Images of Liberation and Life

Last year a photo was taken of me leading a worship service. When I saw the photo, I was mortified. My first thought was her BARE FEET! While our church is pretty "come as you are," few of our parishioners are brave enough to discard the shoes—until, in the frantic crazy of getting an infant out the door in time for worship, we celebrate if we manage the essentials for a summer day: onesie, pants, diaper. Had we known she would be photographed, we might have added shoes, but we do the best we can.

My first reaction to the photo from that day was embarrassment about the bare feet. But, as the adrenaline of Sunday morning wore off, I began to feel some serious shame. The moment was a result of frantic desperation. My head pastor was away so I was leading the service on my own, along with teaching a pre-service class and attending a post-service meeting. Usually on those days I would leave the baby with a few bottles and I would take a milk-pumping break after the sermon to relieve my breasts of their painful and symbiotic longing for my baby's hungry body. But this day there was no time for a break. And a hungry baby and full breasts in worship meant that this happened – I had to nurse her while leading worship!

As I stood in front of the congregation, we were all a little dazed by the unfamiliar moment. I stumbled over my words, distracted by the assumption that the church was reevaluating the ideal of putting women in charge.

My constant companion, Self-Doubt, had a lot of questions about my behavior that day. Why did you have to nurse in front of your parishioners? So what you are telling them is when the senior pastor is on vacation, they are left with you, someone who can’t get her act together? Why did you agree to lead worship if you can’t manage your time? A male pastor would have never been in this situation.

Life after baby has felt like an endless stream of impossible alternatives. Strip baby naked on subway platform or continue long journey home with poop all over baby’s clothing, skin, and stroller. Eat or sleep or shower. Interrupt baby’s meal (Screaming!) or lead worship while breastfeeding.

Life after baby has overwhelmed me. In fact, in the first few months, it felt less like life and more like death. I gave birth last year during the first week of Lent and made my first appearance at church with the new baby on Easter Sunday. The time in between was spent huddled in what felt like a dark, eternal tomb. My body was torn, bloodied, burning, cramping, and completely disoriented. My mind was in shock from the birth and in desperation from the sleep-deprivation. And each careful tip-toe out of my apartment with this creature, now so vulnerable on the outside of my body, was terrifying.

So I experienced Easter that year as a time of picking grave clothes off of my reanimating body and taking those first steps out of my postpartum tomb.

But even as I started to get more comfortable physically leaving my apartment, I was still terrified of being out when the baby’s hunger cry began. Breastfeeding was a choice I had made long before the birth, but I simply hadn’t thought through how I would really feel feeding my child in public.

My BFF, Self-Doubt, had her fair share of opinions. People are going to stare. Teenage boys are going to snicker. Old men are going to recoil. And “lactivists" are going to judge if you show any sign of weakness!

And then there was that liberating, progressive alternative for working mothers: the pump. I HATED this machine. I felt like my professional office was turned into a milking barn every few hours. And I always felt like more time was sucked in that milking barn than milk. (I have long had a fantasy of recreating with my pump the scene in Office Space in which a group of employees takes a printer out into a field and violently destroys it with a baseball bat.)

Needless to say, while I chose to do it, I have had a somewhat ambivalent relationship to breastfeeding and mothering generally. And it has all been inseparable from the realization I have been making since first trimester exhaustion that, no matter how much we talk about equality between men and women, there are in fact real physical differences in the experiences of men and women who produce biological children—differences that can affect their work and careers. Women who get pregnant and have children cannot avoid some of the biological impact on their career. While men have a choice in how much burden they will take on or how much time they will take off, women’s bodies are actually changed and broken and exhausted in the process of creating a baby. And that has often felt completely unfair and infuriating to me.

And then this photo was taken - Another humiliating reminder that women sometimes have to make more impossible decisions.

I shared the photo on my personal Facebook page, hoping to defeat Self-Doubt with some encouragement from a few other close friends. Some encouragement turned into an outpouring of strength and solidarity. One professor friend even asked to use it as an illustration for her sexual ethics class! For me, that image was a reminder of the shame, the isolation, the tomb of my postpartum experience. But, as affirming comments and emails poured in, I was able to see my public, breastfeeding self through the eyes of other women clamoring for images of leadership and religion that reflect the reality of the female experience. And, to my surprise, that image of embarrassment was transformed into a reminder of the rising sisterhood of mother-priests supported by empowering communities that are transforming our patriarchal shame into a celebration of the gifts of the feminine.

Transforming images of shame and isolation into images of liberation and life is the Easter work of God. The cross is one such transformed image. Today we string it around our necks, bedazzle it, accost it with stage lights, and hang it with dramatic mounting techniques. But, to understand the real meaning of the empty cross on Easter morning, we must understand that in Jesus’ time it was a symbol of oppression, fear, and shame. So the fact that the Christian community now reveres this instrument of God’s death, lifting it high, surveying its wonder, points to the true miracle—that God can always turn what is oppressive and shameful in our world into salvation.

Today when I look at that photo of me breastfeeding in front of the congregation, I do not see the shameful and oppressive burden of breastfeeding and mothering that I once felt. Instead, because of communities that have supported me and cheered me on, God has transformed that image into a reminder of the great privilege I and many other women have of nourishing our children in such intimate, healthy, and even public ways. If more communities were vocally supportive of working mothers, how many other images of women could be transformed from visual symbols of our struggle to signs of liberation and strength?

As we adorn our crosses, once a symbol of oppression, with Easter lilies and pastels this week, I find myself wondering what other struggles, injustices or shame in our lives and in our movements are about to be turned into signs of salvation and victory for ourselves and our sisters, daughters, and granddaughters!

Hallelujah! Christ is risen! (And so shall we rise!)

Rev. Vicki Flippin serves as Pastor of Social Justice, Intergenerational, and Exploring Faith Ministries at The United Methodist Church of the Village in New York City. She is passionate about LGBTQI equality, racial justice, and the future of the progressive church. Along with many years of work with Methodists in New Directions and her conference Commission on Religion and Race, Rev. Flippin was named this year Co-President of the Board of the Methodist Federation for Social Action.

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