and nourishment. But it is also a place of transition and tremendous change, from which we are thrust out into a world that is bigger and brighter and more terrifying than anything we ever imagined inside. The mercy and compassion of God in which we live and move and having our being sends us forth to something more, something beyond. The love of others. The sacrifice of self. The challenge of forgiveness. The struggle for justice.
I remember in the last weeks of both my pregnancies when strangers and friends would remind me that it’s easier to care for a baby while he’s still inside. And it’s partly true. While I was pregnant, my babies slept and ate and grew all on their own – without my having to rouse for 2 am feedings, change their diapers or wash their clothes. But while I loved them then – with the intimate, mysterious fire of a woman for the child within her – I love them so much more this side of birth. It’s harder and messier to parent them now, but more beautiful and rewarding, too.
I watch my baby now, starting to pull himself up (and toys down), feeding himself (and trying to eat things he shouldn’t). With every milestone he passes, he increases his capacity for learning but also his vulnerability for getting hurt. The world can be a painful and destructive place, too. But he still lives within God’s womb. A womb that cradles him close but also pushes him out.
Perhaps, like a parent, God longs to hold us safe but delights in our going forth. Knowing that we are always carried within love larger than ourselves.
“The Hebrew work for a woman’s womb and the word for compassion are related, and both are related to the word for mercy. Thus, the mother’s intimate, physical relationship with her newborn is the prime image for compassion and, hence the compassion of God in Christ. To speak of the compassion of God is to speak of God’s quivering womb — a womb that trembles at the sight of the frailty, suffering and weakness of the child.”
Michael Downey, Altogether Gift: A Trinitarian Spirituality
You know those years when you just don’t feel like celebrating your birthday?
Such was my attitude toward Mother’s Day this go-round. I was just not all that into it.
My mothering lately has been grumpy, impatient and frazzled. It’s a stressful season of our family’s life, so I’m trying not to take it too seriously. But I still didn’t feel much like celebrating. Even though I believe firmly that Mother’s Day isn’t something we earn, I decided I’d rather have a normal, quiet, low-key Sunday than a Hallmark holiday.
But as I nursed Grinch-like sentiments this past week, the notion of Alice in Wonderland’s un-birthday wryly popped into my head. What would it mean to celebrate an un-Mother’s Day instead of the normal flowers-chocolate-&-brunch festivities?
First I thought it might mean indulging in a day of activities that had absolutely nothing to do with mothering. For example, uninterrupted sleep! Adult conversation! Spa treatments! Wine! Gourmet meals that someone else cooked! Plenty of geographic distance from one’s progeny!
So then I started from a truly unconventional standpoint. What if I spent the day thinking of un-mothers instead?
Un-mothers could be fathers, the paternal yang to the maternal yin. So yesterday I prayed for fathers – for their work outside the home to provide for their families and for their work at home to nurture their children.
Un-mothers could be children, the necessary and opposite other half of the mothering relationship. So I prayed for children who daily seek the love of a mother to help them grow.
Un-mothers could be women who want desperately to have children, those who suffer through infertility, miscarriage and failed adoptions. So I prayed for the women whose hearts break as the years pass, whose stomachs sink when strangers ask questions, whose hands ache to hold a baby.
Un-mothers could be women who have chosen not to have children, those who feel called to different paths. So I prayed for women whose vocations lead them to other nurturing relationships, rewarding work, and life-giving commitments.
Un-mothers could be women who have suffered the loss of a child, whose motherhood has been broken and reshaped by pain and death. So I prayed for women who grieve for their children, who struggle to redefine themselves as mother after loss, who seek to go on living after the life they held closest to their heart has stopped.
Un-mothers could be women who do not want the children they have. So I prayed for women whose motherhood was forced on them, or who made decisions to end their child’s life, or whose deep sorrow and anger at the world causes them to hurt their children.
In the Christian tradition, one way to describe God is the via positiva: what God is like. God is like a mother. Another way to describe God is the via negativa: what God is not like. God is not like a mother.
One way to understand mothering from a spiritual perspective is the via positiva – what it is to be a mother. Much of my thinking and writing in this space takes this slant. But another way to understand mothering is the via negativa – what it is not. Broadening my perspective to embrace those who are not mothers helps me to understand my own parenting better, situating my cares and concerns within a wider view.
And praying for those whose lives and loves differ from mine reminds me that all of us, mothers and un-mothers, are swept up into the mystery of who God is.
Which is a question well worth pondering, no matter what day it is.
My son’s favorite is Ancient One. Mine is (no surprise) Mother. But on frazzled days I remind myself of Source of Peace.
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s lovely book In God’s Name has become a recent naptime favorite. Strangely my young son is smitten with the most ancient of God’s names. Every time we reach the page that describes how “the grandfather whose hair was white with the years called God Ancient One,” the boy with blond curls squirms happily in my lap. It’s a mystery why this name has captured his attention, but he can’t get it out of his head: he delights at its reading and asks all day long about its spelling. He wants to know everything about Ancient One.
I’ve loved this children’s book ever since it fell into my pregnant lap (literally) as I rummaged through cast-offs at a kids’ consignment sale. The illustrations are bright and charming, and the fable that describes how each person names God out of their own life is even more beautiful. At the end of the story everyone gathers around a lake that is God’s mirror and proclaims their different names for God all at once, a joyful sound reflecting the unity-in-diversity at the heart of God’s self.
In an era when our churches seem as polarized as our political parties, I can’t help but wonder at the relevance of this book’s message. Far from a wishy-washy relativism, the truth it gently preaches is important to remember: my understanding and image of God were formed by my upbringing, education and experiences of church. So they aren’t necessarily shared by others who share my faith.
As we each seek to approach the unknowable mystery of God, we name aspects of the divine that speak to us. Hopefully we can also open our hearts to others’ journeys towards the same God, no matter how foreign they may first seem. I can learn from your name for God, just as you can learn from mine.
Quite often I ponder this question of how we image God as it relates to parenting. Developmental psychologists and faith formation experts agree that parents influence a child’s first image of God. It’s only natural that as we begin to wonder about a Being greater than ourselves, we look through the lens of the dominant figures of love, power and authority in our lives.
I want to help my children see God as loving, compassionate, forgiving and just. So when I lose my temper and yell too loud, the startled look in their eyes reminds me that the way I mother matters not only to their emotional and intellectual development, but their spiritual growth as well. (Hence my need to sit at the feet of God who is Source of Peace!)
And when I soothe their cries, teach them patiently or laugh long and hard with them, I pray they are picking up small pieces of the best of what a parent’s love can be – and what it reveals of the God they may come to know as Father or Mother.
Different names for God have been important throughout the changing seasons of my life. When I was younger, Christ as companion captured my heart. As I learned about pneumatology in graduate school, God as Spirit opened my mind. After becoming a parent, God as Mother has taken on a powerful new depth of meaning.
As In God’s Name reminds me, there is no single name for God. Even Scripture is bursting with different images: God as potter, builder, midwife, gardener, servant and redeemer. Today it is “Ancient One” that mysteriously captures my child’s heart. Who knows what names and images will shape him as he grows?
What names for God speak to you today? What names have been important in the past?