Tuesday, August 08, 2017

On Gently Leading Those that Are With Young

It's been a while since I blogged-- longer still since I shared on any kind of regular basis. I'm still here, listening, reading, praying, thinking and talking-- thinking a lot. I have a lot of articles outlined, thoughts jotted down, things I'm thinking about and chewing on and wanting to share. But for the past few years I've just felt the Lord saying a lot of "wait. Just listen and learn. You have a lot to watch, a lot to experience, a lot to just wait through." The more kids I have, the more births I attend, the more books I read, the more life I live, the more sermons I hear, the more I realize just how much there is to learn... just how many perspectives there are to consider, just how many connections there are between so. many. things.

 I want to write for hours on so many topics, just to get it all straight in my own head... but there are so many things to DO-- I have three little kids to feed (GAPS kids no less, so food is not quick and easy), not to mention homeschool, a giant dog to walk, a husband to seek to know, a house to occasionally clean, and most recently, two kittens to supervise. There are a hundred good things I don't get done every day. And I'm learning to live with that.

So many excellent, knowledgable people are writing and singing and podcasting and presenting, and I'm happy to just be a glorified card catalogue, holding resources in my mind and passing them on to friends as needed, on most topics. But lately there are a few topics that I have not seen covered too extensively, and one in particular that, if I become a clanging gong that only plays one note, I guess I'd pick this note to clang out over and over again. :) That is on the topic of the Church and Rest-- specifically, on the Church following her Shepherd Who "gently leads those that are with young."

If there is one thing I think our culture has totally forgotten how to do, it is how to balance work and rest. More, I think we have gotten totally out of sync, forgotten all rhythms... we don't know how to operate seasonally, or even weekly. We seem to only have two positions, on and off, and as a culture "off" is usually mindless and selfish. Our work is often also selfish, all about building a reputation and being able to live in comfort and control... none of those are bad things in and of themselves, but like anything, they become idols when we make them the Main/Only thing instead of just A Good Thing. By the same token, when we finally collapse, exhausted, and "rest," we make that all about us too. We need "me" time, we don't want to be bothered, we don't want to think, and we definitely don't want to do anything on purpose. It's easy from the outside to see how that is a skewed perspective, and as Christians we recognize that everything, rest or work, is supposed to be unto the Lord, so we try to fill our "rest" days with serving, with loving, with doing, with fellowshipping...

We forget that true rest is a contentment in what Christ has already done-- that it is a resting in Jesus, a rest that is not at all self-focused, but neither must it be others-focused. It is a sense of joy in loving a Person who has best loved us-- our Savior.

We forget that we need physical rest as a reminder of our human frailty, as a reminder that we are not the Savior. We forget that God is always working, and He is using all the thousands of members of His Body in the world... so that every weak member can rest in turn.

We forget that there is a weekly rhythm of rest: one day in seven (yes, despite it all I'm still convinced the Sabbath is made for man). But also, there are yearly rhythms and seasonal rhythms and life-long rhythms of rest. The seventh year was to be a year of rest for the land (and for its farmers).  The seventh seventh year (the year of Jubilee), all Hebrew slaves were to be set free, and the land was to rest. Women were to rest every month (I'm convinced this is the point of the "cleanliness laws"). And in the life of every Hebrew mother, after every child born, there was to be a very defined time of rest immediately after childbirth.

There is one more principle that plays into this, and that is that of prioritization of the family (nuclear and then immediate including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins). In an agricultural or migrant culture, there will be times of the year where labor for the sake of the family will take precedence and not allow much other work (you've got to harvest all day long in late summer or your family will starve in the winter)-- and other times of the year where there is much more freedom to serve outside the family, and other times where there is more time to rest. For the first year of a new marriage, in the Old Testament, a man was to stay near his new bride no matter what battles beckoned him to defend his brothers. In times where a family's needs are very demanding, it is right to use our limited resources to first serve them, and feel no guilt in resting while needs outside our family remain unmet by us.  (remember, there are other people God can use to meet those needs!)  In the New Testament, over and over we are reminded that our duties to our families take precedence over other responsibilities.  (Matthew 15:4-5; Ephesians 6:1-41 Timothy 5:3-4, 8; 1 Tim 5:16)  This applies in small churches, to pastors & their families, to ministry leaders, and to families in demanding job situations.

Six weeks of rest:  resting with my newborn soon after birth--
I didn't leave this bed much in the next 2 weeks,
hardly left the room for the next 2,
and hardly left the house for the next 2!
All that said, I want to speak to the young mothers in the Church. Please, rest. Physically speaking, your body will not return to "normal" for a full year after it has gone through the miraculous, God-glorifying process of nurturing and birthing and sustaining a new life. Pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding will take a huge physical toll on your body. Nutrients (especially the fat-soluble ones so needed for building brains and nervous systems) will take about two years to restock, sometimes far more-- especially if your body does what it is designed to do and continues to partially feed another small person for another two-ish years after birth. Childbirth itself is a huge physical event, burning as many calories as running a marathon, expending 500 mL-1000 mL of blood, with hormone shifts unlike any in the human life cycle (from the highest point of estrogen to the lowest within 3 days). Tending a newborn, who is designed to need near-constant touch and warmth to regulate his breathing and digestion, who is designed to need to eat almost hourly for several weeks and then every 2-3 hours for months, in order to double his brain size and triple his body weight within a year, is exhausting. This is absolutely something that should be expected to massively "change our stride." And that is God-honoring and good.

In the Old Testament, mothers would have been forced to rest by cleanliness laws that rendered them & everything they touched "unclean" for 5 - 10 weeks after childbirth. If you knew you'd have to burn or scrub by hand everything you touched, you would not touch much!! In that culture, new mothers were cocooned, surrounded by community and help with their only responsibilities being resting and feeding the baby. As a doula, I've seen that it often takes about that long for breast-feeding to become established. By six weeks, many babies have settled into somewhat of a routine, sleeping semi-predictable stretches, able to smile and interact with someone other than mama.

In traditional cultures all over the world similar customs and taboos keep new moms and tiny babies safe, away from unfamiliar germs (family germs are not a threat to an infant because mom's milk guards against those), able to rest and regain strength and get nursing (crucial to infant survival outside of the developed world) well-established. 

In our culture it's expected that moms SHOULD start worrying about "getting their bodies back" as soon as they are home from the hospital. Friends and family members come from all over to "get their baby fix" --ie expose the new baby to germs-- but often don't do much (if anything) to help the parents rest.  Moms are seen as healthy and strong if they can post a pic to Instagram of them doing their Target run at 3 weeks postpartum, baby in tow. Date night without baby is expected as soon as possible, multiple nights a week is even better.  Mom needs to keep right on serving and doing everything she was doing before, taking care of her other children, and if she is exhausted then all the pressure should be put on the BABY to change, to get with the program and sleep longer stretches, instead of accepting that this is a time of life when the whole family needs to shift a bit so Mom (And baby) can rest.

Moms, please hear me: there is so little margin between feeling great and feeling awful when you have just given birth. You have far less reserves than you think you do. Rest.

Even after those first 6 weeks, please structure your home to allow you to rest.  Please institute a "quiet time" where your children are all quiet and safe so you can safely nap, every day if you need it.  Please reach out to family members and church members to regularly care for you and your older children with meals and cleaning and whatever else they offer to do.  Please do not feel guilty for taking it easy and being slow to add a bunch of (even church) activities to your plate.  Please don't feel guilty for going to bed early.

Dads, please protect your wives and their ability to rest.  Don't expect her to do anything other than rest and care for the baby in those early weeks, and understand that it will be months, even a year or two, before she is able to do everything she once did-- and she will be changed forever by motherhood (as you will be by fatherhood).  If you know you won't be able to help very much (beyond working to make money), do what you can, actively recruit family members, coordinate friends, and even hire help.  Most of all, affirm the value of what she is doing (caring for a new soul, a bit of God's Image that will never ever die!!!) and the legitimacy of her need to rest.  She is not being lazy, she is not a slacker.  Do everything in your power to lighten her load, not add to it.  Even a wife who is planning to return to full or part time work needs to fully rest for a minimum of 6 weeks and it is far better for her to be able to rest even longer-- creative approaches can be needed to make the finances and logistics work, but she will need your support more than ever in doing it.

Most concerning to me, lately I've heard wonderful preachers and teachers encourage parents to stay right in the "swing of things" at church immediately after childbirth. One preacher whom I respect recently described his own experience of driving his wife and new son straight from the hospital (days after birth) to a small group meeting, and discussed how they never missed a small group meeting from that point on-- baby just napped in the other room. Now, that may be ok for some women... but for most... that would be an absolutely terrible idea. After childbirth the only place a mom should go from the hospital is TO BED. The only place a baby should be after birth is HOME. I think of the patriarch Jacob's no-nonsense observation to his brother Esau regarding traveling with young animals and children: "My lord knows that the children are frail, and that the nursing flocks and herds are a care to me. If they are driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die." Do not drive yourself hard, do not drive your children hard.

Absolutely please make fellowship your priority-- if you only have energy for one outing a week, make it church or small group, NOT Target... but please please don't see yourself as spiritually inferior if you don't make it to church events for a good long while.  Thankfully, babies are so wonderfully packable from about 3 months to 9 months, which makes fellowship much easier.  Please do prioritize fellowship and spiritually feeding things (listening to sermons, Christian music, the Bible on CD, etc).

What is God's heart towards young mothers and young children?  It's the same as Jacob (a literal shepherd)'s was towards his flocks and walking family:  "He [God the Father] will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in his arms; He will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young."  (Isaiah 40:11) OK, Church, how can we "gently lead those that are with young"?  Are we putting the brunt of responsibility on young mothers (and young fathers), or are we ensuring that they are first able to care for their little ones and themselves?  Are our healthy young adults and those without children free to serve?  Are our "empty nesters" and parents of older kids stepping up and taking on the lion's share of service, or are young parents (honestly, specifically young moms) the ones asked and expected to do the bulk of everything, often without their kids?

Church-- physical rest is a huge thing a new mom needs, so how can we serve them in that?  I don't like making absolute statements but here is one I'm confident is a good rule:  Don't expect a new mom to serve at all in any capacity for 6 months minimum after childbirth (or adoption). Now if a mom comes to you and asks to help, sure, but please don't put that on them. New dads don't need any extra responsibility either; anything you ask them to do away from their families means more pressure on their wives. If a nursing mama wants to serve, by all means let hers be the schedule you work around-- she may not be able to make a meeting at 7:30 am after nursing a baby all night.  She may not be able to skip a meal with her family to help set up an event.  Her baby likely needs her to go to sleep at night, so be respectful of that.

Resting at a family Christmas event with my 2 month old
The other huge need new moms have is community. The pastors urging moms and dads to stay in step with the Church have this right-- they know that even after childbirth we need to guard against sin by regularly meeting together to encourage one another. (Hebrews 13)  So, Church, how can we do that? Again I go back to Jacob, speaking so sensibly to his brother about a group of people literally walking from one place to another: " I will lead on slowly, at the pace of the livestock that are ahead of me and at the pace of the children, until I come to [you] my lord in Seir."  How can we figuratively match our pace to theirs?  Practically speaking, this looks like coming to their home with food, doing household chores, reaching out and going out of our way to encourage them without asking them to do anything.  It means giving baby gifts like a postpartum doula, housecleaning services, healthy meals, and postpartum massages.  It looks like taking older children out of the house so mom and baby can sleep.  It means pet-sitting after a birth.  After that first 6 weeks or so, when moms and babies are out and about, it looks like welcoming their children in services, in meetings, in any place where moms are welcomed.  It looks like inviting them over so they don't have to cook.  It looks like taking the initiative to keep in touch.  And it might even look like trying to live in physically close proximity to each other so that these things can happen naturally.

Being tired, being malnourished and being alone are the three main risk factors for postpartum depression. Let's help guard our moms against that by encouraging rest, bringing good nourishing food, and reaching out to encourage and help.