Covering Up Motherhood

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On Saturday I snapped this picture of myself looking in the mirror at a Panera bathroom, wedged between the sink, trash can, and swinging door where I tried my best to cover myself as I pumped breast milk. I’d been attending the Sojourners Summit for Change where I was moved at numerous moments, especially around heartbreaking, yet powerful conversations about violence and race. I also led one of the sessions to discuss theology and contraception. Unable to figure out the complicated logistics of bringing my daughter along I’d opted to do the trip solo, shortening it by a night to minimize my time away from my family. But I still had this lactation issue to deal with.

For the 48+ hours I was away, I pumped at least a dozen times. Each session required finding a semi-private place to set up the pump and plug it in, spending 10-15 minutes trying to relax as I pumped, getting the pumped milk into a storage container, finding a way to keep it cool, and cleaning the pump parts for the next time. Fortunately the Sojourners staff found me an office to use and access to a fridge, but sometimes the door would be locked and I’d have to track someone down to open it for me. I left plenaries, meals, and one-on-one conversations, sometimes abruptly, in order to make space in my schedule to pump every three hours.

My hotel room didn’t have a fridge, so I got creative. I took the trashcan, placed my bags of pumped milk at the bottom, and filled it with ice. Three times a day I’d dump out the water in the tub and carry buckets of ice back to my room to keep my supply cold. I decided to opt out of having my room cleaned since I didn’t want to make the lives of underpaid, overworked hotel cleaning staff any more difficult by subjecting them to the state of chaos I’d created in an effort to keep my breastmilk cool.

On Saturday morning I was supposed to fly home. I lugged my 60 oz of breastmilk, plus bags full of ice, in an insulated bag to the airport where I was promptly asked to open the bags of milk for TSA testing. The woman examining my bag asked, “Where’s baby?” “Home with her daddy,” I replied. She gave me a confused look. I guess it didn’t occur to her that one might need to transport breast milk back home in order to have an extra supply on hand so that one can move about the world without baby attached to one’s body. Luckily she didn’t make me open all 12 bags of milk I’d collected over the two days.

Then, after a comedy of errors my flight got cancelled, and I was going to be delayed at least twelve hours if I waited around the airport. With storms heading to DC and my impatience high I decided to rent a car and make the drive but because of summer vacation and beach traffic, what should’ve been a 4 hour trip took 7 hours. Thus, I had to stop and pump at a Panera bathroom while dozens of customers walked by.

No matter what you might have heard breastfeeding is not easy, simple, or convenient. It’s not an easy thing to establish when babies are tiny (I clocked over 100 hours of breastfeeding our daughter in her first month of life), nor is it easy to sustain over many months. If breastfeeding is so important couldn’t we make it a little easier on moms who want to do it but have to (or want to) be away from their kids?

Our culture shames women who don’t or can’t breastfeed for whatever reason, but we also make breastfeeding incredibly challenging for those who opt to do it. How many times have we read about women being told to “just cover up” when they are feeding their child in a public place? I’m convinced that as a society we expect women to stay home once they’re moms. We’d prefer them to be invisible. That’s why I’m posting this picture of me pumping. Because this is what parenting looks like. Parenting isn’t pretty all of the time. It isn’t just about bedtime stories and butterfly kisses. Parenting is doing the humbling, hard work of what i think is best for my kid.

Flying to DC, spending time at a conference, and staying in a hotel are marks of the many privileges I enjoy. So is having a supportive partner who cares for my daughter when I’m away. Encountering situations like the one on Saturday leave me baffled by the mamas who raise their children with few resources and little if any familial support, for whom time away from their kids to work is critical to their families’ survival. How many of the women whom I encountered at the conference–cleaning up spaces, preparing meals, serving me coffee–were struggling mamas?

In the middle of my pumping session in the bathroom a woman stopped to share how she’d nursed all four of her sons, recalling how difficult it was when she was out and about. She recalled how she’d once fed her infant in the bathroom of the JCPenney while trying to keep her 3-year-old occupied by having him count tiles on the floor. “You’re a great mom,” she said. “You are doing an amazing job.”  In that incredibly vulnerable moment, her encouraging words brought tears to my eyes. I had been trying so hard to be inconspicuous when what I really needed was to be seen.

Each hardship I encounter in parenting moves me to a place of greater sympathy for parents who are doing the best they can, no matter how little they have. It also strengthens my commitment to making the world a more compassionate place for all, but especially for mamas whose work is so often invisible. My prayer is for all of us to open our eyes and fill our hearts with compassion for those who are doing the all-consuming, arduous work of raising children. There is so much we do not see.

Power, Abuse, and the Duggars: Part Two

You can read my first post “Power, Abuse, and the Duggars” here

After watching the Duggar daughters’ interview with Megyn Kelly, there’s no doubt in my mind that they got media training from the same people as their parents. Their messaging points were nearly identical:

  • Josh made bad decisions.
  • But they weren’t that bad because many other families experience worse abuse.
  • And besides, they weren’t aware of the molestation until their parents told them.

If you watched Jim Bob and Michelle’s interview, you’ll remember his insistence that Josh’s victims were unaware of the abuse, saying that the girls were asleep when he touched them. One might come to the logical conclusion that the girls had no memory of the molestation at all.

In the beginning of their interview Jessa and Jill also insisted that they didn’t know about the abuse. But at one point Kelly directly asked Jessa, “You had no memory of [the molestation]?” Her reply was, “I didn’t—I didn’t know. I didn’t understand, ‘Ok, this is what’s happened,’ until my parents told me.” That was Jessa’s opportunity to confirm what her father had inferred–that the girls can’t remember Josh molesting them–but she didn’t. She remembers.

Seeing as how Jim Bob and Michelle waited for more than a year after learning about Josh molesting this sister before they went to the police about the abuse, we have every reason to believe they waited equally long if not longer to talk to their daughters about it. In the interview Jessa and Jill say that Josh was sent to a Christian treatment program not long after their parents talked with them about the abuse, which was a year after Josh confessed.

Jessa and Jill were little girls when this happened. We shouldn’t expect them to have understood at the time that what happened to them was wrong. That’s why it’s the responsibility of parents to teach their kids about appropriate boundaries, not only in their personal behavior but also in how they are treated by others. Jim Bob and Michelle took Josh’s word for it that the girls were asleep and when none of them came forward about the molestation, they took it upon themselves to actively withhold that information from their daughters to avoid difficult conversations about sexual abuse. This is another example of abusing power to control a narrative, even if it’s done with the intent to protect.

What is so upsetting about the Duggar story is that the only “mistakes” anyone wants to address are Josh’s. The focus is on minimizing the abuse and overstating his parents’ efforts to rectify it. The most glaring mistake is that these parents allowed their daughters to live in ignorance about the ways in which their bodies had been abused by their brother while at the same time raising them in a Quiverfull household in which women are taught to be submissive to men. Under these circumstances could we expect any of these young girls to have identified their brother’s actions as abusive?

Power, Abuse, and the Duggars: Part One

For part two of Power, Abuse, and the Duggars, read here

“None of them were aware of Josh’s wrong doings.”

“They didn’t probably even understand that it was an improper touch.”

“They didn’t even know he’d done it.”

If you caught Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar’s interview with Megyn Kelly last night, you probably recall their repeated insistence that the girls molested by their son Josh, most of whom are their daughters, were unaware of the violation when asked about it. Jim Bob in particular wanted those watching to know that the violations were “not rape or anything like that” but rather “touching somebody over their clothes,” though he did admit that among Josh’s “wrongdoings” were “a couple instances where he touched them under their clothes.” These statements are enraging on so many levels, but they also serve as an opportunity for all of us to have a much needed conversation about sexual abuse.

Survivors of sexual abuse tell themselves some of the very same things that Michelle and Jim Bob said in their interview. They question if the violation was really that terrible or if they were violated at all. Our rape culture automatically questions victims of sexual violence, and that public skepticism often gets internalized as self-doubt.

What if, instead of coming from Michelle and Jim Bob, these statements came from one of their daughters whom Josh molested? What if one of them had said, “My brother touched my breasts, but it was while I was half-asleep. And he just did it over my shirt, and it only lasted a few seconds,” what would our reaction be? Would we say to her, “Well, that was wrong, but it wasn’t rape or anything like that”? I certainly hope not.

Our reaction to any allegation or admittance of sexual abuse should not primarily focused on determining just how horrible the act itself was. Sexual violence takes place on a spectrum, but in every instance, no matter how someone might try to trivialize the particularities of a violation, it always involves the abuse of power. That is the conversation we aren’t having in the midst of this public controversy. Those with power get to control the narrative in order to protect themselves. Those with power get to focus on what’s at stake for the abuser, not the abused. Those with power can influence victims–and in the case of the Duggars, the public as a whole–into thinking what happened to them might not be such a big deal.

On Friday the Duggar daughters will have their turn to speak. But when they do, let’s not forget who really has the power in this situation. And let’s turn our collective outrage toward the abuses of power that seek to dismiss and silence their stories.

Lessons Learned in Advocacy and Organizing

Last week I spoke at the United Methodist Greater New Jersey Annual Conference. The event was hosted by the Conference Commission on Religion and Race, the Conference Board of Church & Society, and the Commission on Christian Unity and Interfaith Relationships. I was asked to speak about how to build ecumenical, diverse teams for justice. Here are a few lessons learned I shared with the group. 

Photo: United Methodist Greater New Jersey Annual Conference

Find an entry point, so that you can meet people where they are. Since I work on women’s health, a topic that often incites controversy, I had to learn early in my work how to begin a conversation in a way that didn’t cause people in the room to put up walls. The way I did this was to talk about the tragedy of maternal mortality, how a woman dies every two minutes from complications during childbirth and how the death of a woman often means the death of her child. Oftentimes people I speak to have a connection to the death of a mother or the death of a child. Creating a safe space for these conversations is a critical part of building relationships with advocates who want to tell their stories. Building trust through conversation allows me then to go deeper into the issues around why women are dying in childbirth.

Start small.  One-on-one conversations are key to building a movement. It’s about finding a core group, maybe even just two or three people, of committed advocates who are going to be with you throughout the journey. I always like to cast a wide net, but I’m also cognizant that when I talk with a group, I may only have a handful of people who are interested and maybe only one or two who ultimately join my efforts as a volunteer. In the same vein, start small not only in number but in action. Advocacy is a marathon, a never-ending marathon it seems at times. It’s easy to get burned out if we set our expectations too high. We want to dream, but we also want to set achievable, measurable goals.

Make the work the focus. Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, the project I direct for the General Board of Church & Society, has always been about improving women’s health through partnership with others. We’re honest about who we are, what resources we have, and what our limitations are. Being clear and confident about our particular role has made partnership a necessity and a blessing. Identify what you bring to the table that is unique and be open with and hospitable to others with different strengths who want to join you.

Allow the work to shift and change. One of the pitfalls of organizing at a national level is very often leadership is not rooted in the field, and oftentimes volunteers feel a disconnect when they are asked to take on work that doesn’t feel organic to their context. One of the ways we have worked on this is forming a small team of diverse advisors with whom we talk about our plans before we implement them. Before we launch a new initiative we know that it’s going to be useful and relevant.

What are some of your lessons learned about organizing and advocacy?