Excited! That’s how I felt after watching the season premiere of Adam Ruins Everything. For those who don’t know, it’s a Tru TV original show where the host, Adam Conover, tackles ubiquitously held misconceptions about commonplace subjects. Past shows included debunking myths surrounding hydration (do you really need 8 glasses of water?), the funeral industry (because grieving families are excellent targets for up-selling), and restaurants (that salmon you ordered was probably dyed pink). The first show of the second season aired a few weeks ago and dealt with childbirth. It discussed misconceptions about fertility, breastfeeding, and—the topic that was the source of my aforementioned excitement—postpartum depression. Granted, that seems like an odd subject to be “excited” about. Rest assured I’m not joyful about the incidence of depression; I’m happy that it’s being discussed broadly in a popular platform.
At the last General Conference session, you may have heard about a little procedural vote that was taking place concerning ordination. After the dust settled, a number of speeches from those who came to the microphone during that debate were the subject of spirited discussions around dinner tables, on social media, and in various articles. Among them were comments given by former President Jan Paulsen, current President Ted Wilson, and—surprisingly—a comment delivered, not by an administrator, pastor, or GC official, but one given by a volunteer not well known outside of GYC circles: Natasha Nebblett, then GYC president (which is itself pretty ironic given her impassioned stance against women leaders). With a nod to the often misapplied Patriarchs and Prophets quote about “modern Eves”, part of Nebblett’s argument against women being ordained was that she was personally content to fulfill what she believed to be a woman’s most important roles which are as wife and mother. This was an exceptionally odd insertion into the conversation because (1) among the hundreds of women serving in our denomination’s pastoral ranks, many of them are wives and/or mothers so there’s nothing precluding women from doing both, (2) there are many women who are not/cannot/or will not be wives and/or mothers, so what reason should they not be ordained?, and (3) at the time of her comment, Nebblett was neither a wife nor mother. Yet she superimposed this idealized understanding of marriage and parenthood onto all women...and onto herself. I do not know if she is currently married with children. Since she expressed this as being a desire of hers, I sincerely pray God gives her blessings in those areas. However, at the time of her speech, she had no idea what the future held for her life: would she be able to have children? Even if she did, would motherhood fulfill the idealized dreams it occupied in her mind? But this isn’t about her life. Even if, in the intervening years since San Antonio, she has become a mother and it has proven to meet and exceed all of her expectations, the fact remains that it doesn’t work that way for a large number of women.
Although this image of the quintessentially enthusiastic mother has been accepted by many women as “normal”, the reality is that the idea of the instant mother-child bond is a relatively new concept: the infant mortality rate in times past made it an emotional liability to get too attached. And despite better survival rates today, the truth is, moms sometimes have negative feelings associated with having children. Among other issues, as many as 1 in 7 have clinical postpartum depression http://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/postpartum-depression.aspx. Yet many women—particularly women of faith—are taught that being a mother is the apotheosis of womanhood and that it’s sinful to have any feelings other than complete enthusiasm about the prospect of being a mother. Moreover, it’s appalling to desire other pursuits in addition to or (gasp) instead of motherhood.
Where do these beliefs stem from? It’s hard to prove they’re Biblical. Yes, there are many stories of women as mothers and wannabe mothers who were insistent on procreating. But many of these stories are more about societal expectations and standing within the familial hierarchy and much less about the children themselves. For example, Leah wanted a child to make Jacob love her more than Rachel; in turn, Rachel longed for kids to one up her sister. Even Hannah, who earnestly prayed for a child, wanted offspring to prevent taunting from Peninah, who was using her own role as a mother to show off. Now no one is saying these moms didn’t ultimately love their kids, but that wasn’t the most salient motivation we’re told about for having these children. And while there are stories in Scripture of deep maternal love and care (like Jochabed saving baby Moses and the woman whose case was decided by King Solomon), these narratives are descriptive accounts of historical events rather than prescriptions for every woman on earth. In fact, there are many Biblical women who are held in high regard who either never had children or whose place in Biblical cannon was so unaffected by their motherhood status that it was never mentioned if they did have kids. Deborah, Huldah, Esther (who even has an eponymous book), Anna, Lydia, Dorcas, and Priscilla are only a few notable Biblical women without children (or whose children were inconsequential to their story and thus omitted).
The perennial example of womanhood, mentioned on Mother’s Day weekends in churches far and wide, is the Proverbs 31 woman. Yet, verses 10-31 are mostly taken up with praise for her business acumen and work ethic. And we aren’t talking about homemaking tasks. Though that is a noble vocation, that is not what Proverbs 31 describes: she is a clothing manufacturer, she purchases land, she plants a vineyard, she trades. The only explicit mention of her children is in verse 28. And it’s not about her longsuffering toward them; it’s about them praising her! The only other verses that give any general mention of her family and household are: verse 15 where she provides for her family (and servants), verse 21 that states how she doesn’t fear winter because her household has quality clothes, and verse 27 where it mentions her watching over her household affairs instead of being idle. If this proverbial icon is the standard for Christian women, we should be making a much larger push for women to become business owners and entrepreneurs above our constant obsession with maternity!
Again, this is not “anti-mom”. If that’s what a woman wants, then she ought to pursue it. But it’s also ok if that’s not what she wants. It’s also acceptable if she likes being a mom, but admits that sometimes it’s frustrating or depressing. Both in my pastoral counseling and clinical psychology work, I’ve encountered multiple women who have a hard time dealing with the emotions of motherhood. Not only do they feel upset or anxious about being a mother, they also feel guilty for feeling upset and anxious. How can you admit that you’re despondent, when the entire world tells you that you should be at the height of happiness? I’ve counseled many women who felt afraid to discuss the issue with their own husbands because he is exuberant about parenthood while she isn’t. I’ve even known women who thought they were going to have a baby, but later didn’t, who felt relief and simultaneous remorse for feeling relieved. Was there something wrong with her? Was her lack of enthusiasm the reason they had a false alarm or miscarriage or still birth? Was she a bad person for not being as gung ho as everyone says she should be? No, no, and no. As long as a woman is taking care of her health, she’s not to blame if the baby doesn’t make it. And it’s ok to have doubts about parenthood before and after giving birth. Sadly, although getting professional counseling helps reduce depressive symptoms, it’s often viewed as taboo. So people not only suffer in silence, but consequently prolong their misery. Many women think they are alone. And even less well known is the fact that many fathers also experience depressive symptoms after the birth of children. Furthermore, statistically speaking, most married couples report that they experience their lowest levels of marital satisfaction immediately after the birth of children (satisfaction levels often rise again over time, but on average, they rarely rebound to the level before children).
Yes, children are wonderful blessings! At the same time, it’s fine to acknowledge if you don’t feel like parenthood is perpetual sunshine and roses. That’s why I’ve learned not to assume I know how a woman feels when she announces she’s pregnant. Instead of an automatic “Congratulations”, I now default to something more neutral like, “Wow! That’s big news! How are you feeling about it?” That way she recognizes that it’s safe to share if her answer is something other than “Excited!”
Courtney Ray is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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