Little known fact: I’m actually a marketer by trade and training. Yep. I studied marketing and communications for my undergraduate degree and then I spent more than ten years working in that field for both financial institutions and non-profits. My specialty became strategic planning and brand development and communications.

I do love spreadsheets and a clearly delineated plan.

I often banged the drum of “brand” for our organizations: what is the story we’re telling about this company? People often thought our brand was simply the logo or perhaps the colour scheme, even the look and feel of our marketing materials. But really, our brand was so much bigger than that: it is the story we are telling and it’s reflected in the way people think about us. And we can shape that way more than we think. Sure, we can shape the marketing materials but our customer service, our strategic planning, our products, our design, our website, everything we do tells a story about us to the world.

At one of the major banks that I worked at during my marketing years, we had a full book for our brand. Here is what we do, here is what we say, here is how we answer the phone, here is how we address letters, here is the exact pantone shade we use for the paint in the offices, here is what our logo can look like and you cannot crowd the logo with any type closer than 2 cms from the image, and on we went. 

A brand isn’t exclusive to corporations or non-profits. We often embrace a certain “brand” for our lives as regular people, we have a story we want to tell with our lives and we expect everything in our life – our food, our worship, our budget, our homes, our friends – to all reinforce that story. This isn’t always bad but it can be restrictive. We are often unconsciously thinking of what our choices communicate to the world about who we are and what we value and what our purpose is in this life. 

This is my brand, this is what I do, this is what I have always done, this is the way I work, this is the way I minister, this is the way I lead, this is the way I am in church, this is the way I parent, every time all the time.

Don’t disrupt the brand.

Sometimes the story we tell ourselves about our own lives can become a prison, it can keep us from the real life that is waiting for us.

***

When I first became a mother, I was in my late twenties. And the experience of becoming a mother changed me inside and out. I know it doesn’t happen that way for everyone and I’m not saying my way is prescriptive or normative but there it is: this is the altar where I met with God and I was transformed. I felt like I not only uncovered something true about my own self but that I connected with God in a whole new way, my ideas of God and life were hung out on the line in the bright sunshine of this new vocation. We quickly added another two tinies to the household and all of a sudden I had three kids four and under.

In particular, the experience of being pregnant and giving birth, while never easy, became the great metaphor for how I encountered God. The more I experienced pregnancy and birth in all its mess and glory, loss and life, the more I uncovered the devout parallels between how women experience birth and how the Holy Spirit often “gives birth” in our souls. Mothering was where I found God and even now it is where God continues to somehow find me, too.

When I spoke or wrote about birth, I always talked about how as soon as I had delivered a baby, I would break into joyous laughter. My husband would always cry and I would always laugh, tipping my head back with relief and joy and clutching that new life to my breasts. With my third baby, we gave birth in the living room of our house in a birthing tub of warm water, attended by midwives. I still look back at that day as one of the shining stars of my entire life – the whole experience from start to finish was so grace-filled, so healing, so peace-filled. What a way to end my experiences with childbirth, I thought. It was perfect.

And then there was breastfeeding. My mother was one of the early members of La Leche League, a breastfeeding advocacy community, and so I grew up in a home that normalized breastfeeding and distrusted formula companies. So I exclusively nursed all of my babies, never even pumping breastmilk for a bottle. (These are the very real benefits of living in a country with a year of paid maternity leave for mothers.) I practiced child-lead weaning, simply nursing my children until they decided to stop which happened right around 18 months old with all three of them. My children never knew anything different and neither did I. It wasn’t a burden, it was a joy to me.

This is how I mother. This is how I do it. Every time, without fail, this is the story I tell about myself as a mother.

And here is how that story ends.

***

Because when my three babies began to grow up, I began to truly enjoy them as little people. Toddlerhood passed, preschool, elementary school. I know I don’t write about my tinies much anymore out of respect for their own journeys but this season of mothering been good and hard, I like them.

And then we found ourselves unexpectedly expecting one last little baby, nearly nine years after my first. 

And it was just different. I was different, the pregnancy was different. I felt disoriented, like I was having to reorganize the story my life was telling. I thought we were going in one direction as a family and now we were regrouping. The big kids were all thrilled and so was I but I couldn’t help but feel I didn’t know how to do this. I had changed a lot in the past decade in response to being a mother: now my mothering was going to have to change to accommodate the whole rest of me.

Back when I had my first three, I worked full time, sure, but it was local and I had a full year of mat leave, I blogged during naptime for the fun of it. Now I was a writer with contracts to fulfill.The administrative side of my life is a bit overwhelming sometimes.  I travel for work at least once a month, sometimes more. I found myself gigantically pregnant and heaving carry-ons onto airplanes to watch my feet swell to twice their size. I remember finishing my last trip before the baby was born and thinking I would just have to walk away from my job, that I couldn’t continue to preach and minister and write while still parenting in the way that felt most natural to me. I thought that made the most sense. So when I preached one last time in Calgary and caught that late night flight home to Vancouver, I thought I was saying good-bye to an aspect of my calling. 

I was exhausted for most of the pregnancy. Three other kids will do that to a woman, I know, but my husband also had a job change that meant he was working longer hours. And having a baby in your late thirties is a bit of a different experience than having a baby in your twenties, I assure you. (My doctor called it “advanced maternal age” – thanks, Doc!) My next book was due right before the baby was due so instead of resting during the pregnancy even after my last trip, I madly wrestled words onto the page and wrote a vulnerable and searching book about faith. Any writer will tell you that writing a book can often feel like giving birth, it’s a wrestle to bring that work into the world. I struggled into the final weeks of my pregnancy to find the three big kids had decided to come down with the flu. 

And I kept admitting the truth in the back of my head: I don’t have it right now. I knew how it felt to go into birth feeling fully empowered and ready, strong and capable. Instead, this time I felt exhausted, depleted, and weak physically. The baby was bigger, I was older, life had been too full. I remember that I said to my husband that I was really re-thinking having a home birth again. I rather wistfully thought of a clean hospital with a capable anesthesiologist. But I quickly snapped myself back: this is not how I give birth! I don’t medicalize birth! I am a natural birth advocate! I will have birth the way that I always do! It will be beautiful, dammit!

Instead on the day that I went into labour, I quickly realised that my instincts were right – I did not have it in me to do this well. I lost the mental game of birth early in labour. All three of my other babies had a very similar progression for a quick and straightforward labour. This baby was completely different. Just a few hours into labour, we transferred to the hospital because when my water broke there were indicators that the baby would need oxygen or at least a paediatrician on hand. In the ambulance, I agreed to any and all drugs that they would give me and by the time we got to the hospital, I was a hot mess. The rest of the baby’s delivery was a blur to me, a blur of pain and trauma and powerlessness. I only remember my husband’s voice cutting through my panic with his strength, I clung to him and somehow we kept going together.

By the time she was safely earthside and they announced her at 10 pounds 7 ounces, I was devastated by the birth we had just experienced. They put Margaret in my arms and I cried like we had just survived a war. There was no laughter on my lips this time: I shook with sobs and apologised to her over and over for how she had come into the world. My sister kept trying to get through to me: “Sarah, she’s healthy and you’re healthy, that’s what matters, you are being too hard on yourself!”

But the feeling was always there, even as I healed from her birth, even as I forgave myself for not following my instincts, the feeling remained that I had failed her.

All of my other children had a beautiful and redemptive birth story: by contrast, Maggie’s birth had been one of the most traumatic days of my life and I felt that it was my fault. It was my fault and I was failing her already. Her story was different than the other tinies’ stories and it was my fault.

***

It’s funny how we can say things to ourselves that we would never say or even believe about another woman. If another woman had been in my shoes, I would have said that this was a lie, that she hadn’t failed her baby, that she had done what she needed to do to keep everyone safe, that she needed to release the lies and welcome the truth over and over again. Of course the story was changing – this is normal and natural and even good.

We became a family of six. I gloried in Maggie. We all did – she became the centre of our lives. I tucked her into bed with us, I got out my old baby carrier, I was ready to do what I always did for babies because babies are my jam. I know babies. I am the baby whisperer, this is how I mother, this is the story that I know, this is the story I tell with my life.

Maggie has been the baby who changed the story.

It began with sleeping. I couldn’t get Maggie to sleep through the night. I tried everything even the things I had sworn I would never do. nothing worked. On a good night, we were up four times. On a bad night, we were up dozens of times and I went an entire year of my life at a level of sleep deprivation that meant I probably shouldn’t have been driving the mini-van or been responsible for other children. At about ten months in, I just surrendered to the nightwatch. I simply embraced the fact that this was Maggie and this is what we were going to do until we simply couldn’t do it anymore.

And then there was nursing. My supply was so much less with Maggie – a combination of my age and my stress levels, no doubt. So I had to nurse her much more frequently in order for her to be full and even a year into her life, I was still nursing 10 times a day and I was exhausted.

As the year unfolded, I began to realise that I missed my work. I missed writing, I missed preaching. And so we made plans to resume both with great joy. The truth is that I’m a better wife and mother when I’m doing the work I feel I was created to do. It makes me more alive, stronger, wiser, happier. Friends of mine who were in my line of work assured me that they had travelled with their babies at Maggie’s age and it had been fine. My mother retired from her job and planned to join us on the road in order to care for Maggie while I lead workshops or taught or preached. All of the plans fell into place: my husband and tinies are all dedicated to my work and send me out with joy, we see my work as our work. I worked with event planners to accommodate the nursing relationship, chasing back and forth from the events to the hotel to nurse the baby every two hours. Our babysitter came to our house to care for her while I was writing. I was willing to embrace the hardship of travelling with a baby for the sake of our nursing relationship. We were set for success!

But the story wouldn’t cooperate: every single trip, she fell sick with fevers. She slept even less than usual. She wouldn’t eat. She was not herself. Maggie is one of the happiest and most winsome babies I’ve ever encountered, to see her laid low and miserable was painful for both my mother and for me. My mum was the hero of every week, she just met us both where we were at and I am not sure if she ministered more to Maggie or to me on these trips. I nursed twice as much to help Maggie out but still I had nothing for her and with every trip we took it became more and more obvious that despite what worked for everyone else, this was not working for us

The nudge in my own soul said that it was time to wean her. She was more than a year old. I had been a mother for nearly ten years and I had never weaned a baby, true, but it wasn’t the logistics that kept me from making that choice, it was that old feeling left over from her birth, the feeling that I was failing her. I couldn’t wean her because that is off-brand. We both needed her to be released from nursing but I clung to the mothering story I wrote all those years ago and we boarded another plane together.

It was a disaster.

We made the decision to wean Maggie. 

I was sure that it would be an awful two weeks of trying to wean Maggie from the breast and onto a little sippy cup of whole milk. Instead, she went from ten feeds a day to just one in short order. She loved her little sippy cup and devoured food. By the fifth night, when I nursed her at bedtime, she was losing interest, ready to go to bed with a full tummy already.

Wasn’t this supposed to be terrible? hard? horrible? instead she was fine and I knew I would be fine if I could just release us both from the story I had tethered us to with such good intentions.

***

Going off-brand can be terrifying. Daring to change our story when we find our primary identity in that particular story feels like we are losing our own sense of self. It’s more than just changing an opinion or a way of life: it’s changing who we thought we were.

I thought I was always going to mother in one particular way always: instead I changed.

It’s the same way in many areas of our lives.

As I wrote in Out of Sorts, if we aren’t changing or evolving, then we aren’t paying attention. If we pay attention to our life, we will change. We will change in ways that we never imagined and even though there is grief to leaving behind that old story, there is freedom and life and space waiting on the other side of the threshold.

I always go to this church: but then you find yourself leaving.

I always believed that being gay was sinful: but then one of the most loving and Christ-like people you ever knew just came out and you find yourself changing.

I always knew I would live in this town for my entire life: but then you find yourself in faraway lands.

I always knew that marriage was the most important relationship and I judged people who got divorced: but then you find yourself signing papers and underneath the grief there is relief.

I always knew I was called to ministry: but then you find yourself in a regular sort of job and you have to figure out a new story.

I always knew I would get married and have kids: but then you find yourself single.

I always knew I didn’t want to have kids: but then you find yourself with a houseful of small humanity to care for.

I always believed I was in control: but now you know you need help to quit.

I knew that I would homeschool my kids: but today you dropped them off at the public school.

I knew that I knew that I would work in this job forever: but now you’re starting over.

I dreamed about the day I’d have a child: but that child has special needs and nothing about how you parent looks the way you thought it would look.

I have always encountered God in this particular way: but then that way becomes barren and empty and you find yourself walking new paths, as a new seeker of God.

I always knew I would hold this belief or opinion: but then you find yourself questioning everything you ever believed and knew.

I always thought that I would be one sort of person: but now I’m someone else.

Off Brand :: a post by Sarah Bessey

***

When I was debating whether or not I could bring myself to wean Maggie, my husband, my mother, and my sister reminded me of her birth. They reminded me that I had made my birthing decisions out of loyalty to the “way I’ve always done it” or to my ideology when my reality was demanding a change.

Life didn’t care about my brand.

I should have chosen life instead of my brand.

I stayed with my brand and it nearly cost us both dearly.

It seemed as if I cared more about giving Maggie the same story as my other children than I did about doing what was best for both of us.

***

That last night together, I sat in the darkness with her. I wanted the night to be meaningful, to be a sort of farewell to this era of my life. But underneath the sadness, there was relief. The very thing that used to bring me freedom had become a sort of bondage and now we were going to choose freedom together. She barely nursed that night, we rocked in that old creaky rocking chair, I tucked her into bed and left the room. I went to my husband and he held me in his arms while I cried in the kitchen.

“It was good,” I said to him. “This whole thing has been good. I know we’re doing the right thing but I think it’s good to be sad, too. I loved it. I loved everything about breastfeeding. But I’m so glad.”

Now my story as a mother includes this story too: I’m a mother who weaned her baby at a year old, a mother who chose to honour her own mental and spiritual health as much as she honoured her children, a mother who took too long to reimagine her life. 

The next day, I got on a plane to Raleigh. I left Maggie at home with my husband and my mother. She promptly slept through the night. And she has slept through the night almost every single night since then. I do the work I love to do.

In the mornings now I wake up to her laughing to herself in her little crib, we have both slept all night, we feel free. I open the door and she’s got a huge smile on her face, her arms are up and waiting for me just as I am in this moment.

image by Sharalee Prang Photography

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