first fig

my candle burns at both ends…

Category: Motherhood

A Tale of Two Births

Cross posted at Exponent II

I just gave birth to my second child and it was an experience entirely different than the one I had previously or what I expected. I suppose the mechanics were the same, I gave birth vaginally without the use of anesthetics and yet it seemed to me that I lost something indescribable in the second birth and I am mourning that loss. You see, I am one of those women who believes that there is real power in the birth process; that there is something other worldly and divine in trying to give life to another being. In my first meeting with the midwife who would deliver my son, she asked why I wanted to birth outside the mainstream medical model for my first pregnancy. I had several good answers for this including a skepticism of male dominated, Western medicine and a fascination with the history and marginalization of midwifery. But my desire for a “natural” birth went further than this to something I couldn’t quite articulate. I wanted to connect with women throughout the past and present, to touch the divine within myself and to know the power of creation. Something within me knew that I could best achieve this as I labored to give life to my child.
I have given birth twice in the past year and a half; both births were wonderful experiences where I was, at least briefly, able to obtain the above desire. But the births were dramatically affected by my choice in medical providers. I believe that labor and birth are inherently feminist issues because of the choice, or lack of choice, that the experience provides laboring women. Indeed, the increase in knowledge and choices for pregnant women was one of the earliest successes of the women’s movement. There was a huge paradigm shift during the 1970’s and 80’s that rejected the old model of restraining and knocking women out, effectively making them passive participants in the birth of their children. Instead, women demanded a greater role in the birthing process and wanted some choice in what happened to their bodies.
As a woman in her childbearing years, I am grateful for the increased choice I have when it comes to my maternity care. What I didn’t understand before giving birth though, was the impact these choices had on the experience I wanted for myself and my child. So as a public service (I promise I’m not trying to navel gaze here, although I won’t stop you from commenting on how brave, strong and skinny I am), I thought I would share my birth experiences. Please take them for what they are, my experience. What worked best for me will not be best for all women.
I have never felt more powerful than when I gave birth to my son, Baby Monster. I chose to deliver outside of a hospital at a free standing birth center in the Phoenix area. I had a midwife and a nurse who gently guided me through my twenty-one hour labor with a variety of techniques used by midwives for centuries. I felt a powerful connection with the women assisting me and to my foremothers who had birthed me and all humankind. As I transitioned to the last stage of labor, I entered into a dream-like place somewhere between mortality and death. At that moment I connected with the divine, a connection that supported me through the three hours of pushing it took to give life to my son. When it was all over, I not only had a beautiful baby but the knowledge that I had converged with something greater than myself.
When I got pregnant again, I was devastated to learn that my birth center had closed due to the sky-rocketing insurance rates midwives are charged. A homebirth was not something I felt comfortable with so I turned to the OB/Gyn that I had gone to for my annual pap smear. I had picked him because he was the first OB in my HMO directory to have an open appointment. I figured that since I already given birth, I could be assertive enough to stand up for the kind of birth I wanted. Unfortunately, I felt that there was always a power struggle between me and my doctor as to who controlled my pregnancy, birth and body. Due to gestational diabetes, early in my pregnancy the doctor informed me that he would induce my labor if he felt the baby was too big. Baby Monster had been ten pounds so I was not afraid to have a large baby but I stuck to a low-carb diet so as to prevent a medical induction. Despite my best efforts, when it came time for the ultrasound to determine the baby’s size, she was big and so the doctor scheduled my induction without my input or consent.
In an effort to regain some control, I induced myself using my trusty breast pump the evening before the scheduled induction. This labor was much more solitary than the first; I labored mostly alone with my husband and mother-in-law asleep nearby. My labor was short and intense, almost primal. I listened to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Wagner’s Immolation of Brunhilde as I worked through each surge. Once again I entered that dreamland and felt the power of creation. I felt myself transition into the last stage of labor and knew I had to get to the hospital quickly. At this point I lost my connection with the dreamland and was never fully able to regain it. It seemed as I went through the process of registering and being checked, I stood at the doorway of that sacred place, looking in but not entering. The triage nurse panicked when she realized I was dilated to a nine and was about to have a baby. The doctor arrived just in time to demand I be given an IV, which of course didn’t take on either arm but effectively kept me from re-entering the dreamland of labor. Ten minutes later, Baby Valkyrie was born.
I am grateful to have had both experiences because of what I learnt from each one. Most importantly, I am grateful for the healthy baby at the end. Both the alternative and traditional experiences had their upside and downside. For example, my midwife was so easy going that she forgot to give me the gestational diabetes test which probably led to the size of my son and made the labor harder both on me and the Baby Monster. My OB/Gyn was very attentive to detail and I had an easier pregnancy and labor because of it. Assuming there are no complications, there is not a right way or a wrong way to birth as long as the woman is comfortable with the choices she is making. This is where I went wrong; I was never fully comfortable with the traditional medical model of birthing. I lost so much power in trying to fight my doctor that I was unable to regain it when I most needed it. So I guess my advice is, know what you want and then be true to that desire.

What Mary Kay Women Know

I sat through a two hour Mary Kay sales pitch a couple of Saturdays ago. This is not my usual choice of weekend activities but I was cajoled into going under false pretenses. You see, I have been living in the wonderful world of bridedom this summer. My younger sister got married three weeks ago and I had forgotten just how exploited this particular population is. (Watch this video, I promise it will make your day). My sister “won” a free pampering session for ten people through one of those horrible bridal registries and invited me and our younger sister to go get a free facial and massage. Despite all of my feminist rantings about the superficiality of the beauty industry, I am not one to turn down a massage, especially at eight-months pregnant. So Saturday found me kissing my husband and baby monster goodbye and happily skipping away to join my sisters for a morning of pampering and relaxation.

I’m not sure what tipped us off first, maybe it was the “Think Pink” slogans plastered on the walls or the huge bouquets of frothy, pink tissue paper flowers that decorated the entire room but we quickly figured out that we had walked straight into a pink-colored Mary Kay trap. There was no facial or massage to look forward to, just a two hour presentation on the joys of being a Mary Kay consultant. (In the interest of full disclosure, I did have the “opportunity” to exfoliate half of my face with the dollop of microderm abrasion cream they gave me and massage some night time lotion into my hand so I guess Mary Kay played us fair.)

As I sat there listening about the wonders of pink Cadillacs and the free, over-sized gold jewelry, I couldn’t help but compare the Mary Kay culture with the culture of women in the Mormon church. Of course there were the obvious comparison like the tacky floral arrangements and centerpieces, the be-ribboned favors and the smell of synthetic sugar and spice that hits you right in the face. But the deeper similarities went to the language used and the assumptions of what an ideal woman is. I swear the keynote speaker gave the Mary Kay version of President Julie Beck’s “Mothers Who Know” speech. I took some notes and thought that I’d share them here.

  • Mary Kay women understand how important things like food, free stuff and fun activities are.
  • Mary Kay women know that appearences are important and always take time to look presentable.
  • Mary Kay women understand that their priorities have always been God first, family second and career third.
  • Mary Kay women know that if they have their priorities straight, they will be rewarded with beautiful homes, nice cars, expensive jewelry and good kids.
    Mary Kay women understand that because they know their priorites, other women’s children (read working women’s children) will call them mom and other women will be jealous of the magical life Mary Kay women lead.

Before some of you get too offended and start cursing my name, I deeply respect the mission of Mary Kay to help women have a career and feel good about themselves. I believe that all women want to belong to a group and have their choices validated. I was amazed when the Mary Kay consultants talked about how they appreciated their organizations focus on helping women achieve their priorites and become their best selves. These women became emotional when talking about the wonderful women they met through their work and how they would drop everything to help a sister consultant. I hear this same sentiment expressed every week in my Relief Society, and yet there are thousands of women who hate Relief Society and find being a Mormon woman exquisitely painful.

Mary Kay and the Relief Society are not that fundamentally different; both organizations exist to create a space for women in male-dominated institutions. So why is it that one group has a much higher satisfaction rate than the other? I believe the difference lies in choices. If I choose to be a Mary Kay consultant, I am choosing the culture of Mary Kay. If I don’t like pink cadillacs, flashy jewelry and talking about make-up then I can choose a different career. Mary Kay women know that their choices will be supported because they have surrounded themselves with women who have made similar choices.

The same is not necessarily true for Mormon women; I may choose to be a faithful member of the church but I may not want to choose the culture of the Mormon church. I may not want to hear the overblown rhetoric about motherhood but if I want to go to my church meetings and interact with my fellow latter-day saints, then there is really no escaping it. This can be an incredibly isolating place for a woman to be and it behooves us as sisters and Christians to be sympathetic of that.

The controversy over President Beck’s “Mothers Who Know” talk is the perfect example of this. Many women, both liberal and conservative, were hurt by this talk, not because they necessarily disagreed with Julie Beck’s actual words but were pained by the implication of what those words meant to them. The latest “firestorm” at the Sunstone Symposium only proves further how deep the wounds are and how many have been wounded. The uproar that has ensued over the past ten months has left many scratching their heads and wondering why this talk? How is it any different from what has been said over the past thirty years?

Might I suggest that it is because the rhetoric of ideal womanhood and motherhood is no longer effective in a worldwide and rapidly progressing church. From what I understand, women outside of the United States don’t get what all the fuss is about because they found the talk benign at best, irrelevant at worst. American women, however, have spent years fighting the Mommy Wars. The frontlines have been populated by members of traditional churches such as the Mormon church and women have been their best warriors. Both sides have exploited their women until there was nothing left to battle over and an uneasy cease-fire was called.

For Mormon women, that cease-fire was broken by President Beck. But instead of turning their ammuntion on the enemy, women turned their guilt and self-doubt on themselves. How many stories have we read of faithful women breaking out into tears because their deepest and most vulnerable fears were confirmed by the very woman who was supposed to be representing them? In the pain and anguish, some women have lashed out indiscriminately at women who should be their sisters and allies in the hope of validating their choices to a God who apparently sees nothing but their success as a mother.

A new war of ideas is needed, one that will ensure the unity of Mormon women. So this is my battle cry, the one that I hope provides me with an organization that I can fully choose:
It is time that church leaders and lay members alike retire the old motherhood rhetoric and refocus our efforts on what will make us all better children of God…becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. No one–no one–is excluded from the call of Jesus to “Come follow me.” Not the working mother or the over-run stay at home mom. Jesus asks all of us, whether we are single or married, uneducated or educated, feminist or not, to be his disciples. He wants us to serve the poor and disenfranchised, to stand up against injustice in the world and demand that someone pay attention. We must love as God loves or we cannot call ourselves true disciples of Christ. That means we cannot judge other women on their mothering choices and expect to hit the mark of becoming perfect, even as our Savior is perfect. When we as individuals and a combined church focus on true discipleship–for all women and men–rather than perfectly-ironed white shirts and missionary haircuts, then we can claim the privelege of building up the Church of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

The Paradox of Motherhood

*This is cross-posted over at Feminist Mormon Housewives

There have been several posts recently that have discussed how difficult it is to be a mother. There is no question that motherhood is complex, the monotony and self-sacrifice can be overwhelming. By the amount of comments and the solidarity expressed in these posts, it is evident that conversations like these are valid and needed, if only for the sanity of those participating in them. It is also clear that these women love their children fiercely. I would like to take the conversation in this direction. I feel that we should provide a place for women who feel the joy of motherhood as profoundly as they feel their feminism.

Motherhood is a sensitive subject and so I tread lightly in approaching this topic though I fear that I may be seen by some as deluded. In an effort to curtail this, I offer some basic information about me that might be helpful in putting my experience in perspective. I have only been a mother for fourteen months. My son, who we affectionately call “Baby Monster,” was an easy infant and has turned into a delightful toddler (despite the daily tantrums). I am pregnant again with a second child due in September. I may possibly be crazy, not only for having babies 20 months apart but not thinking it through well enough and being 9 months pregnant during August in Arizona. I am not a stay-at-home mother; I counsel victims of domestic violence and occasionally I lobby the Arizona legislature for better rights for DV victims. I am sure that one day I will stay at home but now is not the right time. Lastly, I have the most wonderful, feminist-minded husband who splits his time between doctoral candidate and stay-at-home daddy. I know my situation is unique and I am very blessed but I don’t feel that this disqualifies me from speaking on motherhood or maternal desire.

I don’t believe I am alone in the pleasure I feel from motherhood. Indeed, psychologist Daphne de Marneffe recently published a book entitled Maternal Desire that explores from a feminist point of view the ability of motherhood to allow us to integrate various levels of our humanity—emotional, intellectual, intuitive, physical—in a way that is truly gratifying and self-actualizing.

Women are constantly told how they should or shouldn’t mother…how they should and shouldn’t feel about mothering. The truth is, the maternal experience imbibes so many complex, and often conflicting emotions that it bears very little resemblance to the idealization we Mormons place upon motherhood. It is also unfair of some liberal feminists to denigrate the caring of children as demeaning and oppressive. Both representations are caricatures of motherhood and it is demeaning to women to believe that they would buy into either idea.

My love and affinity for being a mother took me by surprise. I expected to resent being a mother because the choice did not come without sacrifice. I gave up graduate school to become a mother. I wrote in my journal at the discovery of my pregnancy,

How have I come to this point? I am a FEMINIST! A year ago I was
unmarried, going to graduate school and moving forward. Now I am having a
baby instead of doing the things I wanted…will I even recognize the self that I
create. Maybe I will find a new self in the baby but what happens to the
self I like now?

I placed my identity on the altar of motherhood, not knowing if I would lose myself in the sacrifice. I cannot say that this was a faith-filled offering, but rather a sacrifice made out of expedience. My reward for this faithless surrender of self is best described by Reverend Canon Susan Harris in her Mother’s Day sermon. (I shamelessly stole this from Kristine’s post over at BCC. There is much more to this beautiful quote and the post is one of my favorites.)

Because He first loved us. Because Christ has risen…because while we lost
ourselves not just in sin but in duty, not just in forgetfulness but in
earnestness, in our sincere desire to do what was right for our children,
because although we lost ourselves in our mothering, God remembered us, and
brought us forward, and made us new.

I was made new by motherhood, an occurrence that I couldn’t reconcile with my feminist understanding. I have been guilty of thinking that caring for children is a trap; a throwback to 1950’s neo-Victorianism and the self-curtailment of intellect and talent. On the other hand, I absolutely reject the way we talk about motherhood in Mormonism which has become so mired in clichés about women’s nature that it is often used to guilt women into becoming the angel of the house; “enjoying” subsidized housekeeping, forsaking equality and living only for others. And yet…

And yet I crave motherhood. I delight in motherhood. My son is extraordinarily beautiful with huge blue eyes and the biggest grin you will ever see. I relish every feature, every body part. Baby Monster is independent, opinionated and passionate; a mirror of my own qualities but without the ugliness of fear and self-doubt. Of course, Monster’s independent spirit drives him to cross milestones long before I’m ready. Each one is a dagger in my mother heart, knowing that he will not and can not be my baby forever. The Baby Monster recently weaned himself, cutting off forever that warm passing of love and energy between us. I wept when I realized that my body and mother’s milk were no longer necessary for his comfort and survival. As if the embryonic cells he left behind in my body spoke to him, Monster was innately aware that his mother was grieving their separation. My son has started giving me deep hugs, then pulling my face to his, and giving me the sweetest baby mouth kisses. They fill my body and soul with the warmth and energy that used to be ours but now, are only passing. I spend my days longing for those brief moments of connection between us.

I feel the complexity of motherhood everyday, longing to be with the Baby Monster but feeling driven to my career. It is a tension that I, and all mothers have to face. There will always be tension in motherhood. In that tension there is ambivalence; there is no way to ever make the perfect choice, there are always trade offs. If mothers choose to work, there will be an indescribable ache to be the one to care and nurture their children, to feel that fusion that sustained intimacy can bring. Conversely, mothers who choose to remain in the home often long for separateness, the time to put together two rational thoughts and the satisfaction of reaching their fullest potential.

Our ability to find joy in mothering depends on our ability to meet and be sensitive to the inherent tension of motherhood. Allowing for this tension can assist in the discovery of who we really are and lead to the inhabitation of our authentic self. Motherhood is an unparalleled opportunity to experience the abounding joy of connectedness to those whom we love and sacrifice for. In the paradox of mothering, lies the truth of motherhood, that we each must be sensitive enough not only to know how best to mother our children, but also how best to mother ourselves.

Healing through Motherhood

This was posted a couple of months ago at Feminist Mormon Housewives. It is the epilogue to my first post “Waiting to be healed.”

I never thought much about being a mother. Of course, I always assumed I would be one because it’s just what you do, but motherhood was always an ambiguous concept that I refused to think about. I was focused on graduate school and the brilliant career I was going to have as a feminist historian. And then I got married and graduate school didn’t happen but pregnancy did.
All of a sudden, I found myself in a situation that I had never thought about, not even imagined. I was so conflicted, knowing that I should have been happy but feeling so incredibly inadequate. I couldn’t be a mother; I had no mothering skills at all and I didn’t like babies. More than anything, I was afraid that I would pass on all my insecurities to this child. I did not want to let my own frustration with life damage him the way my parent’s had me. I felt myself falling into the darkness that consumes. The hopelessness inside me was overwhelming, almost as if I had been buried alive. Pregnancy released the painful memories from my childhood that I had worked so hard to forget about. The loneliness and fear I had felt as a child came crashing down on me until I could hardly breathe.

The waves of hopelessness pounded me for months until one Sunday, sitting in Sacrament Meeting, I heard the Lord speak. “The child will heal you.” I felt a wriggle in my womb as if the baby I carried was trying to assure me of this truth. Something other than myself knew that being this child’s mother would provide the balm to my weary soul. A calm in the storm came and so I waited.

The day of my delivery arrived. It was long and exhausting. I had chosen to have my baby in a birth center so I could have a natural childbirth. I wanted to feel every contraction, every movement. I wanted to touch the power of womanhood. As I transitioned, the pounding waves came again, but this time they were physical and primal. I pushed for two hours; wondering through each contraction whether this would be the one to snuff out my life. And then I felt Her. The love was unbelievable. I was surrounded by my husband, mother and father, sister and two midwives, but theirs was not the only love I felt. My unnamed Mother, the one that I had so often longed for was with me, stroking my damp hair and holding me through the pain. I could not voice Her presence but I know She was there.

That night, as my husband lay sleeping, I tried to calm my beautiful newborn son. As he fussed and cried, I felt the familiar panic rise up in my throat. I saw the sadness in his big, blue eyes and I did not know how to comfort him. Tears came to my eyes as I felt my inadequacy; but without thinking, a simple tune escaped my lips. My crying child quieted. As I sung those cherished words of the realization of a Mother, my son, the child sent to heal me, looked at me with the deep perception that only newborns posses, as if to say, “I know, Mama. She is with us.” I felt Her presence and Her overwhelming love for me and my son. She has been with us ever since, whispering in my ear, lovingly instructing me how to be a mother. And that has healed me.

Waiting to be Healed

I am waiting to be healed, I am waiting for the Balm of Gilead promised to those who sorrow. My sorrow is that of all the disenfranchised women in the world and eternities. I have pushed the fears of eternal inequality to the back of my mind. My longing for a relationship with a more present Mother in Heaven is reserved for when we sing ‘O My Father’ in church. The absence of female role models in the scriptures elicits only a brief murmuring from me. It isn’t that I have stopped pondering these issues, on the contrary, they are ever present in my mind. I am just waiting for the intangible resolution.

I work for a woman’s non-profit domestic violence program where the injustice of our legal system and society is painfully evident. Going to church reinforces my fear of injustice and inequality in the eternities. I constantly wonder if my feelings are valid; it depresses me that a majority of women see nothing wrong, they feel no pain at the situation forced upon them by nature’s chance. My husband often jokes that I can’t be happy with my own blessed situation, that my very being requires me to feel the pain of women whether they need or want me to. His joking insight is true, I have chosen to feel pain for those who can’t or don’t need to feel it for themselves. I have chosen to feel that pain and then use my own opportunities to speak out against it.

Sorrow is an instructive tool meant for brief times in our lives, brief because it can so easily turn into despair and bitterness. This is the point where I find myself, on the fence between instruction and the destruction of my faith. The God I know, the one that must exist, weeps when his daughters are abused by a fallen patriarchal system. My God loves me for all my femaleness; He does not see me as cursed, less than or unimportant in mortality or eternity.

The peace and understanding I have received are the result of my times of sorrow. The redemption that followed came in the form of tender mercies from a loving Father and Mother. My first foray into the sorrow of women introduced me to a wonderful woman and professor who healed my heart with an idyllic understanding of the eternities and Plan of Salvation. It is an understanding that I cling to in my darkest hours. Later, when my frustration at the male sex and patriarchy threatened to overwhelm me, my now husband soothed the anger by proving my idealism could be a reality with him.

The sorrow of women has returned to me once more. As I sat in church this past week allowing myself to feel sad, the Lord spoke to me. “The child will heal you.” I felt the wriggle in my womb as if the baby I am carrying was trying to assure me of this truth. My first child, a son, will be born in February. Something other than myself knows that being this child’s mother will provide the balm to my weary and wounded soul. I have postponed the ultimate battle between my faith’s sorrowful instruction and the destruction of what I want so desperately to believe. So I must wait.