When I was 31 years old, I stood outside of a Target, trying to corral my 2 and 4-year-old boys into a shopping basket. I was approximately 92 months pregnant and like the perfectly round circle that I was, resembled the sun while they -my tiny planets- orbited around me at high speeds. An older woman passed me on her way out, and pausing, looked me straight in the eye and then at my stomach. “For your sake,” she deadpanned, “I hope that one’s a girl.”
This woman was merely one in a string of what I’ve come to call ‘helpful strangers’, people who, instead of offering actual physical help and support, settle for offering their helpful, helpful opinions about things that are none of their business. “Are you trying for your girl?” was another popular one, several helpful strangers had chirped at me that week. As if by sheer willpower, I could command the growing fetus inside me to magically form the preferred genitalia, with the powers of my mind. As if my offspring were like a box of Dot’s candies, and if I just kept shaking long enough, I would eventually get the yellow ones that I liked best. As if my two precious boys, always at my hips, did not have ears to hear them.
This coming baby was a girl, although I almost never told anyone that. To the helpful stranger in Target, I merely rubbed my belly and said, “Twins. Boys. We couldn’t be happier.” But to the people I liked, or who were buying me presents, I let out she was in fact, a girl. This garnered its own helpful follow up. “Oh, you got your girl. So now, are you done?” There is nothing like pregnancy to highlight one stranger’s investment in another stranger’s ladybits.
Of course, for me, these questions became deeply theological in nature. I began to ask questions of my friends, “How does one decide to stop having kids?”, “How did you know you were done?” “Is there a magic switch?” “Is mine broken?” I began to ask questions of myself: How does God view children and childrearing? Who actually creates a baby? Who creates life? If God creates life, then am I sinning by standing in God’s way? If the church teaches that each person is an eternal being, who am I exactly, to determine how many people I bring into eternal bliss or damnation? Why isn’t anyone talking about this, or better yet, telling me what to do? Am I secretly Catholic?
You would think that by my 3rdpregnancy and having lived 3 whole decades on this earth I would have grappled with at least some of these questions, but you would be wrong.
My friends’ answers were as varied as the people answering them. Many of them were with me in the trenches of sleep deprivation and tantrums. They based their decision to stop having children on the fact that they did not desire to have any more children. Others reasoned that finances should play the biggest part, that one should not bring children into the world without a planned college fund. Some told me stories of horrific miscarriages and near-death deliveries resulting in debilitating anxiety. This topic often brought up touchiness, heartache, shame and fear. Part of my difficulty in navigating these waters was that I was poking the tenderest of nerves within myself and mothers around me.
My Catholic friends were generous in answering my questions and recommending books. I scoured websites. I stumbled upon a ‘Quiverfull movement,’ something I’d never heard of before. A lot of their resources validated what I had been wrestling with. If your body is doing what God created it to do, they argued, why would you stop it, why would you surgically alter something within you that is healthy?They put words to my inklings about our culture’s viewpoint of children as burdensome and the general disdain for childrearing. But the Quiverfull’s and I differed at one key intersection: They believed leaving one’s fertility open was a call on the life of all believers, I only suspected that it was God’s call on mine. Quiverfull’s may get even more wrong than that, but they were the first, and sometimes only, people allowing me the space to work out what I was feeling.
I wouldn’t have been able to admit it at the time, but I secretly knew God was calling me to trust Him with the number of kids we would have. I didn’t know why or how, I only knew, in the quietest moments of my heart, an assurance that He had never let me down. I didn’t suspect He was going to start now. I had no way to articulate it or defend it, but it sat like a seed in my heart, and it began to grow.
I brought up my feelings with my husband whose first response was, “What? Like the Duggars? I don’t get it; we just keep having them?” To which I promptly rolled my eyes at his clear cultural saturation of family planning. Why is our fixed starting point one of refusal of children until it suits us to welcome them? I argued from my soapbox,Why not the other way around? Where does Scripture give us this kind of authority over life?I pointed out that George Washington was the 5thchild out of 10 in his family, and Mozart was the 7thand last in his. During this phase I was a joy and delight to live with, and I can only assume that is why my husband eventually acquiesced.
Fast forward through the birth of children 3 and 4, where I remain deeply committed to God’s call on my life to leave my fertility open. It is my calling. It is who I am. I have long hair, and maybe will buy some ankle length denim skirts. No one can be sure where this train is heading.
When my 4thchild was 5 months old (another girl), I had a panic attack. This panic attack, as they often do, sparked other panic attacks, and I found myself traumatized, depressed and afraid to leave the house. I went to see my doctor and after the exam he casually mentioned that the antidepressant he was thinking of for me was not tested in pregnancy. “But you don’t want to get pregnant again though, right?” he said buried in his laptop, which I knew stated 4 live births. He looked up at me and I froze. Want? Did I wantto get pregnant? Well, um, no, since I hadn’t brushed my teeth in God knows how long, I was leaking breastmilk through my shirt and at that exact moment wearing two different (but both black!) flip flops. No. Getting pregnant again was not at the top of my to do list. But what did ‘want’ have to do with God’s call on my life? Since when was a calling promised to be easy? I left with a diagnosis of “Post-partum anxiety and depression” and a laundry list of pills.
I collected my prescriptions at the pharmacy and took them home and dumped them on my dining room table. One was a general antidepressant. One was Xanax in case I felt a panic attack coming. The third one was birth control. I laid them all out as if seeing them all at once would cause a solution to surface. I started to cry.
My tears were mostly that of disorientation. I had felt so sure of God’s call on my life. It felt almost euphoric to be so safe inside that sureness. Now, I didn’t know what direction I was supposed to go. I’m convinced most Christians, like myself, exist here much of the time, and we are not really sure how to move forward. Theologian Walter Brueggemann offers a framework for understanding the Psalms, the best book I know on disorientation. He says the movements of the psalms highlight the movement inherent in the life of the believer: first we are oriented to God, where everything has a black and white answer. Everything is sure. Then we become disoriented by actual life, the greys of scripture, the pain of suffering. God seems far away. Then the real process of growth for any believer is the last stage of reorientation to the person of God.
I have found, in this situation, and since then, that when the specific instructions on my calling become murky, I must remember what is true about God. His unchanging character is the best re-orienting device I have found. When I’ve gotten stuck at this disorientation/re-orientation crossroad I want to solve the tangible problem- so my prayers reflect this: What job, God? What city, what spouse, what school? I look to temporal things to reveal what is hidden. I’ve noticed now- that God will allow periods of disorientation to reveal more of His character to me.
Sitting at my dining room table, I called my best friend and choked out my dilemma. She waited a beat before answering. “What would you do if it were me?” she said, “What would you tell me?” “I would tell you to hang up the phone and start popping pills,” I said, “It’s not that I’m against anti-depressants, you know I’m all for them” I went on, “It’s the birthcontrol.” “But you can’t do one without the other.” She said, “And if I were feeling like you’re feeling, what would you say to me?” I paused, “I’d tell you to take it-” “Why?” She countered. “Because you need it” I said, choking up again, “because it would help you, and because I love you and want good things for you.” She paused. “You do.” She said gently, “And are you more merciful than God?”
I’d like to tell you that was the end of it. Instead I struggled for weeks to make a decision. Her question kept coming back to me, Do I think I’m more merciful than God?God loves me. God wants me to be well. God would want me to take medication that could help correct the chemicals in my brain, even if that meant ‘controlling’ my fertility, something I had purposed in my heart not to do. I felt like I was at a crossroad, at the intersection of God’s call and God’s character. They seemed in conflict. Which one wins?
I thought about Peter. Peter who was just trying to be a good Jew and follow Christ at the same time. When Peter got the vision of the clean and unclean animals, he argued with God like I did. To which God warned, Don’t call something unclean that I have called clean. Was Peter like, “Uhhh, but you didcall it unclean”? Maybe by the third time the sheet was lowered, Peter heard God’s whispering that I was hearing now, “I know what I said. But will you let me do something new?”
Our first natural tendency, when conceptualizing calling, is making it about us: This is who I am, which I talked about last week in Part One. And the second comes out of that. We think, If this is who I am, this is how that will play out and this is where I will be in 10 years. I don’t know that our calling is ever meant to serve as our crystal ball, or even our compass. I’ve seen in my own life, that the more I am oriented to Christ alone, the freer and more flexible I have become and the less I know about what the future holds.
It’s helpful for me to remember God’s trademark is new life. He is in the business of bringing dead things to life and making everything new. That involves change, transformation and sometimes, first, death. Scripture repeatedly likens us to clay and to sheep. Clay is malleable and sheep are dependent which tells me that God cares a lot more about our pliability and our flexibility than He does about any specific thing He can accomplish through us. He is in the process of making us moldable, flexible, and transformable: glory to glory.
“We don’t have to hold so tightly to this,” my husband reminded me. “If God wants to grow our family, He will.” (The discerning reader will note we have 5 kids, not 4. Life is weird.) And as difficult as it has been to live life open-handed toward God, I’ve seen it is the only way to engage with a living God who molds and changes His children in real space and time. If I hold white-knuckled onto to my old ideas of how God has worked in the past, if I cling to my old ways of relating to God, over time it wears thin, like a wineskin full of holes, wasting any new life the Spirit pours in.