As a child, more often than not, I had my nose in a book while my friends played soccer, broke arms, formed cliques, and generally lived life.
I much preferred imagining how life should be to accepting and experiencing life as it really was. My school experiences reinforced this subtle form of Gnosticism: I did well in grade school, college, and the most idealistic of places, divinity school.
After I graduated from Duke in 2002, however, my body demanded to be recognized. All of a sudden, at age 27, my body wanted — no, needed — a child. My husband and I, married for five years and both pursuing ordination, had never even considered the possibility of children. We conceived barely a month later.
But even pregnancy didn’t get me out of my head: it just changed my pursuit of the ideal. Instead of obsessing about how to live out the ideal Christian life, I scoured websites and books on pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Looking for practices that were consistent with my faith, I chose natural childbirth and a model of parenting that relies on the logic of natural consequences (not anger, of course). This model also insisted that children grow up as quickly as possible.
Everything seemed to be unfolding nicely. My pregnancy was healthy and my husband was appointed to a large United Methodist Church literally 10 minutes from both sets of our parents in Virginia. But that was the last time things went according to plan.
Instead of natural childbirth, I ended up with an induced labor and emergency C-section. Instead of peacefully enjoying my baby, I suffered from post-partum depression. His every cry filled me with terror.
Instead of working for our church in a part-time position from home, I had to quit from exhaustion after just four months. I learned much later that the trauma of the C-section resulted in severe adrenal fatigue, bottomed-out hormone levels, and new food intolerances that took four years to diagnose. My body, so quiet and complacent all my life, was staging a full-scale rebellion.
Perpetually exhausted, I desperately asked God what was wrong with me. Why was motherhood, one of the most basic of human experiences, so excruciating?
Late one night, as I lay in bed after getting up with my infant son for the second time, he began to cry again. I prayed fervently that he would go back to sleep, as was my usual practice. Finally, black despair bubbled up out of my heart and I whispered fiercely, “I hate you, God.”
After recovering from the shock of those words, I had to admit that they were true: I hated God for not listening to me, for not answering my prayers, for not giving me the joy and energy to be the ideal mother, minister, and Christian.
In retrospect, that was a clarifying moment. I believe it is no accident that the word “ideal” is so similar to the word “idol.” God had finally exposed my idolatry: I was worshiping my ideals, not God. My idolatry left me angry at my body’s limitations, which kept me from achieving my goals as a mother, and worse, angry at God who made it. I didn’t want to know God; I wanted a genie to serve my pursuit of false gods.
Afterward, I spent a long time simply naming and crushing idols with Jesus. Academic excellence. Visibly meaningful ministry. Approval from peers and colleagues. The need to “be a writer.” The need to do everything right as a mother. These idols had ruled virtually every aspect of my notions of self.
Even though this meant leaving behind that former self, I found instead intimacy with Jesus himself. I learned that the limitations of our bodies are not obstacles to following him, but a required part of the process. Jesus needed his body in order to sacrifice for us, not merely for atonement, but to show us how much he loves us. Apparently God thought it was time that I recognized my own body was capable of sacrifice.
My second son was born less than two years after our first. But this time, thanks to my midwife (who prescribed both a strict diet and pre-emptive antidepressants), I was spared both surgery and post-partum depression. As I slowly began to recover a measure of peace and health, I thought I had learned my lesson.
But the cost of following a God who allows suffering was to become even greater. Not long after my younger son was born, a good friend’s baby, also a boy, arrived two months premature. She pumped breast milk many times a day for the months that Carter was in the neonatal intensive care unit, and once he came home, he was still on a heart monitor. Finally, at 12 months, Carter was a healthy, active little boy. All the sacrifice, sleepless nights and constant effort had been worth it.
Then, at 15 months, Carter developed a fever. Sensing something was wrong, the doctor sent them to the children’s hospital. My friend, who had a close relationship with God, prayed fervently for her son’s recovery. But by the next day, Carter had died. My friend and I asked ourselves the same question: “Why? What kind of God not only allows the suffering of mothers, but of children too?” We felt as if we didn’t know God at all.
As I desperately searched the Bible with fresh eyes, here’s the passage that took root: “. suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us” (Romans 5:3-5).
I began to realize that suffering can help us understand more about loving others the way God loves us. Pain is temporary, but love is eternal. For anyone who has watched her child die, this is not an easy answer. But it is true. God watched his child die, too.
Very slowly and quietly, I have become more capable of self-sacrificial love. How do I know? My children are now 4 and 6. Last night they were up every other hour — a thunderstorm, a nightmare, a wet bed. But this time, from the depths of my heart, I rejoiced that I had two unspeakably precious boys for whom I could sacrifice a night’s sleep. And I need my body for that.
Mandi Rooker is a freelance editor and writer living in Yorktown, Va. She and her husband, Ben Rooker D’03, have two sons, Sam and Elias. Her poem “Station XII: A Mother’s Love” will appear in the Fall 2009 issue of The Penwood Review.