The Messiness (and Wisdom) of the Birthing, Lactating Body

A female figure in birthing position - perhaps used by women in some ancient society to aid them through birth.

A female figure in birthing position – perhaps used by women in some ancient society to aid them through birth.

Being a pregnant, birthing, and eventually lactating, body is a wonder, but also complicated. While I marvel at my body’s innate abilities to bring forth and nurture life, sometimes the experience feels too physical. Too sticky, smelly, bloody, gooey.

As I prepare to birth, breastfeed, and take care of a newborn, I am coming to terms with this overwhelming physicality. Childbirth books describe labor as this time when the body completely takes over. Birthing women need to surrender to the primal force of the body in labor, which one woman says is like being plastered to the front of a train going 150 miles per hour, scared you’ll fall off any second, but learning that surrender is what keeps you on board. In birth, the logical mind retreats, and laboring women’s consciousness descends into the uterus. Every ounce of energy is focused on what’s going on there.

If childbirth demands our 110% bodily presence, childcare is no different. This is where part of me throws back  its head and wails objections. The fact that men’s and women’s bodies are designed such that childbearing, breastfeeding, and some of the most intensive aspects of caring for a newborn fall to women seems unfair, in some ways. Why is it that this little life that we created together demands more from me, more out of my body, than from my husband’s? Why must I be the one to wake up in the middle of the night to nurse, to lose sleep? (I really like my sleep, and all those warnings about never getting to sleep again after the baby is born are probably what scare me the most!) While the intricate connection between my body and my child’s is something I cherish, on another level it feels like too much. Too attached, intertwined, enmeshed.

There are ways to reduce and balance out the weighty childcare burden that mothers carry. My recent Her.meneutics post on attachment parenting addresses this. At the same time, this does not mean that we can escape the truth and wisdom of our bodies. For some reason, God designed women to have a kind of intimate, physical connection to their children that men don’t have. I think it will take me a lifetime of being a woman and a mother to figure out what that means.

In the meantime, I am still learning to trust my body. I believe that the way our bodies are created, the ways we experience connection to others through our bodies, is something to embrace, not resist. Being a woman’s body, being a mothering body, especially in an age when the role of women and mothers is constantly contested, is indeed complex. But I will try to take the advice of a dear friend and fellow mother who urged me to put aside the intellectual objections when Baby comes. “Just be present in the physicality,” she said – in the gooey, sticky mess of having a child. I am sure this will teach me more than any abstract wonderings ever could.


God at Your Back

Yoga reverse prayer

In an impromptu yoga session recently, our leader, Ann, urged us to become aware of our back-bodies. We usually focus attention on our front-bodies, Ann said. It is the side of ourselves we present to the world, the side we examine closely in mirrors, the side we make sure is well put-together. But our back-bodies, Ann said, is a side we don’t often dwell on. As such, it is an entry-point into the unknown.

What do our back-bodies know that our front-bodies don’t? Well, for one, we can’t see from behind. In front, we keep a vigilant lookout on the world. But our backsides are vulnerable, unguarded, an open door to things unseen. Maybe that’s why we can sense things with our back-bodies that our front-bodies can’t. We feel the stares of others drilling into the backs of our heads. The hairs on the backs of our necks stand up on end when we sense danger.  We feel a tingle down our spines in the presence of beings from the spiritual realm. In short, our back-bodies have a keen sense of things unknown and unseen.

Maybe, as Ann suggested to us, our back-bodies are a place where we can find God – the unknown, unseen whisper of a God who showed himself to Elijah not in wind, earthquake or fire, but in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19). How does one hear “sheer silence”? Perhaps Elijah did not hear God’s presence with his ears. Perhaps he heard God in the nape of his neck, in his shoulder blades, in the liquid spaces between his vertebrae.

As I was lying on the yoga mat, bringing my awareness into my back-body, feeling myself being held in the palm of the ground, I recalled Psalm 139. The psalmist says to God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” The knowledge of being hemmed in by God, behind and before, was something beyond the psalmist’s grasp. Yet perhaps he knew it in his back-body as he was lying on the earth, feeling his weight being supported by the God who laid the earth’s foundations.

Jesus in Flesh and Blood

When a prayer minister asked me to look into the eyes of Jesus recently, something interesting happened. I couldn’t picture Jesus’ face in my mind’s eye very well, but instead I began to see the rest of his body before me – his chest, shoulders, arms, legs, toes. Though we know it as a theological fact, it was startling for me to realize that Jesus has a physical body!

Jesus and Doubting Thomas

Brugghen: The Incredulity of St. Thomas

The Gospel accounts witness over and over to the physical reality of Jesus’ risen presence – eating fish on the lakeshore, breaking bread with the disciples who were walking to Emmaus, telling Thomas to touch the wounds in his side. But don’t we often still imagine Jesus as some kind of disembodied spirit or floating head when we pray to him? When I was able to picture him as a flesh-and-blood body and sense the reality of his physical presence, it was such a gift. I pictured myself resting my head on his chest, Jesus placing his hand on my head and blessing me. As embodied creatures, we long for God to be near, so near that we can touch him. There is something unspeakably comforting about being in somebody’s warm, breathing physical presence.

Scriptures tell us that Jesus in his risen, tangible physical body is at the right hand of the throne of God interceding for us. Which means we can’t really touch him right now. He is physically absent.

But then again, he isn’t. His church, in all of our motley, colorful, jumbled living and breathing mess, is his physical presence on earth for now. It’s frightening to think that Christ turned it over to us to be bearers of his physical presence to the world. Yet it’s also exciting and beautiful.

Jesus gave his body for us as a broken, bleeding, crucified sacrifice. He continues to give his body for us through the elements of the Eucharist and through the physical presence of the church. Are we able to receive him as a body? Are we able to receive him through the embrace of his body the church?

Our Bodies Need Other Bodies

Parent-child sleepingIn American society, the prevailing notion is that infants should sleep alone, so they learn to fall asleep on their own and don’t get too “dependent” on their parents. But, Meredith Small points out, in all parts of the world besides North America and Europe, infants sleep with their parents (co-sleeping). In Small’s book, Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent,[1] she draws on biological evidence to show that infant bodies need adult bodies. Indeed, infant biology illuminates a deeper theological fact – we all need other bodies in order to be at home in our own bodies, and in order to be fully human.

An extraordinary thing happens when mothers and babies sleep together, researchers found. Babies take on the mother’s breathing rhythm and move through light and deep sleep levels together. In the lab, when a mother’s brain wave pattern shifts, the baby’s does too. When she moves into a lighter sleep stage, the baby follows. This process, Small writes, is called entrainment. Newborns “are born with neurologically unfinished brains, and they don’t develop the ability to easily navigate types of breathing until they are at least three to four months old.”[2] In other words, newborns learn how to sleep by co-sleeping with their parents. A baby who sleeps alone can gradually manage to navigate the sleep phases on its own, but the process is much easier when an infant can “benefit from the external metronome of parental breathing.”

Infant sleeping isn’t the only aspect of embodied life that involves entrainment. We learn to make facial expressions by watching our conversation partners when their emotions change. We learn to dance by catching the physical energy of others in the room and mimicking the movements of our parents and older siblings. We learn how to be physically close by responding to others’ touch with matching pressure and feeling. My friend Pam, a psychologist and massage therapist, talks about transmission or resonance, where the therapist picks up the emotional energy of the client through bodily contact, or vice versa.

In these and so many other ways, we need other bodies around us in order to learn how to be at home in own bodies. As I heard in a recent sermon, our bodies were made for bonding, for connecting us to other people, particularly to Christ and his body the church. Without the positive presence of other bodies, we get a bit lost, and don’t quite know how to relate in our own bodies. You can see this most starkly in children who either were neglected or physically abused – they move about awkwardly and timidly, hunch their shoulders, and keep their heads low, as if afraid to let it be known that they are bodily present in the room.  On the other hand, when children are touched and held often in ways that respect their personhood, they thrive. I’ve heard from a family that co-slept with the last couple of their children that these kids seem much more confident in their bodies than their children who slept alone.

What does this mean for the body of Christ? How can we learn to be more at home in our bodies together, and pass this on to our children? For one, I wish that congregations would make it okay and good to express ourselves with our bodies in worship. Let’s start incorporating dance into our services and making space in the sanctuary where people can move about freely. Also, let’s not be afraid to touch each other. If the grandpa in the wheelchair looks like he needs a hug, give it! He doesn’t bite!  Sometimes our strict regard for personal space keeps us from that human connection that can only happen through physical touch. Finally, let’s create spaces where we can process through difficult issues and pray together not just with our minds, but also with our bodies. The workshops I led for my old church are a good starting point.

Our bodies need other bodies – not only for the hugs and warm fuzzies. Christ came in a body and rose from the dead in a body to show us that our bodies matter dearly to this whole enterprise of seeking God’s kingdom and restoring a broken humanity. If we cannot learn to be fully present in our bodies, we cannot be fully human.

[1] 1998, Anchor Books.

[2] P. 130

Creativity and the Let Down Reflex

If you haven’t been able to tell already, I like to think in metaphor. My pregnant body is a gold-mine of metaphors these days. Here’s the latest.

While I haven’t experienced it myself yet, I’ve been doing a bit of reading on breast feeding. I came across this phenomenon called the “let down reflex,” which is basically what happens when a nursing woman’s body senses her baby is hungry and ready to eat. In an amazing loop of intuitive, embodied communication, a woman’s breasts “let down” milk as the baby is sucking.

The interesting thing is, while this action is reflexive and natural, it can also be inhibited if a woman has anxieties about breast feeding.

Breastfeeding2If a woman is so worried that she cannot produce milk or enough of it for her child, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her baby may suck, but the milk doesn’t come. Another interesting aspect of breast-milk production is that it is not continuous. Milk is made as the baby is eating. There may be some leftover from a previous feeding, but mostly it is made at the same time it is being consumed. Demand dictates supply.

As I think about trusting my body and trusting that I have the inner resources to bear, deliver, and nourish a child, it strikes me that the let down reflex is an apt illustration of all creative processes.

When we create, we are in a sense “giving birth” to something within us, something that we hope and trust will nourish and give life to the world. We were made to create, because we were made in the image of a creative, life-giving God. Yet, our creative flow can be inhibited by fear – fear that we are not capable, fear that we don’t have what it takes, fear that if we use up this round of creative juices there will be nothing left.

But, like the let down reflex, it’s is only when we are giving of ourselves and releasing our gifts into the world that we have more to give. If we try to “store up” our creativity, it gets blocked, and we run dry. Our fear and anxieties short-circuit something that is part of our very nature. As a writer, sometimes I get writers’ block just thinking about the enormous amount of commitment and grit it takes to write a book. A musician may stop composing after releasing a ground-breaking album, for fear that what comes after will never be as good again.

Also, like the let down reflex, creativity does not reside in the mind. A new mother can’t just will her breasts to give milk, just as an artist can’t just will herself to paint a masterpiece. Creativity (and mothering) resides somewhere in between trusting and being, in a place of embodied understanding that this is who you are and what you are meant for. Both require a simple trust that what you have to give (even if you don’t quite know what it is) will come, when the time is ripe.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love gave an excellent TED talk on relating to your creative genius. Listen here

Learning to Trust the Body

The Christian subculture I come from often teaches us a deep distrust of the body. As a young Christian, I would read passages such those in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,” (7:18) and interpret this to mean that every bodily impulse I have is bad.

Unfortunately, most messages I heard in the church confirmed this interpretation. The body is the realm of unruly appetites, for sex, for food, for pleasure. Deny your body, and gain spiritual control. When I read accounts of Christian mystics through this kind of interpretive lens, my distrust of the body was only further affirmed. Here were holy women and men of God living in caves, sleeping on boards, and eating the barest minimum to stay alive, in essence distancing themselves as far as possible from the body and its demands. Is this the kind of life we also are called to lead, in order to be holy?

Besides our perception that listening to the body leads only to sin (and its counterpart: denying the body leads to holiness), we learn to distrust the body for other reasons. If you don’t deny your body, you’ll get fat, was another frightening message I internalized. As a young woman wanting to be beautiful and fearing that her body might be unattractive if a few pounds heavier, there were times when I took ridiculous pride in ignoring hunger pangs and feeding slivers of grapefruit to a growling, empty stomach.

When I went through a period of chronic ankle pain, I began to distrust my body for another reason – it was betraying me. Why the inexplicable pain? Why wasn’t my body healing, as it was supposed to? I tried so many treatments and watched so desperately for signs of improvement, but mostly got (what I thought was) an unresponsive and obstinate body that refused to comply with my attempts to make it better. For me, it was pain that strained my already broken relationship to my body. For others, it is disability, disease, or aging. It is hard to trust the body when it is the source of dissatisfaction and suffering.

In the midst of pain, I had moments where I wanted to escape my body completely. I would tell my husband, half-jokingly, half-seriously, “My body is broken, can I get a new one?” Matt would reply, “But I like your body.” This was one of many instances where my relationship with others reoriented how I saw my own body. When I knew that someone loved and appreciated my body, I began to inhabit it in a different way. I realized my body could be a conduit for joy, connection, and relationship, as much as it was a source of frustration and disappointment. The same happened at times in church, when, with hugs and kisses, others communicated their care for me through my body.

Now that I am pregnant, I am learning that my body can also be a source of life, where once I could only see it as a bog of pain and decay. It’s still unbelievable at times to think that my body is capable of creating a whole new life within itself, after having distrusted it for so many years. Just a few days ago, I experienced some unusual pangs in the womb, which I feared were the pains of miscarriage. After a call with the midwife, I was relieved to hear they were just the growing pains of the uterus expanding out of the pelvic cavity. I am also gaining weight, which is only normal. Yet, after years of being super aware and careful about my weight, it’s disconcerting to watch the numbers rise on the scale.

I have to keep telling myself, “God made my body to nourish life and to connect me to others. This is natural, and holy, and good.  I can stop being on edge that there’s always something wrong with it. I can trust my body.” It is a lesson I am learning slowly.

In the Womb of God

In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

A friend reminded me of these beautiful words when I confessed to her some fears about my newly discovered pregnancy. Even as I write, these fears flutter up. The little life inside me is the size of a kidney bean, so tender, so fragile, so vulnerable. Will s/he survive? What if I eat something wrong? What if I breathe in too many noxious fumes? There are so many factors outside of my control!

Bubble of a Womb, by nwinn

Bubble of a Womb, by nwinn

These fears that spring up right at the start of life follow us through our entire earthly existence. What shall we eat, drink, wear? What if we make a wrong decision? How can we minimize our risks and reduce the impact of all those unknown outside variables? We are in a constant state of unease about this breathtaking yet fleeting thing called life.

As I pondered Paul’s words to the people of Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being,” it struck me that just as a newly formed life is knit together and held firmly by God in the mother’s womb, so we, as fragile creatures on a brief and exhilarating sojourn through planet Earth, are being formed in the womb of God until we are one day delivered into the broad daylight of everlasting union with our Creator.

As babes yet unborn into the full likeness of God, we now endure a dark and often grueling process of being knit together, according to a mysterious design, into a reflection of the Son. In the darkness of the womb, we hear his voice, but one day, we will see his face. We hear inchoate murmurs of the world beyond, so vast that our little hearts cannot take it in. We incubate in a twilight of semi-conscious spiritual awareness, seeing through a veil darkly, until one day the veil is torn, and we behold the Son in all his glory.

One day we will use to full capacity these lungs, feet, hands, mouths, hearts, that for now seem limited in their range and power. One day we will open our mouths and the fresh air of God’s kingdom will flood our lungs. One day we will run with abandon into the arms of the One who is both father and mother, lover and Spouse.

For now, all creation groans in the pains of childbirth, waiting with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed (Romans 8).  For now, we rest in the womb of God. We await the day when we will be delivered from our fears into a perfect everlasting love, one that has enfolded us since before our life began.

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