On faith, motherhood, and overwhelm

When I was 21, I had a ‘Damascus Road’ moment during which I became a Christian during my year abroad. I was so enthused by the freedom I had found in Christ that I shouted it loud to anyone who would stop to listen for a good few years after. I stood up in front of hundreds of students and shared how God had called me home at a Christian Union mission event in 2009, and sang a version of Amazing Grace with a friend that my brother had arranged (he even accompanied us on the piano). In 2010 I was asked to share my story with dozens of teenagers at a CYFA youth venture. More recently I filmed my testimony a few years ago for the youth group I helped to lead, and shared that video on Facebook, and I re-share it every so often when it comes up in my Facebook memories. I have always sought to be real and honest when people ask me about my faith, even when that exposes less than favourable aspects of my character and is frankly embarrassing. But over the last few years I have realized that the story of my faith did not ‘end’ with that sudden realization that knowing Jesus had always been my deepest need and desire, amazing though that period in my life was when he removed the burden of sin from my shoulders. When people have asked me why I am a Christian, I have found it hard to talk about the ‘life after’, because I am still in it, and still making sense of it.

Five and a half years ago, I became a mother. This is a time of inordinate change for any person. While it is undoubtedly a blessing, it causes you to re-examine everything you had ever held to be true as you discern how you wish to raise your child in the world we live in. It can lead to a re-emergence of past hurts from your own upbringing and childhood, isolation and loneliness as you adjust to a new life where you have zero autonomy, and a readjustment of close relationships that had settled in recent years. For me, it also coincided with a period in time when many millennials were waking up to the realization that we had taken prosperity, democracy and peace for granted. Our parents had lived through the Cold War, but the privileged and educated members of my generation emerged into consciousness as the world seemed to settle down, at least in Europe. The great Enlightenment dream of an inevitable march towards utopia seemed to have come true, and I think most of us fell for it hook, line and sinker. The rise of global right wing populism has put a stop to that for many of us, and we find ourselves in crisis. How has this happened so quickly? How were we so blind to all the issues that caused it? Brexit is symptomatic of this trend, and has hit me personally very hard for all sorts of reasons. But it is the way we are trashing the planet that has been an accompanying undercurrent of my depression over the last few years. In 2014, the same year my daughter was born, I read a Tearfund special report which set out in no uncertain terms how drastically awful the situation was. I burned with shame that I hadn’t taken it seriously prior to then. I vowed to do everything in my power to be a good steward over God’s creation.

But motherhood didn’t afford me much time or headspace to do that, despite my best efforts at using cloth nappies and switching to reusable menstrual products and so on. With my new little person had come an inability to find joy in anything, not because she wasn’t joyful or things weren’t still good in some aspects of my life, but because everything just hurt more. Life matters so much more when you are responsible for someone. I became aware of the manifold ways we – especially Christians! – hurt each other even when we have no intention of causing hurt. I was grateful for my healthy, happy (though very intense) baby, but how could I be happy when so many other people lost babies or had babies who had life threatening illnesses? I was grateful that we lived in comfort and peace, but I knew that millions didn’t, and I felt helpless to do anything about it. We went on a cruise holiday and all I could think of was the fact that people were drowning in the Mediterranean while we were sailing around in luxury. Through the ‘natural parenting’ movement I understood the damage of cultural appropriation, and I became very conscious of my own role in upholding the systematic oppression of marginalized people, and felt constantly that I wasn’t doing enough to counter it with the privilege I had. I learnt that these ‘white tears’ (Google the term if you don’t know it) are very common for people when they are woken up to their own privilege, and felt guilty given that I enjoyed innumerable advantages in life based on my skin colour, my education, my religion and so on, but I couldn’t stop centring myself and my own experience and felt so powerless to facilitate change in myself, let alone challenge and call out others.

I was also completely exhausted and constantly sleep deprived. It didn’t help that I received so much unsolicited advice from all sorts of people, Christians included, about what I was doing wrong. (I know now that I was doing nothing wrong, but it took me a long time and many years to gain the confidence to know that, when it comes to children’s sleep, I have not made my own mess. Some kids just wake frequently and need lots of night time reassurance. The end.) It hurt somehow that Christians could come to such different conclusions about how best to parent, based on the same belief in the character of God. In spite of a number of supportive friends (thank you!), I grew tired of being told by the great majority that I needed to abandon my daughter to scream herself to sleep if I wanted to be less exhausted, a mantra which was by no means limited to fellow Christians, and alas is pretty pervasive in our culture. Despite the supportive voices I surrounded myself with, it resulted in me not feeling able to tell people how I really was, firstly because it was such old news, and secondly because on very low days I couldn’t face the possibility of a flippant comment about what I needed to do to fix my daughter’s sleep.

Anyone who has experienced chronic sleep deprivation will know that it can drive you to the brink of insanity. I went to dark places that I really don’t feel the need to share here. My anxiety skyrocketed, particularly with regards to my health, which was consistently compromised by poor sleep. I also struggled hugely with trying to fit a PhD into the mess of it all. It is extremely hard to bully your brain into any kind of academic work off apocalyptically awful sleep. At the time, I worked at weekends while my husband looked after our daughter, though she often couldn’t cope with the separation from me when she was under 2 and I frequently had to abandon my work. We could have just about afforded to send her to (part time) childcare, but she was the kind of small child who never stopped crying when I left. It felt deeply wrong to push her into something that she was too small to cope with, given that we didn’t have to, and it was hard to trust my gut despite almost the entirety of the world telling me she would be fine. So we bumbled on as a small family, not really having any time together, and feeling stretched and pressured from all sides. Although I struggled, I felt mostly carried by God and despite not understanding why I seemed to cope so much less well with the journey through motherhood than others around me, I trusted him enough that this was a season and it would pass.

When I fell pregnant with my son in 2016, things reached a new low. In conjunction with my daughter’s night time wakefulness, I also had terrible pregnancy insomnia. I lived off a few hours’ interrupted sleep every night for months. I sobbed into my pillow without fail for hours. My daughter, a highly articulate and intense child who is always ‘on’, found the pregnancy very hard. Although she can hardly believe it now, at the time she frequently became violent towards me. I found it very hard to control my emotions, particularly at bed time, as she always took hours of intensive parenting to fall asleep (she still does, but she reads to herself for an hour or so now before she needs us). The Brexit referendum fell into this turbulent period. I abandoned the NHS mental health support I was offered after I was told simply to practise mindfulness and keep a mood diary (it didn’t help, and in any case I found mindfulness to be problematic on all sorts of levels). I knew I would benefit from therapy but did not have the time or funds to facilitate it at that stage. I had been depressed in my previous pregnancy and expected it second time round, which helped, but the difference was that this time I felt very distant from God. I would try to focus on the sacramental aspect of pregnancy and motherhood: this, for me, was the way of the cross – this is my body, broken for you – and it helped make sense of it all somewhat. But I was feeling increasingly like God wasn’t listening. And I was pretty rageful at him. For a start, he had NO idea what motherhood was like, having come as a man! People bleated on about how Jesus knew our suffering, but it seemed to me that he suffered for about one day, not the years and years I had been through. And, while I was at it, I raged about how the whole bloody Bible was written by a load of old men who really (it seemed to me) had no idea about women’s issues. You see, I am not one of those Christians who thinks that my ‘role’ should (necessarily) be in the home, and yet I had no idea what path I was supposed to take in life when it came to juggling motherhood with paid employment. I would frequently scream ‘f*ck the patriarchy!’ into my pillow at the injustice that no one tells men that they ‘can’t have it all’, there is next to no culture of men working part time to take on unpaid caring roles in the home which would vastly ameliorate the pressures on women, and no one asks or cares even how many children men have (Boris Johnson anyone? No one actually knows…)

I had a dose of happy hormones when my son was born that made me hope that things would improve. Alas, his sleep was as poor as his sister’s, though in a different way. He woke every hour for four months, and every couple of hours till he was about 2. My daughter still didn’t sleep through and found his arrival troubling and perplexing, which is common, but as she is ‘more’ she reacted in ways which were, well, ‘more’. My husband was packed off to the spare room and I ‘slept’ (haha!) for the best part of the first year of my son’s life with one either side of me in our big bed. The biggest challenge with my son, who was a calm and relatively straightforward baby, given that I could put him down without him screaming, and he only nursed for five minutes every hour or so, was that he was (still is!) an early riser. My daughter is a night owl and would command every iota of my attention and existence 24/7. She would finally fall asleep by 9.30pm or so, and then they would both wake me up all night until my son woke for the day at 5am. Not being pregnant meant I had some physical energy back, but with one either side of me in the bed, the chronic sleep deprivation, and associated dark places, continued.

Life since my son’s birth passed by in even more of a blur than it did before he was born. I recognized dully that some people seem to enjoy parenting tinies immensely, and I, alas, was not one of them. But I started to lose hope that I would ever enjoy motherhood or see it as anything other than an immovable chain around my neck, and I couldn’t stop myself from focusing on all the ways in which motherhood constrained my life, rather than seeing the many benefits and joys. Despite having agreed with my husband that we were a team and would split family life with me primarily caring and him primarily earning, I felt a lot of stigma being ‘just a mum’, particularly around the time I was finishing my PhD and I was trying to work out what I could ‘do next’, even though I knew I couldn’t possibly add another string to my already breaking bow. I felt (and I still feel) that I have other areas of my life apart from childrearing that I would like to prioritize, but my husband’s well paid but very busy and intense job meant that anything I did employment-wise would have to fit in around the children. Rather than focusing on the amazing privilege I had of not having to earn money and having the option of being available for my children all the time, I felt resentful that financially it didn’t work in our set up to split the child care and employment between us more equally. And then I felt guilty for not being grateful for what we had. Even though I recognized I was doing it, I couldn’t stop myself building my identity into my place in society, and felt shunned from all sides – a common feeling for women. And, as we grew more despairing of the Brexit chaos, my husband and I looked seriously at relocating to Germany, a long-held dream of mine that pre-dated the Brexit referendum. He took a German course with the hope of brushing up on his old skills and I tried to find a route that would enable us to earn enough over there to support our growing family. It came as a major setback when we realized that – for various reasons – it wasn’t going to work.

God was depressingly absent. There would be days when my mood was fine, and days when the darkness would consume me, often tied in to my exhaustion levels and overwhelm about the world around me. When God had called me home when I was 21, I had been mired in I think now typical coming-of-age issues at a very formative time in my life. That’s not to play down what happened, because those issues were very real to me then. But they were totally individualistic. God saved me from my own sin and my own despair at the state of my sorry self. But now – now the stakes were so much higher. This was not really about me anymore. All of this was so much bigger. It was about our children’s future. It was about society. It was about the manifold ways sin is entrenched in every aspect of life. And, when I read a report about how unlikely it is that we will survive as a species beyond 2050 unless we reduce climate change to safe levels in the next ten years (which means putting things in place by the end of 2020), I realized it is about our very existence.

Where was God? Here I was, a professing Christian who knew very well from an academic perspective that we have an eternal hope and blah blah blah. But I didn’t feel any of it. I was despairing, even though (I thought) Christians should never despair. I would read Psalm 23 and throw the Bible across the room. During those sleepless nights when I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death and sobbing into my pillow, I definitely did fear evil, and his fecking rod and staff most certainly did not comfort me. Was any of it true at all? I would think of other moments when the psalmist invoked the history of the exodus to remind the reader that our God is one that acts. God had acted in my life in a massively transformative way when I came to faith. I couldn’t deny that. And I remained as convinced as ever that the arguments for God’s existence and the historical evidence of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gave meaning to life in a way that atheism and agnosticism just didn’t. I still believed God existed, but I was sadder than ever that I couldn’t feel that peace that passes all understanding that we are promised. In fact, I didn’t feel God’s presence at all, and our relationship felt very one-sided. Only once in recent years could I recall an event that I had felt was unambiguously God. It was in the depths of my pregnancy insomnia in 2016. We were in a Manchester travelodge and while the others slept I kept watch and prayed and I felt him telling me he would not abandon me to the grave during the many years of sleep deprivation.

I held on to this revelation like my life depended on it for two years, because there have been many times when death felt like it would be kinder than living through the exhausted haze I was in. And in my head I knew that ‘dry patches’ and not feeling God’s presence are all very normal experiences in the Christian life. I would dwell on the words of a very dear fellow Christian student who counselled me when I first came to faith, telling me that we believe in a faith that is grounded in what he has done, not in our feelings, because they come and go. But it didn’t stop the pain of feeling abandoned, and knowing that I could have got through the hard times a lot better if I had felt ‘held’ by God.

There were a couple of crumbs of comfort. I was in good company. For example, I happened to read one day (coincidence? Or God?) that Mother Theresa didn’t feel God’s presence for decades but tirelessly continued her work, trusting anyway. Whenever you mention hardship in Christian circles, well-meaning believers often try to help by glibly asking you if you’ve read the book of Job. So I actually read it, cover to cover, in two sittings (it would have been one but I was required by a child). It is the most frightfully depressing book but I thanked God all the same that it was in the Bible, because Job gets no answers, just like me. And, I recalled, Jesus himself had yelled out ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ on the cross. I could not bend my head around why we might feel God-abandoned, but at least I wasn’t alone.

Thinking it would be helpful, I tried to bury myself in lots of Christian literature on suffering and God’s silence. It didn’t help much, not least because I didn’t really have any time to read around the children and my other commitments, but also because it focused me on all the ways God is silent and actually, on reflection, I needed to focus on the opposite. I had asked a few people to pray for me, which they dutifully did, but I had basically decided that their prayers were almost certainly worthless. I believed it all with my head, but my heart couldn’t keep up. On Easter day 2018, I stumbled into church with my daughter, late, and the only space left was right at the front. We very obviously shuffled past everyone to find the seats. My husband and son had stayed at home, because it had been one of the most dreadful nights in the whole of my parenting-small-children career and my son had been awake for most of it and so needed a nap. For my part, I felt, misery guts though I was, like I should really turn up to church on Easter Day. It was awful. We normally go to our church’s quiet, liturgical service (for various reasons, not least because my husband plays the organ twice a month at it), but we’d slept through that, so we arrived for the extrovert-heavy bouncy welcoming service. The band struck up with some happy Jesus-is-so-amazing-life-is-great song, and I lasted two lines before collapsing in tears. I felt empty, stuck in the disciples’ collective grief and confusion of Easter Saturday, and the dissonance with happy praise music was not something I could cope with. A kind friend happened to be sitting next to me and I was grateful for her. I took my (somewhat perplexed but very comforting) daughter off to crèche and emailed my friend later to explain.

I can’t recall when exactly things began to change. Certainly not until well into this year (2019). We had been trying to sell our house and, having shelved the Germany plans, move to a bigger place in our village. After having had a stressful 9 months during which we had a potential buyer drop out before finding another, the house that we wanted to buy, which is truly a delightful property, had stayed on the market and not been snapped up by anyone else. It seemed to be a nudge from God that he wanted us to stay in this part of the world, and I was grateful for it. Our daughter had settled pretty well into her school and it made sense with the upcoming uncertain political times to stay put, especially with regards to my husband’s job, and ride out the bumpy future from a place we know well.

There were a few nudges elsewhere, too. During one church service, as my son had been knocking down all my daughter’s brick towers that she had made at the back of church, I began to herd my gang towards crèche as quietly as possible so that everyone else could listen to the epistle being read (my husband was at the organ bench). I caught a sentence of it as I marched them past the lectern on the way up the north aisle. It was from Philippians, and Paul was talking about finding contentment in times of trial as well as in times of joy. I was immediately convicted that I had been building up happiness, mental wellness and indeed good sleep into idols. I was clearly taking aim at the sun and getting upset when my arrows got nowhere near. I knew that what I needed to seek was contentment, which I realized at this point must theoretically be possible at the same time as being overwhelmed, exhausted and depressed.

My mum and I share an appreciation of Paula Gooder’s books and, when it got to Easter, she leant me her book on the resurrection. I don’t think I even managed to read all of it, but what I did read did me the world of good. Rather than focusing on what God was or wasn’t saying to me, I dwelt on the meaning of the resurrection, and I came away not being able to explain God’s absence any better, but more convinced than ever in the power of him rising from the dead. I began to feel what I dully recognized as Easter joy, and, though it felt far away, I was finding that sense of hope that God really will make all things new under Christ in the new creation. Gooder had also written something in another book that had resonated powerfully with me: having a living faith in Jesus doesn’t make our trials any easier, but it does perhaps give us the strength to keep going. I felt a huge amount of relief when I read that, and I realized that I had been struggling with the fact that I had expected my faith to make my trials easier, when, actually, there was no biblical mandate for that at all.

Then, during one particularly sad and tear-filled night when I was lamenting all the friendships motherhood had prevented me from investing in over the last few years, a sentence arrived in my head out of nowhere: I will rejoice over you with singing. I stopped in my tracks, because although I didn’t hear God, those words were not mine, and I knew they came from God. I vaguely thought they sounded like they were from a Bible verse, but I was so exhausted and emotional that I fell asleep without looking it up. In the morning I whacked them into Bible Gateway online and lo, Zepheniah 3:17 popped up:

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

I cried. The image of the creator of the universe thinking that I am worthy of rejoicing over with singing – particularly as he knows how important singing is to me – and that he had chosen this way, in the midst of my distress, to show me how much he cares for me, floored me. I had not read Zepheniah in a decade. I don’t recall having heard it read in church recently. It’s not a verse (or a book) I know well, and in any case, the words that he planted in my mind were in the first person, and the Bible verse is in the third person. God wanted me to know in that moment that he meant those words about me. It meant that he had a plan for me, and that I will survive this (it’s in the future tense!)

Since then, through wrestling in prayer, and a lot of soul searching, God has graciously made me aware of several personal shortcomings that were causing a lot of my overwhelm. In a bid to understand my own upbringing, I have been delving into my family history a lot in recent years, and I have been determined to learn from the experiences that my German family lived through in particular. It has meant that I often think of my descendants looking back over my life and scrutinizing my efforts in using my privilege for good. Recently, God has patiently showed me that I need fear no one’s judgment now or posthumously other than his, and he has declared me free from sin because of the death and resurrection of his son. The feeling of not being able to do enough to bring about change and call others out should have sent alarm bells ringing that I was in some respects trying to earn my salvation through my deeds. But it is only when we have freedom in Christ that those deeds flow freely from our faith.

He has also recently convicted me that he is, actually, bigger than church scandals, bigger than the rise of right wing populism, bigger than the systematic oppression of minorities and the refusal of the vast majority of privileged people to engage with this, bigger than Brexit, and bigger even than the climate crisis. He is bigger than the overwhelm that has threatened to swallow me all these years. He’s got this, and for the first time in my life I believe him. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is true, it changes *everything*, and one day Jesus will return to judge the nations. The deceivers and the charlatans of the world that are steering the poorest people into ever deeper despair are the ones who should fear, not me, for my hope is in Christ, and he has defeated sin and death.

So, why the silence from God for years? I don’t have any answers, but I can now look back and see growth. I have learnt that life is messy and complicated in a way that my 21 year old newly Jesus-enthused self could not understand. Back then, if I had met my 32 year old self I would probably have thought ‘wow she really needs the Lord.’ I now realize that you can, actually, have the Lord, and still not be coping. I am grateful to God for having prevented me from stuffing up innumerable friendships and acquaintances by teaching me this, even if it came at personal cost.

I can also resonate a lot more with people who don’t believe in God. I am in a better place to understand their reasons, and while I never think I really thought of non-believers as projects to convert (Lord have mercy on those that do), I now totally recognize my fellow sojourners along the road of life as people to love in all their complexities.

I also suspect very strongly that the devil had a hand to play in it all. Some people will have reached this far and decide on reading this that yep, the woman’s totally crackers. But others will know the darkness and know that spiritual forces are real and dangerous. In my past, the devil used to make himself very known to me in his taunts, but I think his best weapon is when he convinces us that it’s not actually him that’s causing the pain. I think he’s been trying the stealth approach with me over the last six years or so. Admittedly, sometimes it is very hard to discern what is your sin talking and what is the devil. But I have got better at recognizing that he is almost certainly behind destructive thought processes. Just on a whim one night when I found myself falling into a spiral of low self-esteem thoughts, I yelled out (in my head, didn’t want to wake the children who were – uncharacteristically – asleep at the time) ‘Get behind me Satan!’ I felt a stillness after a couple of minutes which made me think, aha. Another time I tried ‘in the name of Jesus Christ, clear off!’ (well actually I used a much worse word but you get the idea) to similar effect. God’s name is powerful. ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you’, I found myself musing. Never had it felt so true.

While my coming to faith a decade or more ago was sudden and glorious, this return into the fold has been gradual and without fanfare. It’s not to say I’m fine (I still need therapy, don’t we all?) but I feel like I am starting to find that contentment in times of trial and of joy that St Paul wrote about in Philippians. And my faith is deeper and more nuanced than it was. I am grateful. I recognize that my life is full of privilege, and I acknowledge that the hardships I have written about here are nothing in comparison with what people of colour and other marginalized people go through. I do not wish to pretend they are. But feeling guilty about it gets me nowhere. It is God who gives me the grace and sets me free to effect change in myself and those around me, including in dismantling the systematic oppression that I’m a part of.

This week my daughter has been attending a holiday club run by the churches in our village. It has been wonderful to witness it as a parent (we are invited to attend the last twenty minutes to see what they’ve been up to), and I have seen the very best in how Christians can work together for the gospel. Most of the children that go come from families that rarely go to church. Having done some children’s work myself in the past, I know how easy it is to get wrong, how cringeworthy it can be to sing songs about fuzzy wuzzy bears and how patronizing Christians can seem to outsiders when they do it by dancing around the issue and then whacking in a ‘God slot’ at the end. But this holiday club was anything but. It was plainly and unashamedly, yet also sensitively, Christian, and was so refreshing in its honesty about what the church holds to be true about God. Heaven only knows that our kids need this honesty in the world we’re raising them in. My two (who I love so desperately and who are such wonderful people) have come home singing along to all the songs, and today, we danced wildly together in the kitchen to this one. If someone had played me this song a year ago, I would either have wanted to vomit into a bucket, or run away in tears. But you see the thing is, when you have been mired in the darkness for such a long time, and the light bursts in, it shines brighter and longer than it ever has before. And I can now once more sing, and mean: there’s so much more to this life, our freedom is, our freedom is in Christ!

 

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