on Mary, Advent, and me (a reprise)

“We do not own stories, and when we try to limit them, squeeze the life out of them, lose the love that gave them to us and fall back into that fatal human flaw, pride, hubris, we’re right back to Adam and Eve who listened to the power of the snake instead of the creativity of God.” Madeleine L’Engle, Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation.

The Virgin Mary has had an outsized influence on my life, which is remarkable if you consider that I’d never really heard her story until I started going to church as a teen. More precisely, Mary has been the bane of my existence since I converted and learned her story and, more importantly, that I was subject to it. What I learned, what was imprinted on me in too many ways to mention, was that Mary was a virgin, Mary was meek, Mary was mild, Mary was a mother above all, Mary was who I was supposed to be because I was a girl. I was not any of those things, even when I tried. I was not like Mary, but I learned I should be.

The Mary that was taught to me—as I wrote about last Advent—was a caricature, an idealized role model. That Mary is a mute, sweet mother who can only stare adoringly down at her child. That Mary had her humanity taken away from her, her strength, her bravery, the way she was afraid but stepped forward in faith anyway and answered God’s call. Frankly, this is bad storytelling. You only have to read the Magnificat in its entirety to see that Mary had more than a little fierceness in her, and better writers than I have celebrated her for it. And yet that is a version of Mary I never got to know.

I know a lot of women find empowerment in Mary’s story and consider childbirth and motherhood in a sacred light. I don’t want to discount that. I feel that, sometimes, I do. As I’ve made my way into motherhood, I’ve gotten glimpses of grace, places where Mary’s story and mine intersect. I cherish those glimpses and the ways in which giving birth has given me a new understanding of the gospel. In a way I didn’t before, I understand the ordinary and the extraordinary intertwined in that manger. I can feel the messy and embodied glory of the incarnation in a visceral way now. I cherish those glimpses and new understandings, and yet I find myself wanting more.

Patriarchy aside, it’s not the centrality of motherhood or even virginity that gives me pause. Motherhood is a radical act and if you loosen the bonds of patriarchal discourse, virginity can be read the same way. It’s that Mary is so often only allowed to be those things.

Mary embodies all my anxieties about being female. She gives a face to all my fears that because I was born a woman, because I am a mother, I will not be allowed to flourish outside of those spaces. That I will always be “woman” and “mother” first, and myself second. That my gender will forever determine what I can do, how far I am allowed to go, and it will never be as far as I want. And worse yet, that there is something wrong with me for wanting more than my family can give me or society says I can have. And so every time Mary is reduced down to her womb by a careless preacher, that message sinks in a little deeper. Every time Mary is relegated to women’s spaces, as if she doesn’t have something to teach the whole church, I become a little smaller.

Each year during Advent, I sit in the pews and want more for Mary. I sit in the pews and want more for myself, too. I want us all to be able to look towards her and see ourselves reflected in her. I want us to recognize the bravery and strength she possessed, and recognize that she expressed that bravery and strength first through childbirth and motherhood, but it–and she–was by no means limited to that sphere. Mary as much as any other disciple can teach us to take our own step forward in courage and say yes to God. If only we would let her.

on embodiment and resurrection

Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world,
yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

–usually attributed to Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

In February, in a moment of quiet meditation, I walked the labyrinth during our church’s women’s retreat up in Healdsburg. I had these words in my head and was thinking about what it meant to be Christ’s hands and feet on this earth. I was thinking about the incarnation and embodiment, about what it means to have a body. And as I walked the path, I thought about how sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a body, I see a palimpsest of experiences layered onto an external frame, layers and layers imprinted on my skin by abuse and violence and the neglect that came after.

I see the hands that struck me and the body that kept forcing itself where it had no right to go. I see the other hands and the other bodies invited later out of loneliness and desire and a desperate need to overwrite the damage done, the bodies male and female whose presence defied the easy categorization of sin and virtue. I see the lines that marriage engraved on my body, lines that exude a love and respect I didn’t know existed. I see how hard I tried to nullify my body, first through food and neglect, later through exercise and discipline. And I see how after years of attempting to dominate and conquer it, I finally surrendered to my unborn child and let my body do what it would.

There is something almost too metaphorical about it, how love mirrored evil here and transversed the same routes, how pregnancy and childbirth ravaged my already-broken body, breaking it now out of love, not hate, and in sacrifice, not submission. My body, once marked by evil, came to be marked by love as I conceived, carried, and birthed a child. Marked by more trauma, yes, as I tore so significantly and it took so long to heal, as a traumatic pregnancy gave way to a traumatic birth, but also marked by love.

But love doesn’t erase hate, I don’t think. It added another layer to the palimpsest, so that now when I look in the mirror, I see all the things that came before, and I see a body that was a home to my daughter and is a home still. I see a body my daughter reaches for, arms she wants to be held by, legs she likes to hide behind, breasts that fed her and gave her comfort, a torso she climbs all over when we play jungle gym together on the living room floor. I see how my body is a place of safety to her, and although it is not yet that for me, it makes me hopeful that it one day could be. That the evil wrought on my body could one day fade to the briefest of lines, present but almost invisible between all the marks of love on my skin.

When I walked the labyrinth, I thought about what it means that Christ has no body now on earth but mine. I thought about the particulars of that statement–no body but mine. Mine. I thought about what it means that Jesus returned to his own brutalized body after his resurrection and offered his wounds as proof to his disciples. I thought about all those things, and then I thought about my own body, and I prayed. I walked and I prayed a prayer of grief and thanksgiving for all my body had suffered and all it had done, from the ways it was violated to ways it grew and nurtured my daughter, and for the role it plays in my own ongoing resurrection, scars and all.

on Mary, mother’s milk, and me

12G77__92255.1447969985.350.350I recently added this icon from Uncut Mountain Supply to my collection. It’s a Russian icon of the Theotokos the Milk-Giver, and it reminds me that birthing and caring for Jesus was how Mary answered God’s call and that there is more than a little of the divine in the messy, embodied experience of being a postpartum woman.

Two months after I gave birth to my baby, I went to a church convention, where we gathered to worship and pray and vote on church business. The theme that year was ‘women in ministry,’ and I was looking forward to a celebration of all the ways women serve God and the church.

It didn’t entirely turn out that way, at least not for me. I cried through one session’s opening prayer and sobbed during the next day’s lunch break. Not because I was away from my baby, although I’m sure the hormones coursing through my body had something to do with it, but because I was a nursing mom. Being at the convention meant I had to pump every three hours, but being a woman in a man’s world meant there was no space–literally or figuratively–to do so. So I pumped in the busy bathroom, in the stall furthest from the door I could find, sitting on the toilet seat. And when I was done, I accidentally knocked over the milk while trying to disentangle myself, and I cried. I cried the way only new mothers can. I cried out of exhaustion and humiliation and shame.

After twelve months of nursing and pumping, I no longer have any fucks to give about all of this. In fact, at a recent event at the same location, I told them I’d need to use a conference room during breaks and just pumped there with my trusty nursing cover and a book to pass the time. When I was interrupted by two male staffers–neither of which had clearly seen a pump before–I calmly told them I would be done in fifteen minutes and they could have the room then. But two months in, all I felt was embarrassment about my unruly postpartum body and the process of making milk, this thing my body did, this thing that everyone says is so important yet receives so little support. That day, when I went back into the room where all the clergy and lay people were singing an opening hymn, I didn’t join them in song. I was too upset to sing. I stood there with tears in my eyes as I told myself that the men surrounding me, who I could only see just then as the gatekeepers of the church, those men had drunk from their mothers. That they may be powerful now, but that their mothers had once done for them what I was doing for my child. And it suddenly struck me that Mary mother of God had lactated. Mary knew what it was like to have milk leak from heavy breasts, to feel your body respond to the needs of your child, to feel the pins and needles of milk letting down and the ache and even pain that comes when you are away from your baby for too long. I stood there and I reminded myself it was a holy thing I was doing. And my tears turned to tears of fury that this was happening during a convention meant in part to celebrate women.

I cried–sobbed, rather–again that day and the next, as one way or another there was no space for me and I received the message that this was something to hide. When I left a gathering so I could pump before the evening session would start, someone asked if I was headed back to the main space early. I didn’t actually get a chance to answer, as someone else–a man, which matters, I think–told them not to ask what I was doing and that I would be back. I think about that often. I’m not naming him because he meant well, I think was trying to protect me as he could tell I felt embarrassed and uncertain about it all. But at the same time, what I heard in that was that this was something to surround with shame.

Time and time again I have learned that breastfeeding is something we like to valorize but also like to pretend doesn’t happen. It’s part of a larger message the culture sends, that women’s bodies are only there to be sexualized and are not allowed to be anything other than perfect. That our only concern post-birth is to bounce back, to lose the baby weight, to erase any sign that our bodies created and nurtured an actual human being for nine months and sustained them beyond that too. That any problems after birth are women’s issues to be hidden and talked about among ourselves, costs we ought to bear and prices of admission we ought to pay gratefully if we can, and silently in any case.

Breastfeeding came at an enormous cost to me, and my therapist often gently asked me if it was time to wean my daughter. Every time I answered that I wasn’t done yet, it wasn’t time yet, that I recognized how much this was costing me but it wasn’t something I wanted to say goodbye to yet. But I am no longer embarrassed by the milk my body produces for my daughter. I will say the word ‘pump’ in mixed company, will take up space when I need it. And that little sentence from that tear-filled day, that acknowledgment that Mary lactated, has become a shorthand for myself. It is a reminder of the lengths women go to for their children and how different this is my body, broken for you sounds after childbirth. It is a reminder that it was precisely with her expanding body and the pain and mess of childbirth and the hormonal fog that comes after, and yes, even with her leaking breasts that Mary fully served God. It is a reminder of the beauty of the incarnation and how God works through our bodies, not around or despite them. And it’s a reminder that while I was created female and I chose to become a mother, it’s up to me to determine what that means and I refuse to allow any space for shame.

on birthing a child, or a creation story

The night before my daughter was born, a year ago yesterday, I woke up sobbing at 3AM. I’m not sure why this detail matters, but it does. The night before my daughter was born, I woke up sobbing at 3AM, and I cried until 5 when my water broke. I was both sure and unsure that it was my water breaking (how do you know what something is when you’ve never felt it before, otherwise known as the entirety of pregnancy), but the contractions told me it was serious. Right from the start, they lasted just under a minute and came every minute, every ninety seconds at most. There was no time to recover in between contractions, to employ any of the comfort techniques we had learned in childbirth prep class, to tell my husband how he could help. There was no time to breathe. There was only time to panic.

I didn’t have a birth plan. Have the baby, that was pretty much the entirety of the birth plan, although L. would add “in the hospital” to that, as the idea of a home birth was enough to give him heart palpitations. But as I got closer and closer to the birth, I wondered if I could do it, an unmedicated birth. I wanted to be able to do it. I wanted to try, and see what my body was capable of. I wanted to be tough enough, woman enough, to see it through. It turns out I wasn’t, but maybe it counts for something that I wanted to be.

When those contractions hit, so suddenly, so frequently, and so fiercely, the idea of an unmedicated birth went out the window. I wanted an epidural and I wanted it now. We live ten minutes from the hospital where I delivered, and that drive may have been the ten longest minutes of my life. On the way there, L. got stuck behind a car and if I could have, I would have yanked the steering wheel and made him pass that car myself.

And then we got to the hospital, and I promptly threw up a couple times in the trashcan outside of the entrance while L. tried to find a wheelchair to get me up to Labor and Delivery. I was panicking so much that I couldn’t let him find one for me, and I insisted we walk to L&D. So we did. We found the elevator, we took the elevator, we got to the nurses’ desk where they promptly checked me in and I probably said “I want an epidural” as the response to every question, that’s how much I couldn’t breathe. They coached me through the remaining contractions until the anesthesiologist could come, I signed the paperwork with blurry vision and shaking hands, and then–sweet relief. The pain was excruciating but the panic was worse, and the epidural took away both.

The next few hours were some of the most peaceful and blessed of my life. I was about five centimeters dilated, and while we waited for the other five, L. and I rested together. We napped a little, talked about the last nine months and wondered what it would be like to meet our little girl, he read and I listened to an audiobook, and I did whatever the nurses told me to, thankful to not be feeling anything and have someone else be in charge. When I think about G.’s birth, I think about the beauty of those quiet hours and how they marked the transition from a family of two into a family of three for me.

Of the birth itself, I don’t actually remember very much. I had a wonderful nurse who taught me how to push and then taught L. how to coach me so I could push better and longer.  I remember throwing up in between pushes out of sheer exertion and exhaustion. I remember thinking I was done, I couldn’t do this anymore, and then hearing I was almost there, just one or two more and my daughter would be here. I remember my doctor asking if she could snip me, that they needed to do something, and me saying yes, yes, this baby needs to come out, do whatever you want. And then I remember feeling this terrible need to push, and seeing my doctor and nurse conferring in the corner, and not knowing how not to push, or even that sometimes you shouldn’t, so I did. And then suddenly I had a baby on my chest, my baby, and I cried, and spoke to her in Dutch and welcomed her and told her I loved her. I knew right away that she was mine, that although I had just met her, I also knew her on a deep and instinctual level. I was her mother and this was my child.

I kept that baby on my chest as my doctor stitched me up. The miracle hour, that first hour after birth hospitals and childbirth classes like to valorize? I spent most of that with my baby on my chest and my doctor sewing me up. Later I was told that she had gotten stuck a little bit, that although she was small, so was I, but I didn’t know that at the time. Later still, I would hear that because she has descended so rapidly at the end, I had sustained significant damage. I had a fourth-degree tear, the most severe you can have, and had torn through all my muscles and then some, something I didn’t even know could happen. I was warned that any future babies would have to come by c-section, something that meant nothing to me at the time and causes me to feel a strange kind of grief now. The next morning, when I got out of bed, I would see brown-red spots on the floor–my blood, now dried, that they hadn’t been able to get off the floor the night before. That detail, like the sobbing, strikes me as significant, although I can’t really explain why.

And then we were parents, and I learned right away what it meant to be a mother. It meant to nourish a child with your own body even as you bleed and bleed and hurt in ways you didn’t know you could. It meant going through major bodily trauma and then instinctively prioritizing the cries of your child above the deep, deep aches of your own body. That, perhaps, is why I haven’t written about this before now, because becoming a mother meant there was no time to reflect, no space to process or even feel my own pain–there was only my daughter and her needs.

In the months after G.’s birth, I learned that there is no bouncing back after baby, there is only a rebuilding, a recreation. I created my daughter, and in turn she created me. A lot of G.’s first year was lost to the fog of pain and postpartum depression, of slow physical recovery that wasn’t measured in weeks but in months or indeed a year now, of a dissertation that needed to be finished and the defense that followed, neither of which provided much relief. But this was also the year of me learning to trust my instincts, to stop caring as much about what other people thought, to learn how to notice my body and what it asks of me and to attempt to gracefully work with the pain I still feel daily, twelve months later, rather than fight it. I learned I could love my daughter and what she gave me and mourn what she took from me at the same time.

Becoming a mother introduced a richness into my life that I didn’t know existed. It’s a love that’s so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I roll my eyes at the expression “mama bear” but I am one and if you even come close to threatening my child, my hackles rise and I fight rather than flee. Don’t let anyone fool you: we may like to think of mothers as angelic creatures singing lullabies in the nursery, but I am here to tell you that with motherhood comes fierceness–or at least it did for me.

A List of Places I Have Fed My Child

It’s World Breastfeeding Week.

In the past year, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between me and my baby, this creature I carried and birthed, but also about the relationship between me and my body and the way my baby laid claim to it during pregnancy and even now appropriates it as her own. A lot of that is centered around breastfeeding, which I have been doing since her birth a year ago now. It is such an intimate act that I cherish, but it is also an act that requires a great deal of emotional, mental, and physical energy on my part, and I often find myself wondering if it’s time to wean her. Perhaps more than anything else, breastfeeding signifies motherhood to me. There’s a constant paradoxical choice to put her needs ahead of mine, and yet need to tend to my own needs lest I not be able to tend to her’s, and always, always my body and my heart on the line. 

And so I present to you, a list of places where I have fed my child. 

In a hospital bed after giving birth, still stunned that my baby was here and I was a mother now.

In my own bed, with tears running down my cheeks while blood and milk mixed in my baby’s mouth as she clamped down on me with all her might.

In the office of a lactation specialist, where both of us learned this thing that people told me was so natural.

In my bed, still sleepy, as we woke up together at five am.

On the couch, making my way through Parks and Rec or The Good Fight or NCIS while Gracie suckled contently and then fell asleep.

During a family birthday dinner at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Idaho, a state that didn’t yet offer legal protection to nursing mothers and where I dared to feed her anyway.

During heat waves in our non-air-conditioned home, where we melted into a puddle of sticky sweat together.

In hotel rooms as soon as she squawked so we wouldn’t wake the neighbors.

In a church pew, rushed and hurried, so I wouldn’t hand the priest a hungry and unruly baby to be baptized.

In a church pew, many other times, as the rhythm of the service went on around me.

In museums and the aquarium, before, during, and after visits to the exhibits.

In restaurants and at the dinner table and on the couch while my food cooled and my coffee remained just out of reach.

In my car in parking lots and gas stations on road trips and between errands and appointments.

During classes and meetings and social gatherings, when she slurps more food from me than I have to spare, and I go into new-mom-meltdown-mode without realizing why, and have to go outside to breathe and cry.

On long flights where I nursed every hour to keep my baby happy. On long flights where I got stared at by a teenage boy who couldn’t look away, even when I stared back. On short flights where I had to fight the manspreader next to me for the space of my own seat and share that with her too.

At midnight and one am and two am and three, and all the other hours of the night.

In her room, hours after she’s bit me hard enough to draw blood, and yet I offer her my body, again.

Two hours after I became Dr. Tielens, after she slept in my arms during my celebratory reception and I thought about how I’d birthed two babies in the last year, only one of which truly mattered.

In a discrete downstairs corner of a coffee place, with a blanket covering us both, where I got stared and glared at by an elderly gentleman anyway.

Between sessions at academic conferences and during lunch breaks of all day meetings, where I practice embracing my new identity as mother and more.

On cushy sofas and hard chairs and the ground, and standing when I couldn’t sit.

On the couch, while thinking through a tricky piece of the dissertation and typing notes into my phone so I wouldn’t forget my argument before I could get back to it.

At a roller derby match, hunched over on a hard bleacher seat while we watch strong and fierce women do battle on the track.

At a baseball game, while the sun beats down on our heads and the players swing and miss on the field below us.

On Sundays during coffee hour after the children’s service, as little girls gather around me and watch my daughter eat, and I tell them many of them once ate this way and they might one day do this for their own babies, too.

On a beach, sitting in the sand as I watch the waves go in and out and she throws up an arm to block the sun from her eyes.

With a body rigid with tension because I didn’t want anyone touching me, not even her.

And with a body relaxed and open, because what else was my body made for than to give her life?

on being done

Back in May, my husband reminded me he had Memorial Day off, and my first thought was, “Good, then I can get some work done!” And then I remembered, I don’t have any work. I’m done. I finished my Ph.D. And it was both a happy and a sad thought.

In April, I defended my dissertation. I was awarded a PhD, magna cum laude, a pretty good achievement by all metrics, surely. But when my committee welcomed me to the academic community (their actual words, by the way), I felt no sense of accomplishment, no pride, just weariness and emptiness. It surprised me, and it surprises me still. I worked so hard for this–shouldn’t I feel something?

(My therapist would say, there’s that word again: Should.)


I started my PhD in late 2011, moving to Germany to pursue this dream of a doctorate. I wrote countless grant proposals and scraped together funding from literally a dozen different places. I presented papers at conferences, finding that introvert me actually enjoyed the back-and-forth that conferences inspire, liked the spotlight and the critical questions that came after. I taught classes and realized I was good at research and writing, but I really loved teaching–something that completely and utterly surprised me. I read all the books I could get my hands on, filled notebook after notebook with quotes and ideas and outlines, and slowly began the hard work of having something to say.

Along the way, I moved from Germany to Utah to California, got married, had a baby. And always, always that work on my shoulders, that sense that I Should Be Writing, Should Be Working, or I’d never make it to that promised land of tenure-track, I’d always be stuck wandering in the wilderness. Always that work on my shoulders, and frankly, also always the sense that I was not good enough, would never be good enough, would spend the rest of my life trying to convince others and myself that I deserved to be where I was. Always that work on my shoulders, even through my pregnancy, through my maternity leave and the first year of my daughter’s life. Until it wasn’t there anymore, I was done.


I decided I wasn’t going to be an academic while I was still in Utah, for a myriad of personal and probably not very interesting reasons. I fought it, and then I mourned for quite a while. That’s the only way I can describe it, as a period of mourning, in which I said goodbye to a life spent among books, meaning found in teaching and research and my words on a page.  Most days I’m happy with my choice, and in fact, saying goodbye to that dream opened the door to bigger and better dreams, dreams that fit me more and honor who I’ve become, and dreams that scare and thrill me in equal measure and for that reason alone deserve to be pursued.

And yet. The other day, an acquaintance posted on Facebook that she got an offer and would start her tenure-track job this fall. She and I happened to get our PhDs on the same day. I barely know her, and yet it made me cry, made me question whether I was throwing away everything I’d worked so hard for. What use was a PhD if I immediately left the academic community I’d sacrificed so much for to join?


I never aspired to be a stay at home mom, and I surprised myself when halfway through my pregnancy, I floated the idea to L. that I stay home for a little while when the baby was born. For the first eight months of G.’s life, I had a dissertation and then a defense to hide behind. I had a goal to work towards and checklists to manage. And now I spend my days chasing my daughter around our living room, loving it one minute and wondering if there’s something else I should be doing with my life the next, something unidentifiable but “better” all the same.

(There’s that word again: should.)

At heart, of course, is the question I’ve always struggled with: Without outside accomplishments, outside responsibilities, outside accolades, how do I know that it’s enough?

Or perhaps more accurately: How do I know that I’m enough?



on turning thirty-one

Last year, on my birthday, I had taken the day off from frantic dissertation writing, and was puttering around the apartment, reading whatever book struck my fancy, and slowly getting ready to go into work that afternoon. I was sixteen weeks pregnant and in the magical no-nausea stage that came in between first-trimester and second-and-third-trimester morning sickness for me, and I felt pretty good, truth be told.

And then I saw the blood. I didn’t know a lot about pregnancy at that point, but I was pretty sure blood was not a good sign, especially not that much. I discovered it right as my OB’s office closed for lunch, so I had two hours to wait before I could call them, and then several more hours before they could fit me in for an ultrasound. I spent it lying on the couch and trying not to be anxious and very definitely not googling anything. Those were some long, long hours, and I kept telling the baby inside of me–a little girl, although we didn’t know that yet–to please stay with us, that we loved him or her, that we didn’t want to say goodbye yet.

You know how this story turned out, that we were lucky and didn’t have to say goodbye, despite issues with the placenta, despite gestational diabetes, despite at least a handful of other things my OB deemed “concerning.” We were lucky. But in retrospect that is the moment that this pregnancy turned from something hope-filled and joyful into something scary and fear-filled, something to be endured rather than anticipated. It some ways, that has been true for this first year of motherhood, too.

It is no secret that the transition to motherhood was rough for me, that pregnancy was rough for me, that I have spent a lot of the last year unlearning and relearning things I thought I knew, ways of being, and who I am in the world, that I have run up against the same wall of physical not-recovery time and time again as the fourth-degree tear is so very slow to heal, that I have struggled to retain parts of my old identity and fit them into something new.

Sometimes I ask myself, was it worth it? Is it worth it, to seek wholeness, to be a mother, to do those two things together? I did not know how profoundly motherhood would change me, that the act of carrying and birthing and loving a child would split my heart and my life right open, and how much courage it requires.

And then moments of supreme grace happen, like last night. In the middle of the night, I picked up our baby girl from her crib where she’d startled herself awake, and she nuzzled against me, comfortable, happy, and at home, and fell right back asleep. And I stood there, rocking her, loving her, praying I would always be that safe haven to her, and I knew it was and it is worth it, and I am thankful that she came when she did and would do it all over again and more.