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Homemade Mat Leave, or On Choosing to be Unproductive

Well, I’m days(ish) away from welcoming our new baby. With each of my babies, I’ve enjoyed and deeply appreciated a year of maternity leave from my places of employment. Of course now that I’m a self-employed writer/blogger/whatever this is, no one is giving me 50 weeks of mat leave at the moment. Womp womp.

But after talking it over as a family, we still deeply value the idea of creating a bit of space to welcome our new baby, establish nursing, and lean into our new normal as a family of six. The importance of maternity leave doesn’t change simply because I’m not working full-time in a more traditional job anymore.

In fact, sometimes being a writer/minister/self-employed in any capacity simply means you feel like you should always be working, always be productive, because there is so little separation between your “professional” life and personal life at times. So much – too much – of our identity is tied up in our vocation.

And so this is my little act of resistance for the next while: I’m taking my own little homemade mat leave from being productive and relevant and useful to anyone in the world outside of this little clan for a while. 

I have slowly cleared my writing and speaking commitments for the next couple of months without an eye on any deadlines for returning just yet. (People think you’re nuts for this kind of thing, just FYI.)

(Sidenote: I have a lot of thoughts swirling in that area now. I’m purposefully returning to a smaller and less obviously-influential life which comes with its own weird scarcity baggage but I’m letting those navel-gazing thoughts simmer for now. Being productive, to make one’s voice “heard” in the milieu, to work-work-work for your value, to pursue influence over a quiet life, to see your writing/ministry space as “yours” to defend or maintain, let alone the pull to see the Crowd as more important than the ones in our own homes is so tempting and so weird.  This is a real-life time for me to practice what I preach so often: we serve a God of abundance, not scarcity.) 

Anyway, I just wanted to post something here so that you knew not to worry if I’m rather slow to respond to email in particular, and if my blog goes radio silent for a few weeks. I imagine I’ll continue the tradition of sharing the news of our baby’s arrival with a completely TMI-type of birth story post – hopefully SOON!

Book edits will continue, of course – Out of Sorts is still coming out on August 11 – but I imagine that will take most of my “free” time this summer, leaving precious little for the rest.

As far as speaking engagements go, I’m tentatively committed to only one event post-baby at the moment: Praxis Conference in Houston on May 15-16. I loved this gathering last year – these are my people from way back – and so we’ve pencilled it in again this year with intentions to bring the baby along with me. In fact, Chris Seay has promised me that I can nurse and preach at the same time if needed! I am holding this event a bit loosely though, just in case, so don’t be surprised if I drop out at the last minute. Right now, Brian is planning on joining me on this trip to try and make it work.

I use Instagram to document a bit more of my “daily life” so you can always keep up with me there as well as my Facebook page and Twitter feed for little snippet updates but, like I said, I am slower and more absent there, too.

Thanks for your prayers and messages of encouragement, my friends. It means so much to us to know that so many are praying for us as we figure out the new season of my life  in almost every area right now – woman, wife, mother, writer, minister, whatever and all of it.

Love S.

 

Continue Reading · baby · 32

This is my metaphor

Birth is my metaphor

Birth has been the hardest work of my life and the best work of my life.

In these final days, I’ve realised afresh that experiencing birth has been – and continues to be – the greatest altar of my life for encountering God. This is my thin place between the Spirit and my reality, it’s my favourite metaphor. The more I experience pregnancy and birth in all its mess and glory, loss and life, the more I uncover the devout links between how we as women experience birth and how the Holy Spirit often “gives birth” in our souls.

Sometimes when I was preaching here and there, I would use the metaphors of birth to explain what happens when we are growing or developing or evolving in our journey of faith. But then I realised something a few months ago that ticked me off: I was apologising for my metaphor. “I’m sorry, here’s another story about having babies to explain what I mean.”

This bothered me. Why was I apologising for my metaphor, for my experience, for the place where I met God so clearly? I know my metaphors don’t belong to everyone, that’s kind of the point. My situation and learning is unique to me, just as a football player’s metaphors are unique to his experiences or a business-woman’s metaphors are unique to her experiences. We each have our own metaphors for how we understand our faith journey. Some people find theirs in literature – I do that, too. Others find them in nature or in great acts like climbing mountains. I’ve heard many a sermon using sports or war as metaphors for the journey of a soul. And more, every mother’s experience with birth is unique because her situation is unique, her body is unique, her story is hers.

What was it that made talking about birth so taboo from the pulpit? It is too much, perhaps, too uniquely feminine to others, too messy, too real. The  braiding together of pain and joy and love is too powerful, perhaps.

But I believe right in my marrow that the voices and experiences of us regular mamas, having babies, are just as valuable, just as real, just as spirit-filled as any other metaphor.

I’m nearly 38 weeks pregnant right this blessed moment: God is very near to me right now. In my fear and exhaustion, in my waiting and my hoping, in my swollen ankles and my interrupted sleep cycles, in my preparations and my dreams, in the disappearance of any protective armour between me and the rest of the world, Emmanuel.

So I won’t apologise for my metaphors anymore. 

This is where I find God and this is where God continues to somehow find me, too.

I’ll write about how the Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle of labour mirrors the fear-tension-pain cycles of our transformations. I’ll talk about leaning into the pain, however counter-intuitive that may seem, because it’s in trusting our pain, letting our pain teach us, that we find life waiting and a trust-worthy path to release. We fight against the very thing that will free us.

I’ll write about how transition is identified by the feeling that you can’t go on, it’s too hard, you need to quit. And it’s transition because it’s in that moment, right when you want to give up in defeat, that you are nearing birth at last. My desire to give up is the very signal I am longing for that it’s almost over.

I’ll write about how the Industrial Revolution and modernism gave rise to a techno-medical method of birth that treated women like machines to manage, problems to solve, and how we forget that the very work of birth is the the thing that makes life after birth richer and healthier. And then let me draw the parallels for how we’ve techno-medicalized our souls, we treat our spirits like machines, full of shortcomings and defects, patiently awaiting the formulas to make it quick, make it easy, make it painless, make it simple. We deny each other the precious struggle which often makes healing, bonding, nourishment happen.

I’ll write about how the professionalization of bringing babies moved traditional wisdom away from us, collective story-telling disappeared, how we bench our wise women because what could they possibly have to teach us? I’ll question, oh, yes, I’ll push back a bit on authority, I don’t mind. I can’t surrender my soul or my body to the ones who want to make a buck off of me anymore. I’ll be wary of the slick promises and the easy roads, I’ll be suspicious of the ones who promise too much and cover the fine print with their jocular assurances.

I’ll even write about miscarriages and loss, about how it feels to labour only to end up with death and longing, sorrow staining backwards and forwards, changing everything.

I’ll write about how I withdraw when I’m labour, about how I need my safe place, my home, my smallest circle around me. How I crave silence and darkness, about how my very self goes deep deep deep within to draw the strength for the work ahead. And I’ll connect it to the ways that when we are in the struggle of our new births how we often withdraw from the strangers, from the bright lights, from the noise, from the unfamiliar or untrusted or untried, how the Spirit hovers over our darkness and causes new life to begin to rise from that place of silence and darkness, relentless, inexorably holy. I’ll probably think too much about how I love to give birth in water, how baptism and water pull me into relief like nothing else.

I’ll write about learning to think positively about my body, to honour the strength of my thighs and my hips, to let myself make the noise I need to make, to be unashamed about my own strength, how our bodies can hold the truth if we learn to follow. I’ll tell you about trusting our souls and our bodies, about believing in the inherent goodness of our physicality, about the lie of dualism separating our spirits and our bodies. I’ll tell you about how learning to let my body lead me gave me beautiful experiences in birth.

And I’ll write about how much I love the midwives of my life, how it feels so right and holistic to work in partnership with someone who trusts me and my body, my capacity and my spirit. I’ll echo Brene Brown who admits that she thought faith would be like an epidural, taking away the pain, but instead there she found a midwife, whispering in her ears, “push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit, you’re almost there.” I’ll write about how tenderly they cared for me, like a daughter or a sister, how they ministered with their hands and their wisdom, with their strong leadership, and then with tea and toast and clean sheets.

I’ll write about how the Apostle Paul himself never shied away from the metaphors of pregnancy and birth, finding rich parallels in our stories for life in Christ.

I’ll be honest about the ways that birth slows me down because I’m no longer afraid to be slower, to be out of step with the evangelical hero complex anymore. I’m not afraid of taking time to heal, of taking time to nourish both baby and soul. I’m done with proving myself, with acting like having a baby doesn’t affect me or change me. It does change me, it will change me, I am different already. I practice rest and healing, slowness and sleep after birth like resistance. I’ll write about how important maternity leave is and how important it is to give ourselves space to heal and mother after we do something so momentous.

I’ll tell my stories because, as Ina May Gaskin tells us, “stories teach us in ways we can remember. They teach us that each woman responds to birth in her unique way and how very wide-ranging that way can be. Sometimes they teach us about silly practices once widely held that were finally discarded. They teach us the occasional difference between accepted medical knowledge and the real bodily experiences that women have – including those that are never reported in medical textbooks nor admitted as possibilities in the medical world. They also demonstrate the mind/body connection in a way that medical studies cannot. Birth stories told by women who were active participants in giving birth often express a good deal of practical wisdom, inspiration, and information for other women. Positive stories shared by women who have had wonderful childbirth experiences are an irreplaceable way to transmit knowledge of a woman’s true capacities in pregnancy and birth.”

And our stories do that, don’t they? When we are active participants in the transitions of our soul, we emerge from the experience with practical wisdom, information, inspiration. We have tremendous capacities for hearing from God, for wrestling with our past, for leaning into the pain, for finding truth in the darkness, for discovering our true selves there in the blood and the pain and the beauty and the joy.

And then, then, we see that the struggle, the very thing we had been trying to avoid, is the very thing that sets us free, gives us life, helps us heal, restores our joy.

You have your hard-won and unique metaphor, I know.

This is mine.

 

 Photo by Rachel Barkman back in 2011 (38 weeks pregnant with Evelynn)

 

Continue Reading · baby, faith, giving birth, journey, Uncategorized · 48

A complicated peace

complicated peace

This surprise pregnancy arrived with more complicated feelings than I expected. I don’t think it makes me a bad mum or a bad woman to admit to that complexity, to confess the squirrelly, overwhelmed, and terrified feelings of a complete reorientation of my life.

Once we knew that the baby was healthy and all was well, the reality of the changes ahead hit me.

Whoa. We are having a baby. An actual baby.

Aren’t I too old for this? We were done having babies for very good reasons – not the least of which is my history of miscarriages. I thought my life was going in one direction and now it’s going in a completely new direction. I had thought I was starting one particular chapter of my life, one that brought me a lot of joy – tinies growing into marvellous big kids, finally emerging from the fog of babies-toddlers mothering, and a strong sense of purpose around my own vocation, for instance – but when I flipped the page, there was unprecedented change for us. A baby. Wow.

This baby was my cry-of-the-heart baby, absolutely. I longed for her life even as I made plans to move into our new chapters with gratitude. And a bit of disorientation is good for a person, I think.

The later-babies are a different sort of feeling, I’ve found, a bit more complicated and precious for that very thing. I was starry-eyed at the thought of one last little baby to treasure, one last time to experience pregnancy, birth, nursing, all of it. We’ve been washing impossibly tiny sleepers, reorganizing the house, borrowing my sister’s baby gear.

One of the best parts of this pregnancy so far has been sharing it with the tinies themselves. I had all three of them in four years so they were practically babies themselves as each one arrived. This time, they crowd around me on the couch, their hands spread all over my bump, shrieking in joy with each rewarding kick or push back from inside.

Me? I have full intentions of making an absolute fool of myself over this wee girl: now I know that it goes so fast, too fast.

And yet I believe that there is room for a bit of grief in the joy and gratitude. Throughout this pregnancy, I have felt disappointed in myself, too: disappointed that I wasn’t yay-happy-unicorns-and-rainbows-and-babies-forever at every single moment, disappointed that I felt both some disorientation and complication, even some grief, along with the joy.

I wanted uncomplicated pure joy, but instead I have spent this pregnancy grappling with faith and what it means to trust God, then with the realities of change coming our way, even with my own limitations. I can’t do it all. I can’t keep up the life that I had envisioned beginning and be the mother that I know I love to be, the mother I’m called to be, to this wee girl, let alone to the tinies as they grow up. I’ve heard it said that babies and toddlers are physically tiring but big kids are emotionally and spiritually tiring: so far that’s proven true to me. I’ve been admitting my weaknesses and limits, even my preferences and desires particularly if they are different than other people’s expectations.

I have been honest with my trusted ones over these months, confessing my complicated feelings and my occasional swings between sheer joy and sheer terror. I’ve also worked with my naturopath and midwife to make sure that I’m healthy and strong for birth and post-partum emotionally and physically. I’ve received a lot of encouragement and prayer, understanding and “you’re not alone” moments. The advice that almost every woman has given me, particularly from my friends who have experienced a surprise or unplanned pregnancy at any point in their life, has been this: just wait, let yourself feel what you feel, you get to be both happy and sad. Trust that the peace will come when it is time. Maybe not right away, maybe not at the moment you expect or want, but peace will come.

This pregnancy has become another altar for encountering God. For some reason, mothering is my place of surrender and trust, out of my control and yet such a sweet place of building trust and authenticity.

My friend, Wendy, who is an amazing seamstress presented us with a quilt she made for Tiny #4. I couldn’t even thank her, my voice was gone with gratitude, my eyes filled with tears. I already feel myself fighting for the little fourth baby, the one who gets the hand-me-downs and the seen-it-all-befores so this special and beautiful gift, just for our new wee girl, all hers and only hers, was powerful to me.

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Last week, we had another ultrasound. I have big babies and so our midwives always like to get a good idea of what’s ahead as we draw near to birth. I went to the appointment alone as we had the flu at our house last week so I didn’t want to risk bringing any germs. (And I just wanted a break from laundry and to breathe fresh air alone, can I get an amen?)

But as I lay there on the table for the procedure, the technician swiping across my belly with her wand, the images were flashing on the screen: here’s her spine, here’s her feet, here’s her heart beating, here’s her hands. She was sucking her thumb which is just incredible to me. Such a little person already.

And then she moved her hand and I caught a glimpse of her lower face. She was beautiful, she looked exactly like all of our babies, but especially like Evelynn to me. They have the same mouth, the big pout with impossibly chubby cheeks. My heart stilled.  I caught my breath at the sight of her.

Oh, I exhaled. Oh, there you are. There you are.

You belong, you’re ours, you’re beautiful, there you are. 

The peace flooded into my heart at the sight of her mouth, just her mouth. Peace that she was ours, she belonged with us, we longed for her, we need her, we love her, we cherish her, we are so privileged, so blessed.

The complicated feelings might still be real, still there, sometimes even primary, but it’s a complicated peace now, a trust that the disorientation is part of the gift. Her mouth was enough in that moment.

Yes, life is changing. Yes, this is not what I expected at this point in my life.

And yes, that very thing is the greatest gift, the greatest joy, at the same time. She’s ours, we longed for her, and against all the odds, she’ll be here, real and alive and complicated herself, so very soon.

 

Continue Reading · baby, faith, family, journey · 56

Flutters and faith

Faith and Flutters

I have three tinies and this is my eighth pregnancy. Those kinds of odds can mess with a woman.

As I said a few weeks ago when I first told you about this baby, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. I spent the first four months of this pregnancy convinced that it wasn’t viable, unable to muster up any hope that Tiny #4 would actually be in my arms in February.

I spent those days waiting for a sign, just one sign, to demonstrate to me that this baby had half a chance. I prayed for it. (I never had a single sign.) Then came no heartbeat and then another non-heartbeat and then finally, crazily, 173 beats a minute and the assurance that so far, so good.

I had a heartbeat confirmation. And that was it.

You name the pregnancy “symptom” of your choice – morning sickness, sore breasts, exhaustion, mood swings, food sensitivities or aversions, whatever – and I had it with the three babies I carried to term. More tellingly, I did not experience them with all of my losses. That was always my first indicator that something wasn’t quite right with the pregnancy – my body quietly returned to normal and so I quietly began to grieve.

Tiny #4 continues to defy my script.

I have longed for morning sickness in a way that must baffle and offend women who are severely struck down during pregnancy. I don’t mean to make light of those who suffer in this way. But I went through my days perfectly fine, bright and energetic – and I hated every minute of it. My body still felt, well, not pregnant.

Come on, I would bargain with my body. Let me be sick today. It would sure help my anxiety.

When I carried Anne and Joe and Evelynn, I leaned heavily on those little indicators like morning sickness or migraines, swollen feet and exhaustion because they meant that something was still happening. Someone was still there. Someone was taking up space in my body and making their presence known. With Tiny #4, I have not had those reassurances.

My last rung of the hope ladder was this one: feeling the baby move. I always feel my babies moving very early, perhaps because I’m paying such close attention. As I passed day after day of this pregnancy without a single indicator to justify any hope, I waited expectantly for week 14. (I felt Anne at 16 weeks, both Joe and Evelynn as early as 14 weeks. This is uncommonly early but it’s usual for me.) This is a sure one, I thought, soon I’ll know I can relax and just enjoy this pregnancy instead of always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Surely, surely, surely with a fourth baby, I would be feeling this one move at the same time, possibly even earlier. Then I would know what to expect, then I would be bold enough to pray with assurance.

Week 14 passed, no movement.

Week 15, then 16. I voiced some concern to my family.

Then we passed week 17, then 18, then 19 weeks.

Still no movement within me, still no flutters, still no someone making their presence known.

As Week 20 drew near, it seemed that I was even being denied this milestone. The books and my midwife all said it wasn’t time to panic yet and so I waited (not-so) patiently for my next ultrasound appointment, this deviation from my expected script sent me reeling. Even if it wasn’t a big deal to anyone else, to me it meant everything.

Every small thing that I have used to justify my faith and confidence and hope during a pregnancy has been denied to me during this pregnancy. I don’t know why.

The days are a bit long when you’re waiting without assurance.  I think I used to confuse faith with my longing for control, particularly of outcomes. Even now, it’s a lame sort of faith, mine, the kind that waits for a sign before taking the risk. Faith feels like a release to me, it’s safer to put my confidence in my abilities or in hard work or proper behaviours or whatever new thing I’m using to wrest control in my life.

Like so many aspects of my spirituality, I am still a bit in-between, figuring out what I reclaim and what I relinquish, living with a few unanswered questions while relying heavily on the few things I do know – and almost all of those can be summed up in my complete and utter confidence in Love. God is for us, who can be against us?

Over these weeks, I felt like a fragmented woman, believing and unbelieving all at once.

One old-school part of me was going all word-of-faith on this baby: praying Scripture, declaring the Word, binding and loosing all sorts of things, declaring life and not death, you name it, I’d claim it. Another part of me was already grieving and giving up. Another part of me prayed for belief even while acknowledging my own unbelief. One part of me wondered how I even dared to pray and expect God to move for me when I already had three beautiful children and there are far more important things in the world about which I should be praying, how selfish could I be? Another part of me relinquished outcomes, trusting God implicitly no matter the outcome while simultaneously raging against that very thing.

I am a woman of prayer. It sounds bold-faced to write it down, but there it is. I write it anyway. Prayer comes easily to my spirit – perhaps it is because a former pastor of ours once told us that the same part of us that worries is the part of us that prays. I knew I could worry constantly, so that meant I could pray constantly.

And so I do. I always have. I move through my day with an awareness of my companionship with the Spirit and we talk always, sometimes even with words. I pray, this is what I do. It feels small, so small, in the face of great pain or sorrow or injustice or uncertainty or even joy, but I pray anyway. I carry people and movements, requests and hearts within me like candlelight that I revisit often to hold in my hands and breathe over in prayer.

I don’t believe I can control God through prayer or through faith, I don’t believe God is waiting for me to “prove” that I have enough faith or know enough Bible verses to argue the points. In fact, I don’t believe in praying with an agenda most of the time. Yet as the days of my waiting for this baby to just move already went by, I prayed to or wondered at God, grappling with my questions and my doubt, with my beliefs about the nature and character and heart of our God and the very real reality of our fallen world.

Fearlessly, fearfully, I prayed for life.

And I prayed for faith. I prayed for faith to believe for life and for health for a small person. I prayed because who else was going to keep praying? who else was going to stand guard over this small one and hang on for dear life, who else but her mother? this is what we do, we stay even when it would make more sense to give up. I prayed because I wasn’t going to give up. I wasn’t going to be the one to back down from a fight over my child.

I felt more like the annoying woman of persistence from one of Jesus’ parables, she who stood outside the door of a judge pestering his life out until he gave in with bad grace. Jesus called her a woman of great faith, I call her my only hope.

I couldn’t muster up my old definitions of faith but I could keep relentlessly hope-knocking as my radical act of faith.

Two weeks ago on a Saturday morning, I was laying in bed alone (a rarity) when the baby finally made her presence known: I’m here. She shifted and moved within my womb with a small whoosh, and my heart throbbed. There you are, I breathed. There you are. I’ve been waiting for you.

Then she moved like a fish in water, a rolling and a stretching with natural ease that seemed to say, what? you were worried?

I stayed in bed, silent, feeling her move within me, like faith, a flutter of a presence, growing. There was plenty of time to tell my husband, my mother, my sister, my friends. Right then, it was time to pray and every word in my mind and mouth, every flutter was thank you thank you thank you thankyouthankyouthankyou.

Still I wonder about faith and the nature of prayer, I still hold my understandings loosely. Faith isn’t certainty, I know that by now. If I was certain, I wouldn’t need faith. I think it’s a gift and a choice, sometimes at the same time. I think it’s a confidence in the midst of doubt, it’s work and it’s rest. Faith is a risk and it’s gorgeous to let go into the free fall.

Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her book, Animal Dreams, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”

These days, that sounds a lot like Hebrews 11 to me. So right now I think faith is figuring out what I hope for – redemption, wholeness, shalom, justice, love, life, one small baby to live and not die, all of it – and then fearlessly living under that roof.

It’s been a couple of weeks since that Saturday. As I write these words, this baby within me moves and kicks and pokes mercilessly, stretching and growing, I still nearly exhale with relief every time. Our baby is alive and well and growing stronger still – I take no credit and I am still wary of proclaiming anything definitive.

After all, if I say that God performed a miracle this time, what does that mean for my other babies, the ones I never got to hold except in my folded-up tea towels? I can’t forget them. Yet if I say that it’s just a happy coincidence, am I taking away from the miracle and the glory for God’s mighty act for a seemingly small and ordinary woman and her unborn child? It’s both and it’s neither, it’s holy ground for that very reason, for the uncertainty and the praise, one in each hand. I can only say that fearless prayer did what it always does: it changed me.

I still pray and will always pray like that one thing is true: God is for us. And it’s worthwhile to keep knocking.

That’s about all I know about faith for sure.

Just a couple of days later, we had our ultrasounds. It confirmed what I already knew well by now: our wee one is healthy and whole, all is well. The technician might as well have hung a big neon sign up that said: Chill Out, Sarah. And Congratulations.

Because, didn’t I mention? …. we’re having a girl.

photo by Rachel Barkman Photography (from back when I was VERY pregnant with Evelynn) 

Continue Reading · baby, faith, fearless, journey · 67