Post Author: Mary Beth McSwain
The Pregnant Pastor was originally written in February 2015.
It was my third time in the fetal nursery. That’s what I had taken to calling the evaluation room directly across the hallway from Labor and Delivery. Fetal heartbeats echoed loudly throughout the room like a person incessantly testing a hot microphone. These heartbeats were hampered only by the screeching of doctors’ and nurses’ pivoting sneakers and crocs, attentive to every sound and move of the babies within expectant and anxious mothers.
I felt like I had failed. Straight-A student. Multiple award winner at every major life stage and age group. Consistently affirmed throughout my burgeoning professional days. And here I lay on my left side, belly exposed with two straps monitoring contractions and my son’s heart rate. I had elevated blood pressure and was nervous. I was told to relax, but the curtain in front of me billowed, taunting my depth perception, as a nurse hustled back and forth caring for an expectant mother. Relax. Meanwhile, the light on the ceiling in my periphery blinked in accordance with an alarm that consistently sang a descending perfect 5th interval. Relax. I heard the woman behind me confessing that she was having regular contractions with a dilated cervix at only 30 weeks. Relax. The blood pressure cuff tightened as the nurse asked me if I had any bloody or significant water discharge. It kept tightening. “No,” I managed to croak. Relax. I took a deep breath, but all that seemed to come out was one slowly developing tear descending from my left eye to the pillow below.
I’ve been told that pregnancy is magical and that labor is the hardest event a woman will ever complete in her life. I wouldn’t know yet since I’m 37 weeks pregnant. What I can say so far is that pregnancy contains the most cognitive dissonance I’ve ever experienced. Pregnancy is an intensely private experience that at the same time bubbles out of women into the public sphere—a pendulum that oscillates between deep joy and wonder to the panic of “What did we get ourselves into?!” As a pastor, this dissonance presses poignantly into my professional life:
I listen to people ask about my pregnancy only to tell me about the stillborn their daughter just birthed. I slowly back away as people present their platforms on why I should breastfeed when I came to see how their husband’s surgery went. I assure the grandmother I will pray for her grandson who was born 10 weeks prematurely as she rubs my belly like I’m a genie’s lamp granting her wish. I attempt to end the conversation with the men who tell me I look like I’m carrying twins as they stop traffic in the church hallway to stare at my body. I decline an infant baptism for a friend because her toddler has a fever and I can’t expose my son to this sickness. And I question nurses in hospitals about the condition of people I go to visit to protect my son from any infectious disease, even as their spouses cling to my arm. I cry privately for my friends who would love to be pregnant and for whom it just hasn’t worked out yet. I mourn for the friend my son would have had in a friend who lost her son midway through her pregnancy. He and my son were expected to be born around a week apart. And I feel grateful for the wealth of medical attention and stability my son will inherit because he’s in my belly, even while I mourn that some of my African parishioners’ babies will not start life with that same wealth because their mothers lack prenatal care and their fathers’ lives are threatened in Burundi. These cognitive dissonances pile on top of me as I regularly assume the position of laying on my left side and trying to relax.
Still, my son inside me defiantly knocks the straps around my belly, reminding me that he’s very much alive as he protests an intrusion of his space. Still, his heartbeat gallops around the evaluation room, so much so that I hear nurses exclaim, “Jeez” and laugh as they admit this will be the only time I will be able to turn my son down in volume. Still, I get to go home and continue to be a vessel of new life that God has placed inside of me.
We plan on naming our son Luke. We like the simplicity of the name, that Luke is traditionally considered a physician in the Bible. (My husband is an ophthalmologist.) Luke in the Catholic Church is a patron saint of the arts. (I am a worship arts pastor.) But what I’m coming to adore about my son’s name is that the Gospel of Luke documents a song that the pregnant Mary sings:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49, NIV)
As I assume the position of lying on my left side, as I and my husband take on the role of being parents very soon, may this be my song. In all positions, God is to be glorified. God is mindful of my state and I am God’s servant. And God has already done great things for me. Holy is his name.
Mary Beth McSwain is an Associate Pastor for Worship Arts at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, where she is the church’s first female pastor. She graduated from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2010. Since then her call has taken her to Spokane, Washington, and now to the Southwest. She is currently figuring out how to balance the roles of new mom and pastor.
Image by: Billy McSwain
Used with permission