Stay-at-Home Clergy Mom

On Christmas Eve, my daughter raced back and forth from table to pew, pew to table and back again, to ask for more Jesus. That’s what she called it with both fistfuls full of leavened grace as her little hands signed “more” over and over again. I was so grateful to our pastor, a mother of three, for her patience and her clear understanding that there are always second and third helpings at this table.

I had presided at that table same table while pregnant with her little sister but my daughter wasn’t there to see that. She was in the nursery “doing church.”  It wasn’t until three months into the pandemic that my little girl saw me in a collar presiding over a tortilla and a chalice of water before my computer screen. It was the first time she heard me say, to her or anyone, “This is the bread of life broken for you.”  

I wonder if either of my girls will ever hear me say those words regularly in congregational worship.  

Sometimes I fear they won’t.  

I left my last settled call before they were born, before my husband and I were even married and grew into a family of four. We have packed up our home and gone where the Army sent us. He has been promoted and received awards while I have stayed home raising my sweet girls. After he retires, it will be my turn. That was always the deal.

I will search for a new call and return to ministry. I will return but I will not be the same minister that I was when I was single.

Over ten years ago, as a newly ordained woman, I heard myself tell a church member that I didn’t feel called to motherhood. Her mouth fell open in complete shock. It might not be the thing that you want to hear from the Associate Pastor responsible for all the children and youth programs. That wasn’t what she said though. She didn’t comment on my vocation but only sputtered, “But you’re so good with children.”

“Thank you,” I said. It was an inadequate response. I don’t know if I ever got the chance to explain that I didn’t feel called to the only parent. As much as I loved children, I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. If I was going to have children, I wanted a partner. I needed someone with whom to share that journey and he had not yet materialized.

Nor did I explain in coffee hour that day that only a few months before I had been grilled in a church basement by a clergy man on the Church and Ministry Committee in the United Church of Christ about how I could have possibly been a wife, a mother and a minister in a answering a call to only one of those vocations at that time.

I didn’t know then that I would one day have to choose between those options. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with a man that would have a career that would not follow mine.

My ordination vows feel dusty and buried in one of the boxes tucked into the garage that we haven’t unpacked in the past three moves. We moved in the beginning of the pandemic. We expect another move in two years and it takes nearly that long to complete a search process. So I wait and wonder when I will embody both of these identities, both mother and pastor.

I wonder how the churches that might consider me to be the next pastor will view the five or seven or eight year gap on my resume. I don’t know if they will find any value in the gifts and strengths from this precious time where I’ve focused on my family anymore than I know how different the church might look after we emerge from the other side of this pandemic.

I wonder if they will think that there is no earthly way that I could understand the challenges that face the church when I haven’t been in full time ministry all these years, however many it may end up being.

I wonder about all of the ways that I fall short of my vocational dreams while I do my damndest to be the best mom I can be to these two tiny wonders God gave me.

This post is part of the book launch blog tour for Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God. Embodied includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to instigate conversations that lead to support and new perspectives. The book is available this September from Bookshop.org, Amazon, or Cokesbury

To find other stories of clergy mothers, including sixteen different women from seven faith traditions, please explore the author’s blog. You can find the internet home of Lee Ann M. Pomrenke’s writings here. The particular links to this blog tour can be found in this post.

Small Pandemic Joys

It has been so long that this pandemic has gone on.

I have lost count. I no longer care to count.

I have yelled at my kids. I have been short. I have been unkind solely because I have been so isolated. My family is great. Yeah for family but I really miss people. And so, I’m trying to remind myself of small joys. I am terrible at this spiritual practice. I know Diana Butler Bass says its a good idea. It’s healthy. It builds good things but I resist. Instead, my gratitude practice more boldly extends to conspiring with the United States Postal Service. I shared a recipe for that years ago here.

And yet, bizarrely, I find myself whispering prayers of gratitude in these strange days where my frustration feels off the charts. Beyond the obvious things (family, a roof over our heads, food in our bellies… that stuff), I feel compelled to share my growing gratitude list. It’s my own tiny reminder that small things are everything.

  • My fifteen month old baby has started kissing so that any time she goes upstairs she makes this little guppy noise to say good night. It’s not always bed time when we go upstairs but it makes me laugh every time.
  • Walks around our neighborhood where my nearly three year old daughter and I each squeal with delight at the bright colored flowers. (We live in Texas. It’s still hot here and even in the desert, there are plenty of flowers.) We are slowly learning the names of these new plants and each time I point and name a plant, I hear the distant echo of my grandmother doing the same thing over my shoulder.
  • While my children are too tiny for homeschool and we still don’t have many screens in our lives, I’ve definitely noticed my phone is in my palm A LOT. One of the ways I’m trying to separate from screens is to turn off all screens 30 minutes before bedtime and read an actual paper book. My husband wakes up so freaking early that I invested in a reading light that I adore. Right now, this is a great joy.
  • Writing prayers and hearing that these prayers are actually helpful when I know that so many pastors are on the brink of giving up their vocations out of sheer exhaustion.
  • Online church. I know I might be in the minority on this one but we moved to a new place two months ago and I still get to see and be cared for by the church community that has been the only church my kids have ever known.
  • Before it was a yeast shortage this spring, I had decided that this would be the year I learned to bake bread. I’m really grateful for my friend Meghan for buying me the book and and cheering on all of my bakes by text.
  • Teeny tiny adventures outside the house. We went to White Sands National Park last weekend which is only 90 minutes from our house and it was magical to be outside playing with our kids. I am also really keen on the fact that my nearly three year old has learned the word adventure and wants to know when the next one will be.

It’s not a long list but it’s a reminder that there is joy. There is always joy.

I pray there is joy for you too.

Thirty Three Years Later

Last night, my baby girl couldn’t sleep.

It has been many months since she was up every two hours but last night she returned to this familiar routine. She wasn’t always hungry.

It seemed that she just wanted to know I was there. It had only been a dream. It was only some trick of the mind, something that happens when we close our eyes. Fears jolt us awake. Terror takes hold but it was only a bump in the night.

It was only a dream. It wasn’t real.

Once she was cradled in my arms again, her little body would release those fears. She would grow heavy in that comfort that can only come from Mom.

It is, of course, not true. That was what I was telling myself every time I picked her up. Every time I gently patted her back and bounced her in my arms, I tried to convince myself that this isn’t something that only comes from a mother. It can come from a father. Or grandparent. It comes with love.

It comes with presence. It comes when that child knows that this is the person who is there. This is the person who will always be there. This is her scent. That is her voice.

I don’t remember these things about my mother. She was there when I was little. She was always there but when I was nearly six years older than my sweet baby girl, she died. I have no memory of her scent. I swore I’d remember the sound of her voice. I told myself I couldn’t but I did. It happened faster than I would have ever thought possible, but of course, I was only seven when she died so I didn’t really know what was possible. I thought I knew. I knew more than the adults thought I did but after thirty-three years of feeling this grief, I didn’t know. I couldn’t.

It is the anniversary of her death today. It has been thirty-three years since that day. It seems impossible but it also seems impossible that that same little girl who didn’t sleep last night and didn’t nap much today was determined to crawl across the floor this afternoon. It seems just as impossible that my toddler cleaned up all her toys tonight with only one tiny bit of encouragement. It’s impossible that they will never know their grandmother and I will never quite know how to explain it to them.

When they’re finally old enough to understand that Mommy can have a Mommy, I’ll try.  I’ll try to tell them about the love that I know shushed and patted and cradled me. I’ll do my best but until then I’m going to be amazed by this thing that happens over and over again with my kids. There is so much love around them but it is my embrace they want.

I’d awake with the same fear. I was older but it would shake me from slumber just the same. It was the same except that she was never there. She had died. She was dead. She was never coming back. It wasn’t just a dream. It was real.

It is still real, so real that I don’t know how to respond when my darling girls seek my comfort. I wonder if I should assure them of how much love surrounds them. It’s not just me that loves them. There are so many others but then it doesn’t feel right to push them away. I still crave that comfort, that comfort that only my mother can provide.

That has never gone away.

I don’t know if it ever will.

Fear, Love and Another Supreme Court Decision

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 vote to uphold the ban on transgender service members fulfilling their call to service in the United States military. It was said by one woman just four years short of retirement in the Navy that this decision “speaks volumes about where we are as a country.”

This brave woman is right to point out that the biases of a few are having a huge impact on an entire community, but I am not sure that it speaks volumes.

I don’t want to that fear to trump everything, because I believe there is a voice we cannot quite hear yet.

I believe that there is a louder voice in the next generation, those that are not yet old enough to serve as justices on the Supreme Court. Maybe they’re not that loud yet because they aren’t even old enough to vote, but I have faith that these children will lead us. These are the kids who grew up only knowing a black president. These are the kids that don’t remember anything before legal marriage for all people. Maybe they remember the Supreme Court decision. Maybe. Or maybe it has just been a fact of their lives.

The Pew Research Center reported last week that these kids make up “the most racially and ethnically diverse generation” we have ever seen in this country. They haven’t had to learn gender-neutral pronouns. They haven’t stumbled over their words like I have because they’ve grown up with this vocabulary. It is said that this young generation, called Generation Z, is more liberal and more inclusive than their elders have ever been.

My daughter is too young to be a part of this young generation. She is only 15 months old and so she fits with some evolving generation that doesn’t yet have a name. I don’t know what new things will be normal for her, but the statistics seem to hint that my little girl will only be more liberal. Generation Z is already 10% more confident with gender pronouns than Millennials. They are 3% more determined than Millennials in their certainty that our society is not accepting enough and their 6% more determined that the government needs to do more to solve problems for individuals and businesses.

I don’t know who my little girl will grow up to be. I don’t know if her fascination with shoes and beaded necklaces is just a phase that will lead to something else, some new identity where gender is much more fluid. I know I will struggle because I am part of my generation, but I’m excited about what she will teach me.

I’m eager to see how she challenges her old liberal mother. I hope she makes me squirm. I hope she pushes all my political buttons. I hope she teaches me more about love than I know now, not just because she’s my kid and my heart has grown in loving her. But, I hope that she thinks it’s silly that her Mommy ever had to fight for marriage equality. I wonder what she’ll think of the story I’ll one day tell her about officiating my first transgender wedding as much as I wonder if she’ll feel called to serve in the military like her Daddy.

Watching her play on the floor yesterday with her wooden pots and pans, mixing up air with her play spatula, she’s already cooking up trouble. I couldn’t help but smile and think “it’s gonna be OK.” There is a temptation to despair. There’s a tendency among us old(er) liberals to think that the prejudices of a very small few will ruin everything, but I’m not going to fall into that fear.

As it says in those words that we once carried through the streets in the name of marriage equality, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4:.18, NRSV). I’m gonna strive for that perfection, that perfection that my daughter will one day teach me with a gigantic roll of her eyes. Fear doesn’t motivate or inspire, but love always does.

I won’t be paralyzed by the feeling that there’s nothing I can do to reverse a Supreme Court decision. I’m not going to nervously analyze statistics across the generations, but I’m gonna figure out how I can raise my daughter and my family in the love that we believe should exist in our nation and especially in our military.

I hope that that love is the loudest.

What I’ll Tell My Daughter About Why I Didn’t March

I didn’t march yesterday. Our government shut down and I stayed home in my pajamas merely contemplating the state of the world rather than taking to the streets.

There wasn’t actually a march in my area this year. There may have been one last year but I lived elsewhere then. I wasn’t even in that place last year. I was in California studying at San Francisco Theological Seminary toward my certificate in spiritual direction. I was near a march but I decided not to go mostly because I would have been going alone. I didn’t know others that were going. Though I knew strangers would have become friends in the midst of the protest, the logistics of it overwhelmed me and instead I went to the beach and prayed.

Yesterday I could have attended an Impeachment Rally or I could have joined in the Handmaids Procession to demonstrate my conviction that Roe v. Wade should be upheld, but instead I was home.

Instead, I put another load of cloth diapers in the washer, breastfed my tiny human even after she’d stopped feeding 30 minutes ago (it seems she’s in a growth spurt) and contemplated whether or not yesterday would be a day I would shower. Or not. (It was not such a day as it turns out.)

There was once a time where I saw myself as an activist. There is still part of me that wishes that I could be a better activist. I’ve wished that I could have been the kind of pastor that was incremental in transformative change by showing up in picket lines, singing from loud speakers and locking myself in congresswomen’s offices but I found that I didn’t do these things often. Not because opportunity didn’t present itself. It did, but I found myself making other choices. I found that the heart of my ministry wasn’t on the front lines of justice but it was in the messiness of loving people. I chose the bedside over the march almost every time so maybe it’s not surprising that I’m not marching today. Maybe it shouldn’t be a big deal and yet I have to wonder what I will tell my daughter.

When she learns about the inauguration of the 45th president, will she ask me if I joined in the marches in every city? Will she scan my tweets from ten or fifteen or twenty years ago looking for whether or not I added my voice to #metoo or #blacklivesmatter? Will she then challenge me to why I didn’t do more?

That’s what gives me pause because I could do more. I should do more. I want do to more even in this season where I choose a different kind of bedside. This is what I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain to my daughter in ten or fifteen or twenty years because I’m not quite sure I can explain it to myself.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to march alone last year, but that I was ambivalent about the founding of this particular protest. I was then and remain today concerned that we don’t know how to talk about the value of one person without talking about the value of all people. We can’t just talk about women and their created worth without confessing the sins that women can and do commit against each other. I’ve made my own excuses about this, and I’m trying hard to do better. So I didn’t feel totally comfortable aligning myself with a group of white women when I knew there were lives that were going to be more horrifically impacted by this particular administration.

How will I explain this to my daughter? Will I tell her that each time I fed her at my breast, I scrolled through the headlines on my phone to see one more deportation? How will I explain to her how it felt to see that another black child shot? Will I even remember their names when she asks me why I didn’t march?

How will I explain my resistance when it feels like every bit of radical feminism I once had has been overcome by piles of laundry and petty arguments with my husband about who will do the dishes in the sink? I hope that I don’t remember this absurdity in ten or fifteen or twenty years.

I hope I remember instead that I did use my words. I didn’t have a pulpit when she was very small. I wasn’t leading the chants as I once did. No one handed me a loud speaker, but I chose this particular bedside by her crib. I read her stories. I sang with her. I gave her the tools that she would need to persist. It’s what I did as a pastor too. It’s what my ministry turned out to be I wasn’t always on the front lines, but I did everything I could to help others be there. I’d read those names in worship. We’d confess our sins. We’d recommit to doing better.

I may not be on the front lines of this fight but I still believe we can do better. I know we can. I’m raising a little girl in the certainty of this faith. It’s not the path that I thought I’d take. I’m not the activist I once believed I could be, but I will raise her in the resistance. I will raise her to fight the good fight.

Waves of Grief after Waves of Nausea

Grief is my constant companion. It is there every day and every moment even when there is a smile plastered to my face. Sometimes I choose not to acknowledge it. I don’t want it to dominate and there are still other times when it rides along in the sidecar of my whole existence.

For the first three months of my pregnancy, it stayed there. It didn’t hop into the driver seat but stayed somewhere in the background. I noticed it only enough to order a copy of Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, but then the swell of nausea would hit and I would speed down the hall praying that I’d make it to the toilet this time. Waves of nausea is too gentle for what I had been feeling those first few weeks of my pregnancy. I felt sick. I felt so sick that I can’t even consider an apt metaphor.

I could barely pull myself off the couch. I binged on television and hid behind my hands every time food appeared on the screen. The odor of that food would waft through the television screen and my stomach would turn. Back down the hall to the bathroom I would race muttering prayers of disgust.

When I finally started to feel better, it was Mother’s Day and the New York Times published this popular essay on The Birth of a Mother. It was posted and retweeted though all of my friends and family at the same time that I got a sweet text message from my sister wishing me a happy mother’s day for the very first time. It is no secret that I have complicated feelings about this observance. I’ve blogged about it in the past. So it may come to you as no surprise that I couldn’t bring myself to read this poignant essay. It remained an open tab on my browser for weeks, but I never read a word.

I never read a word until today.

I read only the first paragraph before the swells of grief rose in my chest. Tears began to roll down my cheeks not because of the overflow of hormones in my body, but for the fact that I am still a motherless daughter and so as careful as Alexandra Sacks is to include the wide variety of emotions that pregnant women experience, she still left me out. My family dynamics changed long ago when my mother died. Ever since, I have been creating my own style. I’ve borrowed from lots of amazing women — including my beloved stepmother — in parenting myself so that I still quite imagine what will emerge when I first hold my daughter in my arms.

Ambivalence is not the right word for me. Ambivalence doesn’t even describe the years before I met my husband when I knew that I couldn’t be a single parent. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. I didn’t want to raise a child with all of my grief leading the way, but I hoped that there would be someone else to ride that wave with me. I didn’t want to be a parent if it wasn’t a partnership.

Is that my own version of guilt and shame? I don’t know. I do know that when I met my husband and first watched him interact with the little girl who would become my godchild, something inside me shifted. It changed. I could see something that I hadn’t let myself see before. Parenting no longer seemed impossible, at least not with this man by my side.

This is something we talk a lot about these days. It might be the sappy talk that every couple has in the midst of a pregnancy but every time it comes up, it feels revelatory. He chose me to be his partner because he saw that I’d be a great mom. There were other reasons, I’m sure, though those aren’t highlighted quite as often as this particular fact. And even though I tell him the exact same thing, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mother I will be.

My mother did not work. She put all of those moms that worry about being good enough on edge. In my memory, if not in real life, it was what she wanted most. She wanted to be a mom. She relished in every bit of it. I don’t know if I will be like her though I’ll probably spend a lot of time wondering what she would do. Let’s be honest, I’m already doing that because that it is how it is with grief.

Grief raises questions. It makes me wonder about things that I can never know no matter how many times I ask those that knew her. What is left is just a hole where there was once a person. She is gone and all of that wisdom that I might have once gleaned from her is now gone. It is lost. It will never be retrieved and so many of my questions will go unanswered. I’ll never really know if what I’m remembering is a fantasy or some complicated illusion I created to survive her loss. Those that knew her will tell me, but it will always be what they saw or what they wanted to believe. I’ll never really know how she would have chosen to define herself as a mother or as a woman.

It’s these questions that rise from the depths — once again — as I wonder about the kind of mother I will become. I can only hope that my children know how much I love them, for this is what I’ll never forget about my own mother.