Ask a Young Clergy Woman- Parenting Edition

Post Author: Askie

L'Assomption_de_la_Vierge,_Le_BrunDear Ask a YCW-

Would you ever breastfeed in front of people in your congregation?

The Rev. Mom

Dear Mother-

For help on this question, Askie turned to a panel of experts- clergy mothers.  The consensus on breastfeeding in one’s own church was: all may, some do, none must.  Across the board these ordained moms agreed that it is totally okay to breastfeed in church, and most mentioned that they went out of their way to make nursing mothers feel comfortable and empowered in the pews, in a nursing nook, or wherever else they chose to feed in the churches where these moms serve. When it came to feeding their own babies at work, however, a number of these moms demurred. A common sentiment was that while public breastfeeding elsewhere was doable, it just didn’t seem worth the potential awkwardness and vulnerability of doing it in their own churches if possible.  One reverend mother, when finding herself without any other viable option, covers up with what she has at hand and tries not to think about it too much. Another weaned her child early in part to make this a non-issue. The theme from these moms was- we’re exhausted, folks don’t always understand, and often it just isn’t worth the emotional energy of trying to change a culture while doing your actual job with a baby attached to your (ginormous) boob.

Different areas of the country and world have different cultural comfort levels with the working female breast, and a desire to normalize nursing in areas where it was frowned upon ran through many responses. Askie heard some horror stories about senior staff or youth group parents who simply couldn’t deal with a natural process that can’t be scheduled around, an absurdly funny one about adventures in pumping (moral: make sure your office door locks, and that you have in fact locked it), and learned about the constant threat of leakage. Katherine Willis Pershey has a particularly humbling and hilarious story about shooting the chair person of her church board in the eye with a stream of milk- but for that one you’ll need to pick up a copy of her book, which contains a chapter on nursing while in service to the Lord. Like so many aspects of being a young clergywoman, this one ultimately comes down to your own comfort level- and no matter what you decide, you are not the only one.

Dear Ask a YCW-

My husband and I have been married for a couple of years, and every time I do a baptism, preach a children’s homily, or stand within fifteen feet of a baby, someone in my congregation inevitably asks me about our reproductive plans. How do you respond when people make comments like “So now it’s your turn! When are you having your first baby?” especially when you don’t want to explain why you won’t be having children?

Dear Anonymous-

It is an unfortunate reality that loving Jesus does not automatically make all Christians thoughtful, sympathetic, and completely incapable of asking nosey questions. The upside of this is that probably every single ordained woman reading this right now has a shake-your-head-in-disbelief story about something said to her at the back door of the sanctuary on a Sunday, and will share it. The downside is…well, you’ve experienced the hurt and anger of the downside.

There are so many reasons that couples are without children. Women consulted for this column cited a range of explanations for why they and their partners are not currently or will not be parents- some had decided that they weren’t called to the vocation of parenthood, and were happy and fulfilled with their nieces, nephews, and godchildren as the children in their lives. Others want children but the timing isn’t right- the mountain of grad school debt is too high, or careers are being established now when there is time and energy to spare. Still others desperately want children right now, but have medical concerns that make giving birth very difficult if not an outright impossibility, or family histories that preclude biological reproduction. Maybe they are parents already, but their child is still waiting to meet them through an adoption or foster agency after years of searching and bureaucratic process. Maybe they are actively miscarrying right this second, while trying to keep a polite smile firmly in place in the face of well-meaning questioning.

There are as many responses to your question as there are reasons for not having children. In cases where being childfree is a decision freely embraced, it can be tempting to tell someone equally rudely to mind their own business, regardless of the damage that might do to the pastoral relationship. Especially in those instances where children are longed for, there can be an overwhelming temptation to look into the face of the one needling into your deepest pain and unleash a torrent of rage and heartbreak. The knowledge that the questioner is most likely simply trying, clumsily, to tell you how much he or she loves you and values you as a member of the community only goes so far to salve the feelings of intrusion.

People just shouldn’t ask these sorts of questions, of course, but they will continue to, forever, and as with so many aspects of life in community, you can only control your reaction. So find an easily delivered answer that you are comfortable with, and stick to it in these situations for your own psychological and emotional wellbeing. If that answer for you is that it is all in God’s time, use it. It might be that a condensed version of the facts of your situation works best for you. Share only what you feel okay about sharing- so often in this odd and wondrous calling, the personal and professional become so entwined that it can feel like a betrayal not to let you congregation know everything going on in your life. You might find healing in that level of transparency, or you might become quickly exhausted with having to continue to talk about something so intensely personal.

A good pastoral tactic is to immediately redirect the question back to the questioner. It keeps them talking, not about you, and you might find that their concerns are coming from a place of uncertainty or regret or pain in their own lives around childbearing. For there to be resurrection, there must first be death- and we often find both when we meet others in the difficult, dark places of our shared lives.

Do you have a question for a Young Clergy Woman? Do you think our YCW was completely off in her answers? Comment below, or submit your own question- or answer- to ask.ycw(at)gmail(dot)com.

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