Whenever I think of Tara Owens, I think of wisdom. She is one of my very favourite people in all the world, and she combines a mastery of language with a deep pastoral intuition, and thoughtful theology. Her book, Embracing the Body, is the kind of book that you recommend to everyone you meet. I’m honoured to have her here telling her story today:
Author’s Note: It is with great trembling and hesitation that I share my story of suffering as a parent. There are three groups of people for whom my heart especially aches, and who deserve both acknowledgement and voice in this place.
First, those who have lost a child before birth would, I know, gladly take my place as a mother and experiencing the suffering of sleepless nights in order to hold their child in their arms. In no way do I want to marginalize their pain by articulating my own.
Second, there are those whose children face physical, cognitive and developmental obstacles that my daughter and I do not face. The suffering, courage, perseverance, and pain of these parents is also not to be ignored or minimized.
Finally, I want to speak to my daughter, and to all the children reading this article. Please know that you are chosen and loved. You are my heart and my joy. To suffer and struggle in parenthood is not something to be ashamed of, nor does it reflect on who you are as a unique creation of God. Some of the best things we experience in this world carry with them cost, and you, my dear daughter and every child reading this, are worth every moment of it.
There is a certain silence that surrounds the suffering of new parenthood. I struggle even to write that, to push beyond the voices in my head that call me “whiny” or “ungrateful” when I connect the beauty of this past year with my new daughter with a word as weighty as suffering.
We don’t like to talk about the changes in real, practical terms. We don’t like to lean into the loss. I say “we” because I continue to struggle to identify this as my journey, struggle to consider my voice on the subject of suffering and new parenthood as legitimate.
My daughter was born on a rare snowy morning in early September after 36 hours of labor. Fourteen weeks before, my husband and I had been sitting in an office in the Maternal Fetal Medicine department of the same hospital, listening to a maternal specialist tell us that her medical recommendation was termination of the pregnancy in order to preserve my life. The details of why I was in danger almost don’t matter any more—one year later I am here and healthy, as is my laughing, lovely girl.
But choosing to fight for life in the face of death had some unintended consequences for me. There is something about the martyr’s road, no matter how willingly chosen, that precludes complaint. I chose risk to risk death, and it ended well, it ended with life.
But it ended with death, too.
I remember standing in front of my bedroom mirror naked in the early stages of pregnancy, examining my body. I knew that it would change, reshape, make new spaces within me. I knew that I could never return to the body I was seeing reflected in the glass, and I both thanked my body for what a gift it had been to me so far, and said goodbye to it as well. There was no going back.
I knew there was no going back to my pre-pregnancy body, but I didn’t realize that there was no going back to the person I was before I became a mother.
But let’s return to suffering for a moment.
Parenthood is both suffering and joy, sacrifice and love. The long hours of nursing, the pain of recuperating from labor, the newly minted fear that you don’t have what it takes to look after this small person. There are days covered in spit-up and other bodily fluid, and a reconstructing of yourself in ways that make you unsure that you really know who you are any more. And there are miles of ink spilled on the subject: mommy bloggers and mommy wars, a collective of us trying to find our way in the dark, all asking why we were never told that life and death are always so closely intertwined.
I remember, in those long, dark nights of early parenthood, my once intimate and conversational prayer life with God transformed into only one, desperate word—Jesus.
I love my daughter deeply, and just this morning thought to myself that I’d never go back to the life I had before she arrived. But I’ve also been walking through a kind of year-long crucible that I didn’t really know was coming, one where I’ve been trying to go back to something, to someone, that I lost when I became a parent.
I have been trying to return to a person who no longer exists. In parenthood, I have found myself lost, unsure of my voice, my knowledge, of who I am and how I am to live in the world.
It is to this woman that Christ has appeared once more. He has answered my one-word prayers not with restoration or with physical healing, but with the answer that He gave Thomas in the Upper Room. He has appeared to me, again and again, in spit-up and poopy diapers, in weepy eyes and runny noses. He has appeared in the mess and the tiredness of it all, and said, Here, touch me. Put your hand in my side.
And I feel, in that wound, the place where He drew my lovely daughter from the very heart of Himself so that she could be love in the world. So that I could know the ache and tears and suffering of a parent—God the Father and God the Mother. So I could know that God was Mother and Father before I ever existed, and that God knows this suffering more deeply than I can possibly imagine.
For me, it is precisely because God has showed me that God knows this suffering that I can understand and experience more deeply God’s love. I suffer for my daughter because I love her, and because of that love the suffering becomes less. It is worth talking about, worth speaking out of the silence and risking approbation, because to hold the shape of the wounds means that we can also glory in the scars.
Tara M. Owens is a spiritual director, supervisor, author and editor. Her first book, Embracing the Body: Finding God In Our Flesh & Bone was published by InterVarsity Press in March 2015. She blogs sporadically at Anam Cara Ministries and writes more often as Senior Editor at Conversations Journal. She is a lover of red velvet cupcakes, Jesus and Dr. Who, not necessarily in that order. She lives in Colorado with her husband, Bryan, their light-filled daughter, Seren, and their rescue dog, Hullabaloo.
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“There is a certain silence that surrounds the suffering of new parenthood.” @t_owens’ God and Suffering story:
“Parenthood is both suffering and joy, sacrifice and love.” @t_owens for @Tanya_Marlow – The Things We Never Say:
“God knows this suffering more deeply than I can possibly imagine.” @t_owens on the suffering of new parenthood:
“Jesus has appeared to me, again and again, in spit-up and poopy diapers” @t_owens- The Silent Suffering of Parenthood
“In parenthood, I have found myself lost” @t_owens – The Things We Never Say – The Silent Suffering of Parenthood:
Over to you:
- When there is a situation of great joy, it can be hard to admit the suffering that also accompanies it. When has this been true in your life?
- When have you encountered Jesus as Tara did, answering the one-word prayers of desperation?
- If you are a parent, how easy did you find it to talk about the hard parts of parenthood? To what extent can you relate to Tara’s observation there is a sort of death that accompanies parenthood?
- What difference does it make to you to understand God as father and mother who sacrifices and suffers for God’s children?