When I became pregnant I wasn't exactly the model of mental health. I had just begun actually dealing with trauma from my childhood rather than just pushing it inside and pretending it never happened. Dealing with it was a good thing, of course, but I was deep in the throws of nightmares and flashbacks and I was putting forth a great deal of energy to finally confront my dragon. I was suffering the symptoms of PTSD pretty badly and cutting was the way that I typically dealt with strong emotions.
I was engaged to the wonderful man that is now my husband. Intellectually I knew some pretty good reasons to wait until marriage to have sex, and interestingly, my agnostic fiancée also wanted to wait. When it came right down to it, though, I honestly didn't believe that I was worth the wait. I didn't believe that someone could love me just for me or that I was worth the sacrifice it took for someone to achieve self-mastery over something so powerful as his sexual drive. Having no belief in my worth as a person, like many women in this culture, I believed that I needed to "trick" my fiancée into staying with me by tantalizing his senses with my body. He actually resisted for some time, but eventually we had sex. Four months before our wedding, I became pregnant. I wish I had respected myself and Chris's gift more, but this realization did not come until later.
Pregnancy was a really difficult time for me. The all-day nausea, the lack of control over my body, the million and one little aches and inconveniences were all overwhelming at times. I felt vulnerable, emotionally and physically, especially as my belly grew and I realized I couldn't even run or in any way fight off an attacker if I had needed to.
We were poor too. I made $900 a month working at a group home for people with developmental disabilities. Chris was a full time student and made $200 through work study. That left us a combined income of $1100 a month. When I was six months pregnant my husband had to have an emergency appendectomy, and upon discovering he had a heart condition, a cardiologist inserted a pace maker four days after the first surgery. That added thousands of dollars in medical bills to those we already had from my prenatal care. When I was eight months pregnant I was placed on modified bedrest and could no longer work. I hadn't worked at my job for a year and so I did not qualify for the family medical leave act and I lost my job and our insurance. That's when we got on foodstamps and medicaid.
Chris and I fought about money. I would lay awake at night worried about how we would provide for a child. About once every other week I would cry and cry and end up cutting myself to calm down. My husband made a little extra money designing websites for people and I edited a book for a local author (who happened to be Chris's aunt). Family also helped us out. When my stress-level was at one of its peaks, and I had spent the day home alone crying, I went to my doctor appointment and she wanted to induce me. I was four days overdue and she was going on vacation and felt bad about leaving me undelivered for a colleague to take care of. At about 4:00pm, with my husband as my coach, I was induced. Despite being on pitocin, I somehow miraculously managed to handle the pain without too much pain relief. When I was five centimeters dilated, I received one dose of some narcotic to take the edge off things.
Thus, having no idea how we would provide for our child and without any sort of substantial income coming in, I finished birthing my daughter at 12:50am on a Friday morning. My husband, with genuine awe and pride in his voice, looked at me and said, "You did it!" And for the first time since I got pregnant I felt empowered. I had done it.
I am a small, not-very-shapely woman and I had wondered throughout my pregnancy if I would be able to vaginally give birth. Could my body really do that? The feelings that started in pregnancy intensified after childbirth. For the first time, perhaps in my life, I felt awe and surprise at what I could do. I didn't know I was capable of doing something so marvelous.
The immensity of the love that I felt for my newborn completely surprised me as well. Now I have never been one of those "mother-women." You know, those women who love to hold babies and smile at them and are really great with children. With the exception of my nephews, I typically preferred that children keep their distance. Of course everyone said that it would be different with my own children, and intellectually I figured that would be true. But I was taken aback by the fierce love and protectiveness I felt for this helpless infant. If her life were to be threatened at that moment, it would not have been difficult—I would not even have hesitated—to give my life for hers. It proved true, as others have said, that when I held my baby, the sacrifices of the previous months became worth it. Although I had known that I was growing a life inside me, it all had felt kind of unreal until I held that precious life in my arms and I could see the fruit of my efforts.
Having some knowledge of the benefits of breastmilk, I was committed to breastfeeding my daughter. Luckily, she took to nursing right away and we didn't have any struggles with the technical side of breastfeeding. I did, however, struggle to adjust to the amount of time and effort it took to feed a newborn. I honestly felt like the whole thing was unfair. I had to go through all the physical suffering of pregnancy and childbirth, and now, while I spent hours and hours nursing our child, my husband had hours and hours of time for himself. I also struggled with the mere idea of breastfeeding. Having an infant suck on a sexual organ felt kind of wrong to me. But as I persisted for her health, slowly a paradigm shift began to occur in how I viewed my body. I began to realize that the culture in which I lived had it all backwards. Breasts are for feeding children first, and it just so happens that many men find them attractive. It's not the other way around.
It's truly amazing how this simple reordering in my mind of the purpose of my body wasn't simple at all. It changed how I thought of myself and how I defined my place in the world. Having been sexually abused for seven years in my childhood, it was so profound to me that the very parts of my body that were associated with so much shame and pain had brought forth, and then sustained this precious child. The parts of my body were no longer designed for men's sexual pleasure. I began to finally and truly know that I wasn't a thing. In fact, I was created to give life! Not just physical life, but metaphorical life as well. I'm called to bring life to others, to bring hope, and to nurture the goodness already present in other people. I finally knew that I had dignity. Having been so utterly convinced of my pervading "badness" throughout my life, the discovery of my goodness profoundly moved me. I knew I couldn't be bad if I had brought forth something so good. Also moving, was the fact that my infant thrived on the nourishment I gave her. She was exclusively breastfed for the first six months and I was shocked when, at her first month check up, she was in the 90th percentile for her weight. She had grown several rolls and while other babies had frequent colds, ear infections, and the like, the first year of my daughter's life she experienced a minor cold that lasted for one day.
As I reflected on pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, it seemed as though God was saying to me, "This society may act like you are an object. But that is not how I see you and that is not how I created you." I had doubted my ability to carry to term, to give birth, and to breastfeed, but I had done them all. I stopped feeling resentful about how my body worked and began feeling grateful for how awesome a gift it is to be female. I wondered what other amazing things I was capable of doing that I had never considered before. I wondered what other gifts and talents lay inside of me still unknown even to me.
Although we struggled financially at first, things got better. (Now instead of being dirt-poor, we are merely poor). Motherhood really was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. My child was absolutely helpless, but her mere presence taught me so powerfully about my worth. Likewise, I had done such powerful things, not so much by my active doing, but by just allowing my body to do what it was already doing on its own. I understood that my value didn't lie so much in the things I did, but in just being who I am.
So on this Mother's Day I will be reflecting with gratitude on the most amazing gift I have ever received, the gift that surprisingly came when I myself gave life to another.
"Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Mt 10:39)