That Time Paul Talked About Breastfeeding {Velvet Ashes}

by Elizabeth


My husband and I worked in local church ministry for over ten years before moving abroad to serve for the last five and a half. There’s something I want you to know about this life: you’re going to need a lot of fortitude for the journey. Working with people, in any time and any place, is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your home country or a host country. Working with people is heart-wrenching and soul-filling, and you need endurance.

This is something else I want you to know: in the years ahead, never hesitate to serve out of your feminine strength. A lot of teaching models are filled with masculine metaphors. There’s battle this, and army that. There’s fighting here and soldiering on there. The Bible itself is filled with battle-speak. We are to put on the full armor of God so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes. But the same Paul who told us in Ephesians 6 that our battle is not against flesh and blood and that we were to arm ourselves and stay alert and be persistent and stand firm, that very same Paul was not ashamed in his first letter to the Thessalonians to compare himself to a woman.

In I Thessalonians 2:7, Paul, Silas and Timothy jointly describe their conduct among the believers there: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (ESV). I was in a training session this summer when I first truly took hold of this verse. We had studied the great faith and love of the Thessalonian church in chapter 1, and now we were in chapter 2 studying the attributes of the men who’d told them the Good News. When we got to the verse about these three men acting like a mother, some of the men seemed to want to brush it off and focus instead on verse 11, where the letter writers compare themselves to good fathers.

But I couldn’t brush Paul’s words off. I remembered how physically demanding it was to be a nursing mother. I had to speak out: “We have this idea of a mother with her nursing baby that’s all sweetness and light. But it’s not. It’s really hard work. You have to feed yourself well, so you can feed your baby. You have to get up at all hours of the night to care for a crying child, and you have to try not to be cranky about all that lost sleep.”

As I spoke, women all around me nodded their heads in agreement, and several told me afterward how glad they were that I had said that. They had lived it, too, and they knew the challenges of mothering. You need a lot of stamina. You don’t sleep through the night for months on end. Sometimes you get painful mastitis or yeast infections. You have to keep up your water and calorie intake. To your embarrassment, you leak milk everywhere. Or you have to work hard to make enough milk. Sometimes you can’t figure out for the life of you how to make this child stop crying, but somehow you have to stay calm while you do it. On top of that, you’re basically tethered to your child because you don’t know when they’ll need to eat again. You sacrifice many things for this child, this child whom you love so tenderly and so fiercely.

Somehow this was something the apostle Paul understood. When we serve people, we have to make sure we’re getting our spiritual nourishment first, before we can pass anything of value on to them. Living and working among the continual, desperate needs of other people can physically and emotionally deplete us. And sometimes other people’s needs interrupt our planned and preferred schedules. Paul knew all this. He lived all this. At the same time, Paul felt incredible affection for the Thessalonians. Paul, Silas, and Timothy loved them so much that they shared not only the good news with them, but their own lives as well (verse 8). And they’d spent plenty of time praising them in the chapter before.

Over the past few months I have been unable to let verse 7 go. I’ve learned that in the Greek, the noun was unmistakably feminine. It was trophos: a care-giver, a person sustaining someone else by nourishing and offering the tender care of a nurse. I’ve learned that it had the connotation of mother’s care, of holding a child close, wrapped in her arms. There is familiarity here. Affection. Tenderness. The verb was thalpo: to cherish, nourish, foster, comfort, nurture, or keep warm. There is action here, decision, deliberate investment. And the phrase “her own children” (heautou teknon) indicates belonging. An inclusion. A turning towards.

All of these feminine-sounding words can illuminate our own roles, wherever God has placed us. They are not weakness. They are not unnecessary or irrelevant or dispensable. They are strength and they are resiliency and they are essential. Whether or not you’ve ever been a nursing mother, you have a yearning for relationship that can solidify your ministry, not undermine it. Whether or not you’ve ever been a nursing mother, you have an instinct to care for people sacrificially. Whether or not you’ve ever been a nursing mother, you have the capacity to lead with endurance.

Paul wasn’t ashamed of these qualities, and neither should we be. It is good and healthy to identify as a woman and serve out of our God-given identity. Of course, men can be nurturers too – just see verse 11. And women can be warriors – just see Deborah. But when I read these verses, I feel so much validation. Validation of my work and validation of my worth. All those years living and ministering as a woman, they weren’t wasted. And as someone who has had a fraught relationship with the Apostle Paul over the years, these verses are yet one more reason I can love both him and his letters, for he wasn’t afraid to lean into the feminine for the sake of the people he was serving. It is something we needn’t be afraid of either.

Originally published here; reprinted with permission.

When Baby Snuggles Make Me Grateful for Modern Medicine


by Elizabeth

Warning: This is a frank discussion of childbirth complications. Men in particular (and perhaps pregnant women) may not wish to continue reading any further. You will not find statistics here; rather, you will find my story. It is a story of immeasurable thankfulness.

My kids were extra snuggly today. (The weather is still cool enough to want to snuggle.) As I wrapped my arms around the Baby and sang to her, I remembered afresh how miraculous it is that I’m even alive and able to hold her.

When she was three weeks old, I was so weak I could barely get out of bed to go to the bathroom. The narcotics I had on hand were barely touching the abdominal pain. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I wondered if I was going to die. Not the seizure coma death type of fear I talk about so much, but a foreboding that I might not live to see my baby grow up. I wanted her to know how fiercely she was loved, and I wrote her a note to tell her so.

Later that day, emergency room doctors diagnosed me with endometritis — a uterine infection which can, they told me, spread to the bloodstream if left unchecked. I received intravenous antibiotics, spent the night in the hospital, and took heavy-duty oral antibiotics for the next week. I needed another full week of people bringing us meals and watching my older kids for my strength to return.

I wouldn’t have lived long enough to require those life-saving antibiotics if it hadn’t been for other modern obstetric interventions. I’d hemorrhaged at 10 days postpartum and required a semi-emergent D&C (dilation and curettage, my first, and so far only, surgery). Even before that, I’d hemorrhaged in the hospital an hour after her birth. It took, for all you medical people out there, two bags of Pitocin, one shot of Methergine, and another of Hemabate, alongside an already-nursing baby and that delightful practice of fundal massage, to stem the bleeding. Just as we began discussing blood transfusions, the hemorrhage finally abated.

I’m not sure I would even have been alive to have a fourth baby without those same hemorrhage-halting drugs for my second baby, whose nearly 10-pound weight stretched my uterus so far it had trouble contracting again, and whose large head tore my cervix, requiring a clamp to stop the bleeding. (I think it’s fairly obvious why my propensity to postpartum hemorrhage was a reason I didn’t want to move overseas in the first place.)

When I think about the fact that before oxytocic drugs, hemorrhage was a huge maternal killer (and still is in some parts of the world), I am thankful I didn’t die during my fourth birth or in the ensuing weeks of infection and illness. I am thankful I didn’t die during my second birth, either. Without modern medicine, I might not have lived to watch my second born walk at 11 months, or enjoy him as the laughingest baby I’d ever known. I might not have been around to watch him over and over again as he earned his “Danger Baby” nickname.

I might not have been around to watch him refuse to talk till he was three, communicating only through gestures and nods, simply because he didn’t want to talk. I wouldn’t have been around to watch his two-year old self lay on his floor every night, looking at board books with his stuffed Tigger till he was so tired he fell asleep there.

Without modern medicine, I wouldn’t be able to snuggle my Baby and sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” or her favorite Steve Green’s Hide ‘Em in Your Heart song “When I am Afraid I Will Trust in You.” I wouldn’t be able to belly-laugh at her dinnertime jokes.  I wouldn’t be around to watch her dance like a ballerina or to receive her sweet kisses.

I am profoundly grateful to the doctors, nurses, and midwife who treated my postpartum hemorrhages and infection. Because of you and the scientists who created those life-saving drugs, I can enjoy my four precious children. Because of you, I can cuddle with them on a couch in Cambodia. From my house to your hospital, I thank you.

Birth & Art {A Metaphor}

by Elizabeth

Writing is a birth, of sorts.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I decided I wanted to give birth without medication. I was in love with the idea and informed my husband. He was enamored of the idea as well, and he bought books on the Bradley method of natural childbirth for us both to read. It was in those books that we learned about the emotional signposts of labor.

First, there’s excitement: Today’s the day! I’m having this baby today!

Then, there’s seriousness: Let’s get down to the business of birthing this baby. This is hard. I’m uncomfortable. I need to concentrate. And by the way, DON’T touch me.

Finally, there’s self-doubt: I’m done! I can’t do this anymore! This emotional signpost corresponds to transition. Transition is a nice-sounding word for the most difficult part of labor and signifies that birth is coming soon.

Even though I’d studied these signposts, the books still made birth seem easy, and I was confident I could give birth naturally. I was looking forward to it, in fact. The night my water broke, however, the contractions came hard and fast. I doubted whether I could handle the rest of labor. I did indeed survive my first labor, and I gave birth to a precious baby boy that night. But his birth wasn’t without pain.

Eleven months later, I became pregnant again. This time around, I wasn’t so confident. I’d been blissfully unaware of it during my first pregnancy, but during my second, I knew labor was going to hurt. I knew how bad the labor pains could get, and I wasn’t looking forward to the actual birth process. And I was right — it did hurt. Bad. I knew that I could give birth naturally, but I dreaded the pain.


Writing is a birth of sorts, complete with all the emotional signposts.

First, there’s excitement: I have an (invariably brilliant) idea!

Then, I pitch the idea to someone, most often, my husband. It’s (usually) met with approval.

I’m still excited. Until I start typing, that is, and the words on the screen begin to look like nonsense. They don’t communicate what I want to communicate AT ALL.

That’s when I decide that my “brilliant idea” is total, complete, and utter trash.

I determine that either

          a) the idea itself is bad or

          b) I have no wordsmithing abilities whatsoever and

          c) I should just quit now.


It’s at this self-doubt signpost that I’ve learned I need to close the laptop and put it away until tomorrow — a luxury not afforded one in active labor. Then I keep returning to it, day after day. This is the serious working phase, and requires concentration. I rearrange words, and rearrange them again, deleting whole sentences and even paragraphs, until I can read them out loud with relative satisfaction. Then, I birth it. I hit Publish and launch it out into the world. My hard work is done.

I used to forget this phenomenon between writing projects. I would forget how annoyingly hard the process is. They say Labor Amnesia is the reason people have second and third and fourth and even fifth babies. The pain of labor dissipates — we forget, and are willing to try again. Well, I had Writer’s Amnesia. Each time I attempted something new, I was surprised and frustrated by the difficulty of the task.

I worked hard each time, yet when I was finished, I still had new ideas I thought I could tackle with ease. (How very naïve.) But this same plotline has unfolded so many times now that I’ve come to accept it as part of the writing process. And I keep coming back to the craft because something inside me tells me there is more to be said, more to be written, more to be done.

Writing — and all art — is messy. It’s hard work, and it sometimes hurts. You might not know this ahead of time. The pain and heartache might take you by surprise, might sideswipe you. That is, until you’ve given birth to enough pieces that you can look back and see the pattern in your labors. Now, you know it will hurt. Now, you know the process is long and drawn-out. Now, you know you might regret your “brilliant” idea, and be tempted to give up. But by now, you’ll also know that you can’t give up, even when faced with the self-doubt signpost. Because something inside you propels you forward.

For the artist, for the creative person, conception of an idea is exciting. The gestation, however, is decidedly not. Your idea often grows much heavier than you expected it would. You reach the same emotional signposts each time you labor over an idea. But the beauty of it? Another day, you can birth another idea. And on a day after that, you can birth another idea. The emotions stay the same, but the ideas change. They are new. They are fresh.

They are invitations to create.

The First Two Years Were Good (Or, How Missionary Life is Like Birth)

-by Elizabeth

I’ll board a jet plane to go back to America soon, for the first time since January 2012. Over the past twenty-two months that I’ve lived in Cambodia, I’ve filled this blog with ups and downs (or, “yays and yucks,” if you prefer). But as I’ve prepared to return “home,” I’ve asked myself, what is my overall analysis of those ups and downs? In the end, which wins out? The good, or the bad?

So I listed all the positive and negative things from my life in Cambodia and compared them. What I found in that list was that, in the final evaluation of this term, the good things won out. And here’s why:

Continue reading

Giving Birth Across Cultures

Those of you who have spent any amount of time talking to me know that I love birth.  I’ve read and re-read scores of books on natural childbirth, and with the help of my dear husband, have experienced 4.  So I know all about birth.  In America.  I am very much a baby regarding Cambodian-style birth.  I’ve learned a few things about it so far – from our neighbors, from my mother-in-law, and from my teammate Casey.

During language training I learned that the same word construction for giving birth is used for catching a disease. I had to laugh because in my doula training in America we hear over and over again that pregnancy is not a disease. I don’t know yet if this peculiar naming practice indicates anything about the culture’s beliefs regarding health and wellness in childbearing.

I see a lot of malnutrition here.  At our first wedding I noticed a member of the couple’s family who had no teeth and a fairly large goiter (from lack of iodine). I see children whose naturally dark hair has turned red or blonde, a sign of the protein deficiency of kwashiorkor.  There are children whose limbs have wasted away and whose tummies are swollen from marasmus, which is deficiency of both calories and protein. People’s teeth are black or missing. We don’t see this kind of major malnutrition in America.  Most of us enjoy a great deal of good health.

But a mom’s health affects the health of her baby, and breastfeeding, which should be the best form of nutrition for babies, is not extremely common.  Even moms who nurse their babies sometimes feed formula the first few days, depriving their babies of the immune-boosting benefits of colostrum.  Some claim that moms don’t produce enough milk as a result of their malnutrition.  Formula is affordable by the middle class, but not by the poor.  Instead poor moms feed their babies watered-down sweetened condensed milk.

You would think in a developing nation women have no access to pain relief in childbirth.  And if you’re thinking pain relief = the epidural, then you’d be right.  But here it’s shameful to show pain, so women are heavily drugged with narcotics during labor. One woman I met was told she wasn’t pushing well during labor, presumably because of narcotics, according to my teammate.  (To all my doula readers:  This is where the rope or towel pull would come in handy over here.)  Husbands aren’t present at birth so it’s a purely feminine affair.

After birth mom and baby are wrapped tightly to keep warm and prevent aging. Mom especially isn’t allowed to get cold the first 3 months, so she must wear long sleeves.  The downside to this practice is that there is no skin to skin contact between mom and baby, which improves the health of both in early postpartum.  For those first 3 months, though, mom isn’t allowed to do any work – not even climb stairs.  She really and truly rests from the work of pregnancy and childbirth. Dad does the work.

I love the way life here is communal. Everyone lives in community, and the moms are no different.  Some moms go to the countryside to be with their family of origin during the postpartum. This admittedly inhibits initial daddy-baby bonding, but it illustrates the network of helpers available for mom and baby.  We don’t have this same community safety net for independent American women.  In fact, trying to explain to my language tutor what a doula does was quite difficult.  It wasn’t just a language barrier; it was a culture barrier.

Indeed, I came to Cambodia with a core set of values, from a culture I considered to be “normal, natural, right and good.”  But I don’t live in that culture anymore.  I live in a new one.  May this be my prayer:  Father, grant me the grace to see the people in this culture as eternal souls created in Your image.  Let me not judge them as “abnormal, unnatural, wrong, and bad.”  Let me see their culture from their point of view and not my own.  Let me see the good in their culture and remember not to dismiss it with the bad. And let me never see any person as unredeemable.