birth

What I Hope My Girls Learn About Growing Old by Joellyn Hoekstra

The month of May means it’s birthday season in our house. My girl is turning 2. My boy just turned 4. He’s pretty proud of his new, bigger number. We even had a fun birthday countdown going on in the kitchen window. My main man is creeping up on his 30’s. He is looking forward to the coming decade and looking good too (if I do say so myself). My mom’s birthday was on the 3rd. She, on the other hand, is not so thrilled this year. Her number is bigger than she would like it to be. I’m sitting here in the middle of my babies and my parents. I am proud of my time here in this earthly body, and I like that it’s starting to show. I know it’s easy for me to think this way now, but I hope I always do. 

The ideal body type and age, in this society, seems to be somewhere between 12-25. Of course it’s not bad to long for a frame that is unhindered and active, but sometimes I think we have gone a bit overboard. How much money is spent on age concealing products each year? I don’t even want to know. My mom actually doesn’t look her age, but her time boasts of 4 children birthed and raised, 9 years of breastfeeding, 12 grand babies, 47 years of marriage, and approximately 24,000 days of experience. She’s done them well, with beauty and grace. She has learned from life’s lessons with many personal experiences of joy and sorrow. She carries that with her, and she shares with others.

We don’t often celebrate the story that our bodies have come to tell. You and I have to consider that the way we look and how we carry ourselves impacts others around us. Do people look to you for advice and wisdom? Are you someone who others naturally feel comfortable around? As a young nurse, I have been a preceptor for nursing students who are much older than I am. I have always found it fascinating that when we go into a patient’s room together at the start of the day, it is often the older looking nursing student who the patient will turn to for answers to their questions. Their age makes the patient feel like they have more to offer. It’s not bad for that new nurse to use this to their advantage. In time, they will have the skills to match their wiser looking structure, and they will likely develop a fast connection and earn a sense of trust from their patients without having to prove it.

I have a friend who is a CNA (certified nurses assistant). Trust me, there is not a person on this earth who has seen more naked strangers than a CNA. The other day we were marveling that when you care for a person (and wash their body) you can usually tell what kind of life they have lived. Even if they can’t speak anymore, sometimes you just know exactly what kind of person is in your hands. Some bodies are more hunched from years of heads hung low. Others show a different story. You can see it in the kind of wrinkles on their face. You just know they have worn a smile more often than a frown. 

One of my favorite photo documentations of age comes from, Lucy Hilmer. It’s called, “Birthday Suits.” She has photographed herself on her birthday for 40 years wearing nothing but her white undies. It’s awesome. She turned 70 last year. What I love most about these images is how evident it is that she is unashamed of her body even as it is changing. I especially love the year following the birth of her daughter. That’s where I am, and it gives me such strength. 

Women seem to have a serious desperation to hide or undo the look of having just carried and birthed babies. I get that, but sometimes I just want to linger in it a bit longer. I feel like an instrument who has been used in the most tangible way immediately following my children’s births. I have surrendered myself to bring life. I don’t feel the need to hide that. I look like a woman who has sacrificed, and that gives me credibility. I refuse to give into the lie that our bodies were made for preservation—to be put on a shelf and looked at. I hope that I am spent and used up completely when my days in this body are through.

People ask me all the time what their breasts are going to look like when they are nursing their babies. They are worried about their sex life, to be honest. I usually encourage them to think about how their new body tells a generous story for the two lovers as a couple, and that is truly stunning. When did we allow this incredibly profound human work of bringing life into the world to become a bad thing when it comes to our body image? I would even venture to say that you might think back on your honeymoon self and remember that it was so romantic because you looked your best. I believe this actually has more to do with the fact that you were confident in your skin. You don’t need to have a 21-inch waistline to choose assurance and carry yourself with dignity. Even into the bedroom. 

I have no problem with wanting to look good, but we have got to get rid of the idea that the only way to look good is to look like a younger, less-experienced version of ourselves. Please, for the sake of young women looking up to you (which is a privilege), be poised. I want my girls to grow into the women God has created them to be, and I hope they are never hesitant to wear the story of their days as a beautiful banner of life. They need to see more healthy examples of this. 

So, happy birthday to my special people—especially to my beautiful mom. You have given your body to do life’s work with great love and sacrifice. That is certainly worth celebrating. Wear this next year as a badge of honor and pride. To all other aging sisters and mommas: stand up tall in the body that you occupy. Toss your head back and throw another crease in your smile wrinkles on purpose. I’m watching you, and you are giving me strength and courage to fill every inch of my own frame with joy. I hope you can take a good, long look at yourself and say for certain that your body tells the true and remarkable story of your years. Heck, go on and make a birthday countdown for yourself this year. You’ve earned it, and it’s lovely on you.

-JBH

The Birth of Beauty and Suffering by Joellyn Hoekstra

I’ve now had a small plethora of birth experiences. My first was a cesarean section under general anesthesia. That means I was put to sleep for it. I don’t remember meeting my boy. Thank goodness there are pictures. My last was the complete opposite. There was hardly even time for an IV stick. I’m one of those weird people who has actually looked forward to the laboring and delivery of my babies since I was a young girl. It’s a kind of strange obsession I have. I even wanted another baby just minutes after Lottie’s birth (I know, I’m one of those crazy people). Many people tried to comfort me after Silas’ birth by reminding me that at least I have a healthy baby. Absolutely! Of course, I am beyond thankful to have my little guy. That’s not what I was missing. There are many mysterious and beautiful things going on during the birthing process, and I left his feeling like I had lost something. 

There are really two completely separate yet totally related processes going on during labor and birth. A woman is becoming a mother (or a repeat mother). She is going through a massive transition, regardless of how she has chosen to birth. There is also a child entering the world, and the two come together beautifully in the end. The mother and her perspective on this event in her life cannot be overlooked. Likewise, the child cannot be ignored, and the two should be kept safe, mother’s wishes and dignity preserved—even in a c-section (maybe even especially in this scenario). It saddens me to know how difficult it can be for a birthing mother to find a care provider who respects these two happenings individually and together. All births can be done well and carefully all the while empowering a woman in a mighty way. 

I had the opportunity to share Lottie’s birth with my sweet older sister, my incredible husband and my supportive mother-in-law/doula (two for one!). It has been important to be able to debrief with them since I have delivered my girl. My sister mentioned that it was profound for her to watch a natural birth and see the work with each contraction. She has been thinking about how this reflects a picture of our walk through life. She is so right and so wise. Our initial instinct is to fight and wrestle with grief or pain. It was powerful for her to see the contractions intentionally embraced and handed over and out of my control. We grow in the presence and process of pain and suffering, and we need people by our side. I couldn’t have done it without them.

We western folk have a real fear of pain and suffering don’t we? We have found various ways to numb it. Social media, alcohol, drugs, sex, narcotics, and baby head sniffing just to name a few. For me the birth process is an opportunity to practice suffering well. I don’t expect every woman to have this perspective. I know that I’m not the norm, but just entertain this thought with me for a moment. I longed to let myself rest in the hard contractions. It has struck me since that when I met each contraction ready to handle it with deep slow breathing I could actually rest (almost sleep) through it. When I was caught off guard and unprepared to meet the next contraction, I would be struggling and noticed that I felt stuck in whatever position I happened to be in when it hit me hard. A contraction can knock the breath right out of you when you’re not ready for it. What is the value in expecting suffering and being prepared for it in advance as believers in Jesus?

The birth process provides opportunity after opportunity (like every 2-5 minutes) to practice staring difficulty straight in the face and experiencing the courage and strength you find to get through it. I didn’t want to numb it. I didn’t want to fear it. I have been changed by my births. It’s all woven together here. The beautiful and the dark are present simultaneously throughout the laboring. It’s truly a small glimpse of the life journey. Birthing is a massive sacrifice on the part of the mother, giving all of herself to bring life into this world. What an incredible offering of the self. It is so worth the hard work.

Well-meaning Christian brothers and sisters have told me to protect myself from pain before. A few years ago I spent time in Uganda caring for vulnerable, sweet babies. One in particular, a precious boy who was so sick at the time that many people were worried he might not live. I specifically remember a friend telling me not to get too invested in him because I would be hurt if he didn’t survive. So I trusted God, and I ignored that person. I just loved that baby even harder. I cannot even begin to imagine all that would have been lost in my soul if I had taken this advice. When we go through loss and it hurts us, I think that’s a really good sign. Some of my hurts are the best things about me. They were deep enough to change me. I love those parts of my heart. Jesus is there. I wouldn’t take them back. I wish I had a stretch mark or physical scar to show for some of the deep love and hurt I have been able to experience with God by my side. 

I have felt so much joy with the coming of my new girl child. There are many emotions and such incredible highs. All the while, I have had friends and family who have experienced loss and heartache in these very weeks. There is a time for rejoicing and a time for grieving. Sometimes they happen all at once. How do we process this? Why am I holding a fresh new life with all the beauty and excitement that comes with her while others are empty handed? I did nothing to deserve this. Neither did they. My prayers were not more fervent and theirs were not lacking. Suffering is so hard. I don’t have the answers. I only know that God is good. I can rest in that truth in the midst of the unanswered questions and pain.

Sometimes we don’t like to acknowledge it, but the Bible talks about suffering. A lot. We’re told to expect it as believers and even to embrace it. That’s hard to swallow in the midst of real, true suffering. We need God in these times. He knows that. We grow and we learn to trust Him and to love Him more. We are only here for a time. Our present suffering is nothing compared to the future glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18). We are obsessed with knowing how our lives will play out. That includes birth. It’s inconvenient and unpredictable. It seems to be incompatible with our societies obsession with comfort.

Birth presents us with beauty and pain all at once. We need support. Can birth be an opportunity to practice engaging and embracing suffering? I’m thankful to have had support, and I long for this for every other birthing mom. Can we suffer well? Can we come alongside our brothers and sisters and encourage them in suffering? Can we love knowing that it might hurt us? Are we encouraged to do these things or commanded? I don’t know what kind of suffering you’re facing now, but I long for you to be supported well and surrounded like a mother in labor. Fully embracing and acknowledging the hard work you are doing. I long for you to be prepared for it and loved well through it because you are not alone and because you are hoping and trusting in Jesus. I long for you to breathe deep and give your pain to Him. There is light in the darkness. There is glory in the end. 

-JBH

Lead Me to the Secret Place by Joellyn Hoekstra

I like to ponder heaven. I do it a lot. I think about 100 million angels singing around God’s throne, His royal robes flowing over and filling the whole room. I think about seeing Jesus face-to-face. I try to grasp even just a small portion of the love that will flood over me with such force that I will not be able to fathom a moment when I could have denied or rebelled against Him. But some of my most frequent heaven daydreaming sessions include Him taking me by the hand and leading me to the Secret Place.

This thought comes from one of the better-known verses in scripture mentioning the womb, Psalm 139. As I have shared before, any discussion of the womb and I get pretty excited. “For you created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” But it’s a later verse that really gets me,My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the Secret Place.” 

I love this place, the Secret Place. A part of me is hesitant to even share it publicly because it’s so dear to me and because there are really no words to adequately describe what I see when I think on it. I don’t want it tainted, criticized or heavily analyzed. I am not a theologian, and I’m not claiming to have read specifically of this place in scripture, but I have seen the fruit of pondering this Secret Place in my parenting and in my deep love for all of God’s people. 

I started praying for my babies long before I ever had them. Actually, before I was even married. I knew God had written their lives into His great story long ago. Why wait to start praying for them? But it made me wonder where they were. I started dreaming of a place where He might be keeping them, forming them, and rejoicing over them with singing in heaven. What would they talk about? Would He tell them about me? Could He be preparing them for their time on Earth at that very moment? How long have they been there? Were we once dwelling there together? Does He reveal others around them who will be siblings or friends?

This dreaming has changed how I look at them. It’s changed how I parent them. I have a deep appreciation for the value and preciousness of their lives. They simply do not belong to me. They are not my property. They are God’s precious creation. It makes me careful of how I talk about them to others and how I talk to them. These are eternal souls. They belong to God. They were, they are and they will be forever. 

I don’t think I have a specific parenting philosophy, and I tend to avoid parenting “How to” books. Most of the decisions and stances I take in parenting my children come from praying for a deeper understanding of who they are to God. I know He has a plan for them. I want to foster that, to always remember that I don’t deserve these precious little ones. “Children are a gift from the Lord, they are a reward from Him.” (Psalm 127:3) I want to love them and give them security and warmth that will allow them to be able to open up their vulnerable hearts and follow God, no matter what He asks them to do. Our home and my arms are the place on earth that God has chosen to shape my kids into who He has created them to be. 

Sometimes I think we take too much credit and other times too much blame as parents. The thought of my children belonging to God long ago and forever more frees me of this on a daily basis. When someone tells me my kids are cute, I usually respond by saying, “I know!  Aren’t they incredible?” I’ve seen the shock on their faces to hear this kind of response, and I get it. It’s just that I truly don’t view them as “mine.” Okay yes, I did carry them around for 9 months within me, but I did not create them. I cannot simply say “thanks” and take the credit for this astonishing little person. In my heart, I think of how God did take such delight in creating them. He deserves the credit, and I want to hand it back to him with every chance that I get.

They are my responsibility, and that is a really crazy thing to think about. He didn’t accidentally give me these babies at the wrong time. Job 14 tells us, “He has their months and days numbered already.” When I prayed about becoming pregnant with Silas, I opened myself up before God and asked if He would send me one of His adored children. God knew full well that we had no money saved up. He knew that Aaron and I were young. He knew that this would be our first-born. I remember praying, “Please, God, just not a child who needs a lot of monetary resources. Please don’t send us a pro golfer or something crazy like that. We can’t afford it.” I know that He knows Silas far better than I do. He knows the plans He has for him. We are the parents He sent in place ahead of him. That takes a lot of pressure off of me.

I grew up surrounded by adoption. I used to figure I would probably not be able to carry a biological child. I had so many beautiful women in my life who had been unable to conceive, and they had all these incredible children adopted from various places around the world. It got to a point where I would meet another mentor and think, really God? Are you trying to tell me something here? I was fully prepared and eager to adopt. Thinking about the Secret Place has shaped how I view adoption, and I still hope there are adoptions to come for us as a family. How long has He seen their unformed body, this soul? Who does He have set apart for me? It doesn’t matter what color they are or which womb they grow in for those few short months. That baby was created long ago with me in mind as his or her mother. I’ll take them however they come to me.

The Secret Place has changed the depths of how I grieve for sweet friends struggling through pregnancy loss. It doesn’t matter how long that baby has been growing inside her before she began the terrifying moments of feeling that fullness slip away. It is always devastating. Always. That baby has a soul. Does that mama remember him or her?  I think somehow she does. She was eagerly awaiting the reunion, and I was expectant with her. What a beautiful thing it is to see a mother meet her sweet little one, and she will someday. It will have to wait, and I hope I get to be there for those triumphant moments.

It changes how I receive new babies in a delivery. This tiny creation from God. From His Secret Place to our world. From His hands to…mine? It is truly an honor and a privilege to be part of a moment such as this. Often I don’t feel worthy to be present for all these births, but it’s probably not a great idea for your nurse to suddenly get up and leave in the middle of your delivery, right? I think it’s one of the many reasons that I love natural, calm birth so much. That moment (as long as medically appropriate) should be protected. It should be welcoming. It is sacred. There should be rejoicing and even laughter, not fear. Sheer euphoria. God even gives the naturally birthing body massive doses of endorphins for a moment such as this. I feel especially protective of the new mothers who are truly longing for this beautiful moment, but that’s a topic for another day.

Is my job here preparing me for a greater work that I will get to do eternally? Will I someday work in this Secret Place? Will I get to birth souls back into heaven where they are perfectly loved and accepted as they ought to be? I will take that job position without even one second of pondering. I know this might not be true at all. There is no elaborate description of this place in scripture. God might have a completely different way of doing the important work of creating His people, but I have a feeling that if I’m off here, it’s only that my small imagination and limited physical being cannot even begin to scratch the surface of what it’s really like.

“For you created my inmost being. You knit me together in my mother’s wombMy frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the Secret Place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.” Psalm 139:13-15

-JBH