Post Author: Mihee Kim-Kort
Editor’s Note: This article is one in an occasional series called “A Lenten Pause,” running on Fidelia’s Sisters until Easter. As many young clergy women plan to come to our summer conference, Sabbath in the City, in Chicago we’ll be taking a look at the sometimes terrifying topic of sabbath and the role it plays in our ministries.
I changed jobs recently.
My family and I moved to the mid-west in April of 2011. My husband, Andy, who is also a clergyperson, responded to God’s call to serve the First Presbyterian Church in Bloomington as their head of staff. I was an associate pastor for youth and children at Presbyterian churches for more than 7 years, and found myself serving a much smaller parish. There are two members – my twin babies.
Upon their arrival, my vocational identity shifted quite abruptly, and threw me into the deep end into an unfamiliar world out of a space that was home to me for so long. Instead of reading theological commentaries, I found myself scouring books on parenting and baby’s development during the first year. Instead of leading devotionals for committee meetings, I was washing cloth diapers. Instead of crafting alternative worship experiences for the youth on Wednesday evenings, I was bouncing babies in chairs to help them fall asleep. Instead of writing sermons, organizing mission trips, training Sunday School teachers, and branching out to the community, I was doing the bare minimum to survive long enough to make it to the next day where the seemingly endless cycle of feed-burp-change-play-sleep began again. Instead of enjoying a happy hour at the local pub, I was counting down the minutes until bedtime.
Quicker than you can gulp down a shot of tequila, I went from full-time pastor to full-time parent. More accurately, and simply, I became a stay-at-home mom.
I was wandering in a wilderness. Anxious. Fearful. Delirious.
Throughout most of my life, my connection to God had always felt relatively straightforward. Though there were times when I may have felt distant from God because of certain choices or questions that felt like a struggle, I still maintained a sense of God’s nearness which would assuage any doubts. My first year in seminary, I went home every Friday afternoon after the Theology precept and cried into my pillow. So much was unraveling for me, everything I had grown up trusting, but even then, in all that was familiar being stripped from me, I miraculously felt God expanding in my life. Even in the deepest darkness, I never felt completely forsaken.
Nonetheless, becoming a parent was viscerally different. Fear colored every moment. If I was driving around with the babies at every four-way intersection I paused for much longer than necessary. Images of a huge Ford truck barreling through without stopping and t-boning my little Subaru plagued me. If I laid the babies down on the carpet, I literally walked on eggshells, dreading the possibility that I might accidentally step on someone’s head. If I was in the grocery store with the babies I steered clear of anyone coughing for fear of some unknown tropical, rare disease that might infect them. I became totally and completely irrational in my fear, and it paralyzed me as I flailed and floundered helplessly.
I continued to roam as I lost my bearings. The days passed in a blur, and I was disoriented, and constantly in a sleep-deprived haze. Others had told me over and over that becoming a mother would fundamentally change me, and I had no idea the extent. I just was not prepared for the depth of transformation that would accompany this stage of life. On the one hand, it was clear my body would never be the same again – I had residual aches from the pregnancy in the tips of my fingers from tendonitis and soreness all the way down to the tops of my feet. Even more so, I was mentally, emotionally, and spiritually numb from pure exhaustion.
Even so, I tried to continue the same rituals that had always nourished and centered me. I tried prayer and quiet times. Sunday morning church. Devotional books. But, I was listless, unfocused, and of course, distracted by the needs of these very young and demanding creatures. Although I was no doubt head-over-heels in love with them, on top of the change inside-out, I was mostly overwhelmed with guilt about not doing – and being – enough for them, for Andy, for family and friends, and finally, for my faith. All of it was so overwhelming that I concluded if I couldn’t give my all, or at least what I had in the past, then I shouldn’t bother giving anything at all to God. I avoided thinking or feeling anything, and quickly hit rock bottom.
One day, I came across Brene Brown, professor and TED speaker, who spoke into my struggle:
The only choice we really have is how we’re going to respond to feeling vulnerable. And contrary to popular belief, our shields don’t protect us. They simply keep us from being seen, heard, and known. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past decade and experienced firsthand over the last year, it’s this: Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose. Even if letting ourselves be seen and opening ourselves up to judgment or disappointment feels terrifying, the alternatives are worse: Choosing to feel nothing — numbing. Choosing to perfect, perform, and please our way out of vulnerability. Choosing rage, cruelty, or criticism. Choosing shame and blame. Like most of you reading this, I have some experience with all of these alternatives, and they all lead to same thing: disengagement and disconnection.
One of my favorite quotes is from theologian Howard Thurman. He writes, “Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive. Vulnerability is not easy, but it’s the surest sign that we’ve come alive.
This word about vulnerability was a lifesaver. After months of being constantly awake at night, and feeling so empty and plain desperate, I sat down and finally, picked up my pen, something I used to do regularly, but had put aside after the babies’ arrival. The pen came alive, and the paper seemed to fill itself. I confronted my longing, and all my struggle with jealousy, despair, and even anger.
In the forced quiet, though brief as the babies drift off to fitful sleep, I can mentally write up all manner of to-do lists or lamely scour Facebook searching out in anything and everything for something to distract me from the inner reality:
I long for where I imagine I might be in this moment – a beach, a conference, a New York City café. I am jealous of other women, pastors, writers, adventure-seekers, mothers who seem to have and do it all. I despair at the thought of doing this indefinitely, waiting around for the twins to fall asleep and stay asleep. I am angry at them for waking up, I am angry at myself for being so heartless and impatient and selfish. I am afraid that this is all there is for me now.
Embracing the affirmation of brokenness and openness was an oasis of sorts, and it allowed me to see other paths for my life. My plans were waylaid, but I could still pursue God, wherever I found myself, even if it would mean learning and re-learning the journey. The crack that appeared in my fear and guilt was significant enough to let in what was necessary – God’s grace – which allowed me to breathe in that air once again. It made me see the possibility of motherhood as an invitation to create – recreate, reinvent, redefine – my relationships, with myself, with others, and especially with God. It would compel me to new ways of experiencing God’s goodness.
And then, my dear friend, Christine, sent me a blog post called “The Desert Mothers Didn’t Change Diapers. But Maybe They Should Have,” written by Penny Carothers, a guest writer on Don Miller’s blog Don Miller Is. She articulated exactly what I was feeling in terms of thinking that my spirituality, my faith life, my devotional life, my connection to God needed to be a certain way. She challenged that obligation, and offered the possibility of “the sanctification of the ordinary” in these words:
[It] has got me thinking: what if there really is a different way? What if God intended the hug of a child to mirror the numinous moment others achieve through meditation? What if attending to the needs and the play of children – really attending, not reading the news on my phone or folding laundry while I listen with half an ear – was a window into the spiritual? What if all I really needed to do was simply be present? After all, God calls himself a lover and a parent, and perhaps there is something to learn in embracing my life rather than trying to escape it so I can have real communion with God.
It’s still a little shocking, but perhaps the most spiritual thing I can do may be to embrace my life as a mother. Not a spiritual, metaphorical mother, but a snot-wiping, baby-chasing, diaper bag-toting mother. Because sometimes it’s not the bible stories or the lecti odivina, but the Help! and thank you that a relationship is built on.
I realized this was what I needed most – to reframe this whole year, and whatever the future might hold for me as Sabbath. This time of restoration looked so different from what I had experienced in the past – bed and breakfasts with books or a trip into NYC and museums – but it eventually nourished me in surprising ways. Vulnerability and openness – these became necessary characteristics of Sabbath, and fragility allowed me to receive God’s presence. I began to approach each day drenched in God’s love for me. Though all the struggle had not completely dissipated, it didn’t have a hold on me. I was okay with not having a job…Not having an identity outside of “the twins’ mom.”…Not having anything official or professional to pursue in the future right now. I was more than okay to drink from the ordinary and the everyday.
Advent arrived, and though I didn’t read my usual devotional book, or attend all the worship services, or even have an Advent wreath, I spent at least once a week reflecting on the lectionary text. I relished Madeleine L’Engle’s short poem, “After Annunciation,” which says,
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
I played Christmas hymns on the piano. I preached one Sunday at the other local Presbyterian church, and feasted on God’s presence in a little corner of Starbucks as I listened to the David Nevue channel on Pandora, read commentaries and blogs, and wrote the sermon. But, the most sweet and savory, the irrational, the bright and wild that gave me life were these moments:
I dressed up the babies for Christmas Eve service, and held the baby girl in my arms as we stood to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” and “Joy to the World!” and I could hear her voice, too, as she sang “Ba-ba-ba-ba!”
I napped with the baby boy one afternoon since he wouldn’t fall asleep on his own because he was too excited to pull up to stand in his crib.
I stood the babies up on the couch and we all pressed our faces against the window to watch the snow fall.
I grabbed my daughter and danced with her, and swung her around, and danced with my son and watched his face fill with glee, as I threw him up in the air and let him fall back in my arms.
I let myself get soaked during the babies’ rough-housing and squealing in the bath – a veritable cleansing for my soul each night.
Photo credit to the author (Mihee Kim-Kort).
 Brown, Brene. “The Power of Vulnerability,” The Huffington Post.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/15/brene-brown-vulnerability_n_1150976.html?1323965500, accessed on December 15, 2011.
 Carothers, Penny. http://donmilleris.com/2011/10/26/the-desert-mothers-didnt-change-diapers-but-maybe-they-should-have/. Accessed on October 26, 2011.