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To Nurse or Not To Nurse: On Aching in the Bones

Oh this question is one that is riddled with mom guilt by too many people because the very nature of the question is binary as if there are only two choices in the quest to nourish and support your child. This is simply not true and the wrong premise. As I work with young mothers and first-time mothers, I often phrase the question, “Are you going to try to nurse?” I explain quickly that whichever they choose is completely fine and that I simply want them to know that I can help them find supplies, resource, and community for whatever choice they make.

If the women I work with tell me that they are going to try to nurse, then I try to point them to resources that will tell them what to expect. My response to this question when I was pregnant with our first child was, “I am hoping to,” understanding that there is no way to anticipate what the labor and delivery experience is going to be like and no way to know what is going to happen with your milk until your baby is actually here. Our firstborn came into the world in a scary and traumatic whirlwind that left me in an emergency c-section and Sam holding our son for close to two hours after he was born and stabilized. There was so much of the time after the surgery in recovery that I don’t remember, but I do remember Sam walking in with our son and saying, “He’s really hungry.” Not sure of how much time had passed since his arrival into the world, I was disoriented and very lost. I pulled him to me and was thankful that he latched immediately and began nursing. This was one thing that went as I had hoped in our labor and delivery story and I couldn’t stop the tears at that moment. That would serve to be the easiest time I fed our baby during the first night of his life full of heel pricks and glucose level reports and ultimately being told we had to give him formula because his blood sugar was too low. We tried to give him the tiny bottle the pediatrician resident gave us only to have him throw up all of it.

By the time the lactation consultant came in the next morning, I was in tears because we had been told that they were going to have to take our son away and keep him for up to 2-3 days. The lactation consultant was the first person I saw after they had taken our baby to the special care nursery. Everything we had experienced all the fear and pain and trauma came out in our conversation, but especially my hope to do the one thing I had left to hope for: to nurse my child. She was wonderfully patient and explained that we could pump and take it to him and that she would do whatever she could to limit the amount of formula he had to get. I was so grateful and relieved.

It turns out that our son only needed one bag of fluids to get his blood sugar back on track and that we were able to nurse from that point on, but there was so much about the actual process of nursing I didn’t know. I didn’t know about the 2-day cluster feeding, but our night nurse was wonderfully supportive and told me each time she came to check his and my vitals what a good job I was doing and how hard she knew it was having had a c-section to reach over and get him to feed him. No one told me about the 2-3 week cluster feeding or how you will suddenly understand the phrase “aching in your bones” in a real and deep way after a night of cluster feeding. No one tells you how physically demanding nursing is or how frequent growth spurts are because your baby needs for more and more milk increases during those first six weeks. And although you may hear a funny anecdote here and there, no one will tell you how frequently you end up in the position where you need to feed your baby and you don’t have the right top on or you don’t have a nursing cover or a blanket and you end up in the bathroom stall trying to feed your baby while not touching anything.

Friends and family may tell you with good intention that “breast is best,” but not how difficult it is to keep your milk supply up if you have to return to the hospital for any reason or return to work or how pumping is not intuitive, but a process with lots of parts and planning. And no one tells you how messy nursing and how many times you will put on a new shirt only to have to change your shirt fifteen minutes later.

I’m thinking about all of these things I didn’t know with our first as we walk this nursing journey again. That lactation consultant who listened so compassionately to our story and told me she would help me learn how to pump and that she would personally go and check on our baby to see what was going came walking through the pre-op curtain the morning of January 22. She told us that she would be the nurse in with us during our c-section and she would be the one who was in charge of watching our daughter and getting us skin to skin as quickly as possible and helping us nurse if that’s what we wanted to do. My partner was the one who recognized her and told her that she was the shining light after our traumatic first night with our son. She smiled and said, “I thought I recognized you.” I don’t know how our nursing journey would have gone if we hadn’t had this woman and the nurse who supported and encouraged me during that first cluster feeding session and if I didn’t have really close friends who sent me articles and sent me stories about their own experiences and told me it was good no matter how long our nursing journey was.

This time I got to be skin to skin with our daughter in the operating room and got to nurse her within thirty minutes of her birth. And although I know so much more this time around, what I ultimately learned is you never truly know how this parenthood journey is going to go and that the most important thing is to feed your child and to seek support from medical professionals, experienced parents, and parents who are right there in the middle of the journey with you. We need community, we need sanctuary to ask questions and to express exhaustion and frustration, we need real stories of real journey and not binary options or easy catchphrases. We cannot do this parenting alone.

On Due Dates and Expectations

It’s been one week since Baby Girl’s due date and yet we are celebrating three weeks of having her as part of our family. We knew when we were given her due date that we wouldn’t make it all the way to that date because of our labor and delivery experience with our three-year-old, but we didn’t know that she would be a January baby instead of a February baby. As I walked through her due date day, I thought about how due dates really just give us an idea of when a baby might come and not a hard and fast rule.

I was shocked to learn while talking to some of my clergy colleagues that many of them looked at due dates on papers and projects as just that, a guideline. That isn’t me. A due date has always been a hard and fast rule about when something must be done. It would never be acceptable to turn something in after the due date. The only option would be to turn something in early.

But these conversations got me thinking. Why did I hold this perspective while there were many people who held a different perspective and understanding of due dates? To be certain, my place as a white female who grew up in a conservative upbringing plays a role in my understanding and perspective as does my family of origin, but even more so my perspective is tied to my desire for events to go by the calendar and by a plan. It makes me feel safe and indeed in control when I know what’s coming, but more importantly when something is coming. It makes me feel prepared and successful and productive to get something in by the due date. All of this whispers of my desire to have a handle on things.

In just three short weeks, that’s been challenged. Baby girl didn’t come on her due date and that’s exactly when she was supposed to come and when she needed to come. I didn’t get to make the decision on that but had to trust my doctors and their expertise and their experience. I had to depend on them to offer important guidance and I had to let go of my own expectations for when she would join our family. All of this whispers of what we are called to do as disciples. We are called not to be in control, but to depend, trust, and let go of our own expectations in order to be open and ready for what God is calling us to do and how God is inviting us to participate in bringing the kingdom of God here on earth.

Thanks be to God for missed due dates and upset expectations!

On Being an “Experienced” Mom

The last two weeks have been filled with the awe and wonder of new life. Memories of the first days of our three-year old’s life have flooded back in as we get into a routine of feeding and sleeping and being a family all together. Yesterday I took our two-week-old for her two weeks check up and the doctor said, “Do you have any questions?” and I only had one. I can remember that appointment with our son being filled with questions. Is he ok? Is this normal? Am I doing this right?

As the pediatrician was dictating notes to her nurse to go into our daughter’s chart, she said something that struck me: “Mom, is an experienced mom and nurser.” I was caught off guard. I immediately thought: Mom, whose mom, her mom? I hadn’t thought about the fact that I am no longer a first-time mom, at least not of a newborn. I’ve done this before. This idea still hasn’t sunk in.

This week was also marked with the arrival of a parenting book compilation in which I have a short piece. As I reread my own words and my reflections about when I first became a mom five years ago, I realized that five years is a significant amount of time. Five years does mark a threshold that is often called experienced or is listed as a time interval for having experience in a field or profession.

If that’s the marker, then I am also an experienced preacher, an experienced pastor, and an experienced puppy mom. How in the world did that happen?

I guess it happened somewhere in the minutes that made up the 1,825 days of the past five years. The interactions, the challenges, the conversations, the sleepless nights, the minuscule decisions and the time in silence and solitude reflecting, seeking, and wondering if I was doing any of it right.

And all I can think about is all the times that I wish I had been fully present in those moments rather than lost in what ifs and maybes. Because really the challenge no matter how long we’ve been at this parenting thing or this pastoring thing is just that: to be present and to be aware of where we are. To understand, at least in part, that this moment, this conversation, this interaction won’t happen again in the same form or the same place or the same time.

I don’t really think I am experienced at any of this because our daughter is different than our son and our older two girls. This church is different than the other churches I’ve pastored and perhaps that’s where you get labeled as experienced. When you know that you don’t really know and can fully and freely admit that you need all the help you can get from parenting books, from pediatricians, and most importantly, for me, from a partner who is right there beside you traveling the road full of moments with you.

What a Difference a Week Can Make

Maybe it’s just me, but after we found out we were pregnant, I had February 1 in my head and in my heart. This was the day I just knew we were going to have our baby. Because of Ben’s dramatic entrance into the world, we knew we were going to have another c-section and we knew that we would not be making it to her January 7 due date. Our hope was to make it to 39 weeks, which is the longest our doctors would let us go with a scheduled repeat c-section.

I was thrown off when I finally saw the doctor who delivered Ben. She explained because of the way things progressed last time, she really didn’t want to take any chances that I would go into labor and that we would get into an emergency situation. She gave us two dates to consider: one just before 37 weeks and one just after 37 weeks. Suddenly, I felt like I had lost a week. But when was I going to find the bottle warmer and the infant car insert? What about the events at work I had planned? What about that one more week of work I had wanted to squeeze in before her arrival?

What a difference a week can make! Suddenly none of those questions matter at all.

This week, I’ve walked around in wonder that our sweet daughter is already here, healthy and full of life, even though she was a bit early. Her arrival to this world was so much different than our three-year old’s. We knew when she was coming. We knew what time we needed to be at the hospital. We knew what floor we were going to. We knew the routine and patterns of the hospital. We knew what the operating room looked like and what it meant to have a c-section. We knew what it was like to have a newborn.

And yet all that knowing still didn’t prepare me for the awe and wonder when I looked at our sweet baby’s face and said, “Happy one week, baby girl!” What a difference a week can make! I can’t imagine spending this past week any other way than holding and caring for this baby.

This past week has been filled with the memories of becoming a mother, of learning to feed and change and care for a baby. This past week has reminded me how much else there is my own daily life and in my heart and mind that is distracting and really unimportant. This past week has made me stop and rest. This past week has made me marvel at the truly incredible gift that is new life.

And I can’t imagine this week being filled with anything more meaningful and more important than loving this newborn.

What a difference a week can make!

I’m so glad I was wrong about her birthday.

 

The Best Books I Read in 2018

For the last two years, I have participated in the reading challenge on Goodreads. I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books. In 2016, I read 23. In 2017, I read 34. This year, I read 47. I’ll also challenge myself to read 50 books this year. It’s good to recognize challenges often take longer than a year to achieve.

Here’s the list of books I read.

While I recommend almost everything I read this year, I wanted to think about the five books I read this year that most impacted me and why. Books change us and challenge us to see the world and our own realities differently. These five surely did.

  1. The Hate U Give by Angela Johnson: Part of my commitment this year was to read from a variety of different perspectives, concentrating especially on female voices and underrepresented voices in the publishing industry. The Hate U Give is by far one of the best books to offer a new perspective through a first-person lens.
  2. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd: I remember when I first encountered The Mermaid Chair and I thought to myself, “How did I not know this author existed?” I had this same experience when I discovered that she had theological writing I had never encountered. This book is especially significant and important for anyone who was raised with certain expectations of what it means to be female because it is her journey of finding the Divine Feminine. As she wrestles with who she has been and wrestles for who she will be, I found myself and my story again and again in her words.
  3. Silence by Thich Nhat Hanh: This year I started a certification program in Spiritual Direction. As part of that program, I read one book each month. With these requirements, I have encountered new authors and new ideas that have deepened my understanding and my connection to the Divine. This book in particular opened by eyes to just how noisy our lives are and how important silence is to balance out all the noise. Hanh points out how much we resist silence because of how noisy our world is and how we are missing something deep within because of all the noise.
  4. Blessed by Kate Bowler: Although most people know Kate Bowler for her book Everything Happens for a ReasonBlessed is her dissertation work. In this book, she recounts the history of the prosperity gospel and its influence in popular culture as well as religious institutions. As she makes her way through the story of this movement, so much about how our modern congregations view the world, giving, and involvement in the community becomes clear. If you think that this movement doesn’t impact you or your church, you’ll discover how much it actually does as you read this book.
  5. Raising Human Beings by Ross Greene: As our youngest has gained more and more independence throughout toddlerhood, it is important to us that we are fostering not only his physical and mental development but also his emotional development. This book is excellent if you are looking for ways to stretch those little daily decisions, interactions, and communications to a bigger philosophy of parenting.

Perhaps 2019 will finally be the year that I will reach that elusive 50 book goal, but regardless of whether I do or not, my commitment to read and to read as much as I can won’t change. Because it’s in reading other people’s words and seeing the world through other people’s eyes that our own view of the world expands to include other perspectives.

A Season of Rest

The last three years of the Advent season have been particularly powerful in the way they have changed me. Three years ago, I traveled the Advent season nursing a newborn and being nursed by an incredible partner back to health and wholeness. The strangeness of not preaching during the high and holy season provided space to wonder and awe in new life and new identity. The following two seasons of Advent were filled with hope and grief. Wondering whether I would carry the promise of new life again and grieving empty arms after the promise of new life and the unexpected loss of new life. This year, I’ve traveled the Advent season the same way Mary did with swollen ankles, restless nights, and the knowledge that this new life will change everything.

This Advent season whispers of a new season of life not only for us as a family, but for me as a minister as I anticipate stepping into the role of Pastor at Garden of Grace UCC. As this new journey nears, I can’t help but carry the promises of the advent season with me. For thirty-three years I have been Baptist, even in the seasons when I was worshipping with Lutherans, Methodists, and Episcopalians,  I have been Baptist. With the new year, I will begin the journey of dual recognition of ordination in the UCC. My identity as a minister and as a person is changing.

And yet, there is a part of me that feels like I’m giving up hope. Since I walked into my first seminary class, I have held onto hope. Hope that there would be a Baptist church that would call me as a pastor, even though I was a woman. I have held onto hope that systemic sexism would be named and perhaps even changed. I have held onto hope even when comments like, “There is no woman who could ever pastor such an important church,” and “We did have women candidates for the pastor position, but they were all eliminated pretty quickly,” and the stories of sexual harassment of Baptist women in ministry from colleagues, parishioners, and denominational leaders burdened my heart and mind. But this season is a call for me to let the hope that Baptist women will be fully and wholly affirmed go into the hands of the Divine.

With the new year, there is a new call for me: to treasure this new life and new season for us as a family and for me as a minister. It’s a call to rest and immerse myself in the full inclusion and affirmation of me as a minister, not as a woman minister, but as a minister called to lead God’s people. Thanks be to God for this new season!

On Being Ordained for Five Years

Today marks the fifth anniversary of my ordination, a mile marker I remember every year as there are so many women who have sought and fought for ordination for themselves and for generations of young baptist women that would follow them. Even more, I think it’s important to remember the women who are in traditions, even baptists traditions, where ordination is STILL not a possibility and who cannot in their context live into their calls.

As I reflect on the past five years, I am in awe that there are now three congregations who have called me as their pastor. Three congregations who have recognized the call I felt so strongly in a closet in Greenville, SC eight years ago. A call I was so scared and terrified to express because I knew once the words left my lips, there would be no turning back. A call that was an invitation to participate in God’s work here on earth through preaching and teaching and developing partnerships and singing in a homeless shelter in Columbia, SC and making crafts in summer enrichment programs and soliciting national companies to donate food to those who are food insecure and tiling floors and developing curriculum and remembering and reflecting and loving and praying and hoping and so much more.

Five years ago, there is no way I could understand what this journey would entail. I couldn’t understand what it would mean to walk beside God’s people bearing their joys and their griefs; their hopes and their dreams. I couldn’t understand the immense privilege of being invited to the sacred spaces of people’s families and stories. I couldn’t understand the bittersweet feeling of being called to another congregation when you have walked so closely with people for years.

There’s so much I couldn’t understand, but what I did understand in that small room on highway 378 when I sat with my ordination council was that most pastors, especially female pastors, don’t make it to the five-year anniversary of ministry. In fact, Fuller Theological Seminary estimates the attrition rate of ministers to be between 30-40% five years after being ordained. Although these numbers vary from denomination to denomination and depend on whether the minister holds the senior pastor position or an associate minister position, we know the rates of clergy burnout across the board are climbing.  The duties and responsibilities of clergy continue to increase as budgets continue to dwindle and criticism permeates through the pews. Clergy, even young clergy, suffer at higher and higher rates from obesity, hypertension, and depression. Research continues to reveal the nature of pastoral work creates an island of isolation. Pastors are constantly confided in but don’t often have an outlet to process the weight and burden of what they bear on behalf of their congregants. This creates a dangerous environment leading to burnout, depression, and even at times suicide at higher rates than other professions. The struggle against burnout, depression, and suicidal thoughts is even more difficult as preachers are upheld as lighthouses or hope; people who aren’t supposed to struggle with these things.

Even knowing all this about the current climate for pastors, I sat in that room looking at the people gathered for my ordination council and answered the question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” by saying, “In parish ministry.”

I knew my call was to journey with God’s people. I knew my call was to preach in hope that people’s eyes would be opened to the Divine fingerprints that reveal God is with us, inviting to witness the mysterious transformations that surround us if we will but open our eyes.

My partner, Sam, delivered my ordination address five years ago and he said, “I told you not to do this” and we all laughed, but he was right. There is nothing about being called that has been easy. God has constantly asked me to step into the unknown, to challenge my own notions of the Divine, to introduce new possibilities to congregations and to follow after that still, small voice. Thanks be to God for the support and encouragement of a partner and a family who is with me every step of this crazy, called life.

I won’t pretend to know what the next five years hold, but I pray that I will have the strength and courage to continue to live a called life. A life that doesn’t always make sense, but always holds revelations of the Divine at work among us.

A Season of Hope

As Advent quickly approaches, I am excited to share that on January 2, 2019, I will officially begin as the Pastor of Garden of Grace UCC in Columbia. We are excited about this new adventure that God is calling our family to embark upon. We are incredibly grateful for the journey we have shared with New Hope Christian Fellowship over the last two and half years and anticipate with great hope walking this season of Advent with them as they dream about what’s next.

I have learned in my five years of ministry that there is no way to predict or anticipate what’s ahead when you live a called life. For me, a former teacher, who prided herself on the detailed account of short and long-range planning this is one of the most difficult aspects of being called. And yet, again and again, I am overwhelmed that God has called me to this wondrous and mysterious work called pastoring.  Having being raised Southern Baptist, being a pastor was never a possibility or a consideration. It just wasn’t something women did. And yet, again and again, God calls me to lead and guide God’s people.

As Advent quickly approaches, perhaps the Divine is asking us to stop planning and predicting what will happen and instead stand in awe and wonder of the Divine in human form.

Time for Rest

It’s taken me three months to schedule a haircut and it’s not because Ulta is so booked that I couldn’t get an appointment. It’s because I am so booked that I have scheduled and canceled at least three appointments. “This is just a busy season,” I tell myself looking ahead and trying to find a day off, a day of rest, knowing that I would be lucky to squeeze in a half-day of sabbath.

This is a busy season of life with young kids as a young professional, but am I really so busy that I can’t take an hour to get my hair cut? No, I’m not. When I truly reflect on the last three months of scheduling and canceling a haircut I realize that I, like so many, fall prey to the cultural expectations to go, go, go from one thing to another. I need to be needed. Moving from work to carpool to errands to home without really being in any of those places because my mind is constantly asking, “What’s next?”

And I feel guilty taking time to do simple things like get a haircut. Habits and patterns form more quickly than we care to admit. When we constantly go from one thing to another, we leave out rest. There’s no time to recover because there is no time in between exercises. We schedule our days, our weeks, and our months so full that we aren’t able to even remember what we even did last weekend. And when we live this way, we teach our children the same thing. We teach our children that in order to be successful and productive you have to be exhausted, tired, and most importantly busy.

In a recent study, it was reported that more than half of Americans don’t use their vacation days, which adds up to 658 million days of unused vacation, the highest ever reported. We are fighting against a cultural expectation when we take time to rest and time to reflect. We are fighting against false ideas of productivity and what it means to be successful when we stop and are present in the moment. We are fighting to teach our children and ourselves that being on busy and on the go isn’t the ultimate goal.

But we can’t teach that until we ourselves not only understand it but put it into practice.

Being a Woman in Southern Culture

In the wake of the Dr. Christine Ford’s testimony revealing allegations of attempted rape by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, there has been much discussion about whether victims of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse have space and a voice to share their experiences. Many have argued that the social climate and context in the 80s perceived attempted rape by a known person as somehow different than by a stranger in a dark alley indicated in movies like Sixteen Candles.

I would argue, too, that the geographic culture of the South and the Bible Belt have also made it difficult for victims to report and to share their experiences. This has a lot to do with the stereotypical picture of a Southern Woman. Growing up as a woman in the south in the Bible Belt, I heard again and again that the greatest aspiration for a woman was to be a mom. As a mother of three and one on the way, I agree to this sentiment, but not to the stereotypes and unrealistic expectations that are in the subtext of that statement. There’s a false and dangerous assumption here that a southern woman should be completely fulfilled when she becomes a mom. There is so much damage in this cultural expectation for women who don’t want to have children, women who need or want to work after they have children, and for stay-at-home moms who want time away from their kids. The expectation that underlies this idea is that a southern woman who is a mom should have endless and boundless amounts of energy to devote to her children, which creates dangerous patterns of ignoring self-care, signs of fatigue and exhaustion that lead to ongoing health problems, and never, ever asking for help because this is what southern women are supposed to do. It’s the idea that somehow as a southern woman who constantly self-sacrifices in the forms of hospitality and serving because that is we are wired and created to do. Not only is this an unrealistic and untenable expectation, it is a gross overgeneralization of gender roles.

I personally didn’t realize how much this was ingrained into as a girl who grew up in the Bible Belt, southern culture until I had children of my own. The pressing thoughts in my head about providing them meals and clean clothes and guidance would drive me to the point of frenzied anxiety. This anxiety permeated our home and our family for no good reason except this internal “this is what I am supposed to do.” Until I took the time to analyze and wonder where these ideas were coming from, I drove myself and my family to the point of exhaustion and fatigue. Perhaps it was also a need to be needed that drove these thoughts and ideas, but no matter the motivator, it was unhealthy and unbalanced.

It is never, ever easy to ask for help, but there is so much more joy and love and just plain fun when we work to create intentional space to grow and learn together. To be certain, I still fall into these learned behavior patterns and those expectations and societal expectations I learned long ago still creep in, but the more time I take to ask myself, “What do I want my children to remember about growing up?” the more time I find for dance parties, fort building and serving our community together.