Married with a newborn: Part I
David and I had our first conflict as parents when Tov was about 10 days old.
We thought we were ready for conflict. While I was pregnant with Tov, we heard a lot of advice and warnings from other parents: You’re going to be exhausted and frazzled. You’re going to lose your temper with your spouse. You’re going to resent him/her. You’re going to argue. So over-communicate, prioritize your spouse, go on date nights.
David and I talked about this before Tov was born. Let’s always have grace with each other, we promised: We’re going to help one another. We’re going to communicate. It’s all about teamwork. We got this, partner!
I wish life works out exactly as our promises. I wish I have more grace than my best intentions. But even if I’m the most even-tempered, sweetest person in the world, I still won’t have enough grace during those unexpected, out-of-control, aggravating, I-hit-my-limit moments that unleash the worst parts of me.
No, the grace manufactured out of my own willpower is never enough. I need the pure, limitless, naturally-flowing grace from a source who’s perfect, someone who has so much abundant grace that He willingly sacrificed Himself for sinners who rejected Him. I need Jesus.
If you’re a long-time Christian, how familiar does that sound? I knew that. I know that. This is basic Gospel 101 that my parents and church have hammered into me since I was a young girl. And yet…why, during the times when I need this gospel truth most, why does it suddenly seem so unnatural, foreign, and irrelevant?
It was dinner time. David and I were having takeout for dinner: pad see ew and green curry. David, as always, needed something sweet to finish off the meal, and he remembered there was a half-eaten Milk Bar corn cookie in the fridge. The cookie was tucked way back in the fridge, so he had to wiggle his arm in…and in the process, knocked over the plastic bottle filled with breastmilk. The bottle tumbled onto the floor, hitting at just such an angle that the lid popped off, splashing its content across the kitchen.
“Argh, damn it!” David exclaimed.
“What is it?” I asked. I was still finishing my curry and hadn’t seen what had happened.
“I spilled your milk,” David said, sighing and ripping out some kitchen paper towels to wipe up the mess.
“WHAT!” I shouted. “All of it?”
And then I lost it. “I HATE YOU!” I screamed.
David stared at me. “You hate me? Excuse me?”
We stared at each other for a couple seconds.
He wrung his hands. “I’m trying!”
For some reason, that irritated me even more. I felt like David was making the spilled milk all about him, and by then I was sick of hearing him talk about how exhausted he is. What about me? I’m the one who gave birth! So I silently watched David clean up the mess in burning-cold silence, my rage frothing. Then I said, my tone prickly with irritation, “Why couldn’t you have been more careful?”
David didn’t say anything, but he made a motion of pulling his hair in frustration, which further pissed me off.
I should explain myself. Often, men accuse women of flying off the handle for no reason. But such an incident never happens in isolation. That milk David spilled? It was only about 2 measly ounces– but it was 2 ounces that I had spent the past 16 hours collecting. That included an hour’s session of power pumping at a godawful time in the morning until my nipples were swollen and sore, only to collect a thumb’s worth of measly milk. Each nursing and pumping session was discouraging and defeating. Meanwhile, we were in the midst of a terrible formula shortage, and Tov was still below his birth weight.
So I was worried about Tov’s lack of weight gain, frustrated about my slow milk supply, incredibly tired from lack of sleep, and somewhat resentful of my sudden downfall from a free, independent woman to a walking, bleeding cow– all udders and leaking fluids and foggy brain, my days and nights filled with nothing but the mundane, mind-numbing tasks of keeping a newborn child alive. I missed my freedom, just the taken-for-granted joy of being able to brew a cup of coffee and drink it hot without being interrupted by a crying baby. I missed the freedom of reading late into the night and going to bed whenever I want, the basic freedom of functioning as an independent, well-rested, well-fed human being.
Then I looked at my husband, and his life didn’t seem to have changed that much. He’s still working; he took only two days off while I was at the hospital. He’s still going on two walks a day. He’s still working out every morning. He still eats three meals and three snacks a day, and is able to sleep through the night. In my mind, my husband got to keep his routine, while mine has been shredded like confetti. And before I realized it, resentment coiled around my heart.
So that 2 ounces of milk? I wasn’t crying over spilled milk. I was mad because I knew how much toil and loss went behind collecting that milk, which my husband spilled while reaching for a damn corn cookie– and he shrugged. And in that instant, I reached for the worst interpretation of that shrug: It wasn’t so much that I didn’t think he cared about the work I’ve put in– I decided he just didn’t even care to know about it. I was suddenly struck with an indignation that he never once asked, “And how are you doing?” So at that moment, the first sentence that shot out of my mouth was an explosive “I hate you.”
Did I really hate him? No. But in the thick of the moment, with so many unprocessed thoughts and emotions swirling through my mind, the first gush out was like projectile vomit– a chunky, sour, undigested mess. I just wanted to say something that slapped my husband in the face, something shocking and sticky and rude, to make him notice me.
You can tell there’s a conflict in our house not by loud volumes, but silence. We did not speak much for the rest of the night. David ate his cookie and went on his long evening walk. I fed Tov and changed his diaper. When David returned, I silently handed Tov to him and retreated into the dark corner of our bedroom. The next morning, things returned to “normal.” We didn’t talk about what happened the previous night. I didn’t explain why I reacted the way I did, and David didn’t tell me how my outburst made him feel. I watched Tov all day. David worked all day.
Having a newborn child changes your marriage. Because of the baby’s sleep pattern, we were no longer sharing the same bed. At times, I felt like we were more roommates than married couple. Nothing was really “wrong” with our marriage– but I could feel the first tugs of strain. I was easily irritated and short with my husband, especially when I felt my expectations and needs were not being met, yet I couldn’t and didn’t articulate what those needs are, because everything was just so new and unfamiliar.
Grief also changes marriage. David lost a mother. I lost a mother-in-law. That’s not even remotely the same grief. Life remains relatively the same for me, and other events– starting a new job, the birth of my son– took precedence. But for David, his life had cracked apart, and he was still holding onto those shattered pieces, unsure of what to do with them, cutting himself every time he tries to glue them back together. For him, every event– especially the birth of his son– reminds him of his mother. For example, Mother’s Day– my first Mother’s Day as a mother, his first Mother’s Day without his mother– made him sad, so we didn’t even acknowledge it.
Grief is a lonely road– nobody really understands this grief of losing a mother until they experience it themselves. People swarm around the grieving person for a week after the tragedy with casseroles and prayers and flowers, but one week, two week, one month later, everybody moves on with their busy lives, whereas the grieving one observes life through frosted glass. But as a wife, I too sometimes felt lonely. We were experiencing the greatest experience of our life as new parents together, but I couldn’t quite feel the togetherness in it, because while I wanted to cry tears of pure joy, David cried tears of loss, and my selfish, tired heart wanted a respite from all those heavy emotions, a break from nursing both a newborn baby and a husband’s broken heart.
At first, I felt guilty for feeling and thinking that way. I should be more understanding, more empathetic, more self-giving, I preached to myself. But then a voice interjected, “But why? You’ve done enough! Isn’t marriage a two-way covenant? What about your needs? Shouldn’t your needs be met, too? Who takes care of you?” So I cast the guilt aside, and instead took on the cross of a justified martyr. I swung between guilt and self-justification. Neither felt nice, but both felt right.
It was reasonable and natural to feel the way I did. I was “right” that a wife needs care, attention, and appreciation from her husband. I was also “right” to recognize that during some seasons, one partner might need more tender care than the other, and this was a season for me to practice self-sacrifice and selflessness. Everything I felt and thought were logical, understandable. But the problem was, it was too logical. My mind was a courtroom, and I was the defendant, the attorney, the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury. There is no room for grace in the courtroom.
I accused my husband of making things all about him. But I too made it all about me– and that much focus on self does not leave room for the Spirit to grow fruits– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control– all the qualities I desperately need for a thriving marriage.
I needed grace. I needed the gospel, a gospel not just stuck in my head as concepts but living and breathing truths in my daily life.
Continued in Part II…
Grandparents come to visit
My parents flew from Virginia to Los Angeles to meet Tov in late May.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m an extremely independent person. I think I wear my independence like an envelope– it’s how I present and package myself. I like being independent, and I like being known as independent. So I assumed a lot of things about what postpartum will be like for me– I assumed I wouldn’t want any visitors at the hospital, no visitors at home, no advice or gifts or meals, just everyone, please leave me alone to figure this parenting thing out on my own. That included my parents: I assumed I wouldn’t really need them that much.
I assumed wrong. The day we got discharged, as a hospital escort wheeled me out to the parking lot, she exclaimed, “You guys just seem so chill! Most of the other parents I’ve escorted always look so terrified and anxious. But you guys don’t look anxious at all!”
That wasn’t true. There were plenty to be anxious about; we just didn’t show it, because everything had happened so fast, so soon, that we were suffering from whiplash and had no mental space to even feel anxiety. Right before we were discharged, the pediatrician told us Tov showed concerningly elevated levels of jaundice, and recommended we take him to the ER the next morning for another blood test. That day, Tov was so drugged out from his circumcision that he could barely sip 10 ml of milk, even though it had been more than four hours since his last feeding, and the lactation consultant had told me he really should be drinking at least 40 ml every two to three hours. The kid was so tiny at less than 5 lbs, fresh out of the NICU, looking a little orangey-yellow in the face, and he was coming home alone with clueless parents who didn’t even know how to buckle him into the car seat, how to burp or swaddle him. I wanted to borrow a couple nurses and take them home with me, because I had questions about questions I didn’t know. When we got home and parked the car in the garage, David and I looked at Tov and then at each other: OK. What now?
That was when I really, really wanted my abba and omma. It wasn’t even about asking them for help with the baby. I just wanted their presence, to feel safe and secure at a time when I suddenly had to provide safety and security to a fragile child of my own.
My parents arrived late at night on a Monday, while Tov was sleeping soundly. David picked them up at the airport and brought them home to meet Tov. Concerned about bringing germs and viruses, parents had said they would keep their N-95 masks on and just look at the baby in the crib. But once they saw Tov sleeping, at times puckering his lips and wrinkling his little forehead, they simply couldn’t help themselves– they gasped; they laughed in wonder; their hands naturally reached out to stroke his cheeks, his hair, his little bundled body.
And I didn’t care at all. I wanted them to touch my son, to embrace and kiss him, because I wanted Tov to receive all the love I’ve always received from my parents from birth till now. Because Tov needs his grandparents’ love. And because a mother also needs her mother.
The next morning, my parents came to our house with three huge boxes full of ingredients they had bought from the Korean market. They bought so much stuff that my fridge could barely stay shut.
Only parents would eagerly fly across the country to physically labor in their grown-up children’s house. I may be almost 35, but in my parents’ eyes, I need as much care and nurturing as Tov. As soon as they walked into the house, my mother was already tying an apron around her waist. Every day, all day she pottered around the kitchen, soaking and stir-frying seaweed for seaweed soup, marinating sesame seed leaves and cucumbers for kimchi, brewing dates for date tea, stewing pork ribs with spices for bak kut teh– all “warm” foods that’s supposed to help me recover postpartum. My father helped mince onions and garlic, vacuumed the whole house, watered and pruned all the plants in the house. Every evening before dinner, he prepared a devotion and prayed earnestly for 15 minutes while the food my mother prepared turned cold.
My parents came to our home with hearts full of love and arms full of blessings. And yes, they also came with fistfuls of unsolicited advice. Like all Asian parents, they were obsessed with avoiding anything cold.
“Aigo! Aren’t your feet cold?” omma exclaimed when she saw my bare feet.
“I just showered and didn’t have time to put on socks,” I said.
“Aigo!” abba exclaimed when he saw my feet: “You should put on some socks!”
“I will, soon!”
A few minutes later, omma: “Ommoh, it’s so chilly in this house! Hurry. Better put on some socks!” (It was 72 degrees inside.)
A minute later, abba: “Are you going to put on socks?”
Me: “Oh my God! I already said I will!”
This obsession with keeping the body warm went on the entire time they were with us. Just as they worried about my cold feet, they worried about Tov being cold. They closed the window when we opened it. They closed it again when we opened it again. Any time there was a slight breeze wafting into the house, they slammed the windows shut. They insisted on wrapping Tov in a blanket, even though we told them he easily overheats. They snuck an extra blanket over him when we weren’t looking. They exclaimed, “Aigo, I think he’s cold!” every time Tov sneezed, or grunted, or wailed, or fidgeted. My mother herself wore two layers of pants and woolly socks all day. And they both completely freaked out when they found out we fed Tov breastmilk straight from the fridge.
“Shocking!” abba muttered, wrapping his arms extra-tight around his grandson as though to protect him from any future cold beverages: “Unthinkable! We could never imagine ever feeding a baby cold milk!”
I expected all this to happen. I expected myself to get annoyed, and I did. Yet I also enjoyed every moment with them, because even their unsolicited advice and nagging were, in a way, loud proclamations of their love.
Abba left earlier on Saturday to preach on Sunday, while omma stayed an extra week with us. Every single day, any time he could, abba held Tov in his arms. When Tov made a noise in his crib, abba would zoom right over and scoop him up. He’d plop Tov (bundled in extra blankets, of course) on his round belly and just stare at him for hours while munching on glutinous corn on a chopstick, praying silently, or sometimes dozing off himself. Tov never napped as well as he did in his grandpa’s arms. He just melted right into his grandpa’s warm embrace, sleeping without stirring for three hours.
My omma, too, loved watching Tov. When the boy was especially fussy during the evenings, omma would prop him on her lap and sing to him– fun, silly Korean lullabies about fat papa bears and playful mountain rabbits, and the classic “Jesus loves me” hymn. Sometimes, she sang her own prayers for Tov in Korean and Mandarin to the tune of “Jesus loves me.” As she sang, “God, raise this child to be like his name, that he would enjoy your tov, and be tov and blessing to all!” Tov stopped fussing and just stared at his grandma with wide, bright eyes.
Oh, how full my heart was during those moments! Tov felt like the biggest gift I could give my parents– the joy of holding and loving the child of their child, the fresh marvel and joy of being grandparents. How powerful is this parental love, that it keeps flowing down from generation to generation without losing its purity and radiance. I want Tov to soak up all his grandparents’ love, all the way to his marrows. I want my parents’ prayers for Tov to move the hearts of every angel in heaven to keep and protect him from evil and brokenness. I want Tov to remember the scent and warmth from his grandparents, even if he won’t yet remember their faces and snuggles and coos. Few other things warm a mother’s heart like seeing her child be loved by others.
The day I dropped omma off at the airport, I felt a deep loss. David too said he felt weirdly sad saying goodbye to my parents. It wasn’t just about the convenience of having two extra pair of hands in the house. It was the security and comfort of having our own parents with us, like the coziness of a weighted blanket on a cold winter night, because every parent needs their parents, whether they’re five weeks old or 50. While taking care of my child, I– this proud, stubbornly independent, grown-ass woman– ached to also be cared for by my own parents, to once again be somebody else’s baby.
When we become parents, we see our own parents with new eyes. While my parents were here, abba and I talked about the way my brother and I were raised. I have my own minor grievances about the way I was raised, and I shared some of the instances when I felt my parents had wronged me, or misunderstood me.
Before Tov, some of those grievances still felt a little sore. But I was surprised to discover that the rawness of those childhood memories had faded away. Instead, new healthy skin had formed over that wound– the skin of empathy and compassion for my parents who were once in the same position as me: clueless, fumbling, clumsy, and fallen, but doing the best they can with the best love I could ever receive from a flawed human here on earth. Nobody loved me as fiercely and brokenly as my parents– and nobody loved me as well as they did.
My parents were raised very differently in a very different culture, and that generational and cultural gap will always be there between us, but this new unity of parenthood has unfolded a bridge between our two worlds.
Tov is five weeks old today. He’s chubbier and slowly growing out of his hospital blanket. His needs are more urgent, at least from the way he expresses it. At times, when his needs are not immediately met– (really, because this boy cannot speak! He just scrunches his face and wails! How is a mother to know if he can’t speak his mind. Speak, boy, speak!)– he gets particularly agitated, his hands clenched into little golf ball-sized fists, his legs kicking, his face all wrinkly and red.
It doesn’t matter to him that I’m holding him in my arms, showering him with kisses, showing him in every way possible that I love him. It doesn’t matter to him that I’m exhausted, that I haven’t had more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep for five weeks, that I lost the thing that was most important to me– my freedom– to him. He doesn’t appreciate this love, not yet– he just takes and takes as though receiving love is the most natural and expected thing in the world. Right now, he’s still very young, but one day, I’ll disappoint him even more. I’ll snap at him, dismiss his feelings, misunderstand him, force things on him– all the things parents do when they’re busy or selfish or tired or anxious, or simply loving their kids as best as they can with all their shortcomings.
Perhaps, one clear indication of maturity is when the child can look at all the mistakes of her parents, and respond with compassion and empathy. I hope one day Tov will do that for me– and if I’m lucky, I won’t have to wait till he has a child of his own.
Happy birthday, David the Dad
It’s David’s 37th birthday today.
How did my husband turn so old so fast? Haha! Which reminds me, I’m not much of a spring chicken myself, either– I’m only two years behind him. Yikes.
Life has moved so fast for us this year. To think that earlier this year, we were planning our honeymoon to the UK in April. That got canceled (God doesn’t seem to want us to go on our honeymoon, because this is the third cancellation due to unforeseen circumstances) because by then I was too far along in pregnancy. To think that just about a month ago, we were talking about how this would be David’s last birthday before he becomes a father, and what would we do if our son is born the same day as his dad’s birthday? But then, of course, Tov came five weeks early, and this became David’s first birthday as a Dad.
One of the greatest gifts Tov gave me is watching David become a father. In the five and a half years since I’ve known him, I’ve only known David as a friend, then as a boyfriend, and then a husband/ best friend. Now I’m meeting yet another dimension to David as a Dad, and it’s one of those life experiences that is indescribable and transformative and tender, yet also simple and elusive and ordinary.
The first time David held Tov in his arms at the hospital, I was dazed from the unexpected precipitous labor, exhausted from lack of sleep, and still aching from an unmedicated birth. But I remember looking at him sitting across the room in the delivery room, with Tov slumbering on his chest, the little babe bundled tightly in the pink-and-blue-striped hospital blanket, and feeling a glow in my heart.
I didn’t know Tov as a person then, but I knew David, and the picture of him holding his son– our son– felt both strange and disorienting and intimate and wondrous all at once. Those are the moments when I had no thoughts, just unformed, unlabeled feelings– a snapshot my mind took without much forethought but will later cherish in my memory box.
Since then, there have been many such mental snapshots gathering in my memory box, sometimes tossed in there for future keepsake, sometimes turned over in my fingers many, many times: David nuzzling his nose into Tov’s. David cackling as Tov farts in his arms. David lumbering sleepily into Tov’s room in the middle of the night to check on his breathing. David learning to bottle-feed him on his lap. David holding Tov late at night in front of the TV, both with heads slumped to the side, one passed out from exhaustion, the other from food coma. David standing over Tov’s crib, wordlessly gazing at Tov deep in sleep. David flustered and amused as Tov wails and flails in his arms, hungry and frustrated after attempting to suck on David’s useless man-nipple.
Those moments are so mundane that they don’t always immediately capture my attention, especially when I’m sleep-deprived, rushing to get things done, and honestly, sometimes a little annoyed that my life seems to have changed more drastically than his. But when I open my memory box, these memories are more precious to me than the memories we made on our trips to Tokyo and Munich, because this time, they’re not about us, or about our own pleasure and enjoyment, but about our shared pleasure and enjoyment in someone else. I can go travel the world by myself having lots of fun and great memories (and would love to do it again– just because I became a mother doesn’t mean I lost myself), but cleaning up a poopy blowout with the father of my child can be double the fun and delight because we are tending to a life we created together, that we chose to love together. There’s just something so rich and enlivening and exciting about it– that is, when I take the time and space to be mindfully present in those moments.
I get why God made it so that it takes two to make a child. Raising a new life is meant to be shared with someone– and not just anyone, but someone who has already shared one of the most physically and emotionally intimate moments with you. There is so much meaning in the knowledge that no one else in this world will love Tov as much as I do other than David. The bond between David and I is no longer two-way, emotionally binded by love, legally binded by a marriage certificate. Even in death or divorce, our bond now flows three ways. It shows how much worth God considers a life, how much wisdom He tucked into parenthood, allowing us to discover new insights, lessons, and challenges in the right season and timing.
I know not every parent gets to share these experiences with a significant other. I think of this often, especially when I’m delirious from lack of sleep, or need to get a chore done, and I know I can always rely on David for help. My heart and respect go to all the single parents out there– that has to be an incredibly challenging, draining, and lonely experience, because we humans were not wired to do it alone. God, just as He exists in three persons, created life to be shared.
Tov will be four weeks old tomorrow, and David is 37 today. Just as I’m getting to know my son, I’m also getting to know the father of my son, and there is no one else with whom I want to share this journey. Happy birthday, David– my husband, my best friend, and Tov’s abba.
Why he is Tov
Tov hates diaper changes.
He hates it especially when it’s in the middle of the night, when he’s half-asleep, drowsy from feeding, and I place him on his changing pad and tug off his soiled diaper. The moment he hears that diaper tape stripping off, he yowls. His mouth opens wide, tiny teardrops squeeze out of his scrunched eyes, and a howl bursts out of his tiny lungs, surprisingly loud and strong for someone who’s barely 5 lbs. He flails his twiggy arms, kicks his little pink feet, wiggles and squirms and wrestles as I try to put a fresh diaper on him. You would think I had strapped him onto one of those medieval torture boards. One time, he screamed so loud and so pitifully that David jumped awake and scampered out of his room in alarm (he must have sleep-walked, because he says he doesn’t remember this).
Sometimes I laugh out loud, because Tov looks so piteous and pathetic as he spreads his arms out as though crucified on the cross, wailing and yipping. Other times, even though I know changing diapers is for his own good and not in the least bit harmful, my heart breaks, because he’s clearly distressed about being laid bare and naked on a cold changing pad, the water wipes frigid and startling on his warm skin. I may know better, but I’m still his mother, and a mother hates seeing her child cry so miserably, even if it’s for the silliest reason. So whenever Tov expresses his displeasure during these diaper changes, I try to calm the guy by repeating, “You’re good, Tov. You’re good! Everything’s good.”
I’ve heard many mothers say their heart breaks as they watch their newborn. I didn’t really get that. Why would your heart break? I thought you were supposed to be overjoyed or something, but certainly not heartbroken. What a strange way to describe your feelings as you meet your newborn baby.
But I think I kind of get it now. Tov is so tiny that I can hold him in the crook of one arm. As I watch him sleep in his crib, a small figure dwarfed by a 52 by 27 inch mattress, his eyes shut in downward slits, his little chest lifting up and down with each feathery breath, my heart breaks. As I feed him, my thumb and middle finger supporting his head so it doesn’t loll about, as I watch his toothless mouth blindly root for food, my heart breaks. I don’t know how else to describe this feeling– it’s a love so wide and so deep and so tender and so mysterious that it breaks my heart.
My heart doesn’t break because it’s sad. It breaks– instinctively, naturally– because I’m gazing at the purest form of vulnerability in humanity. I can’t think of anything more vulnerable than a newborn babe. They’re utterly helpless, wholly fragile, yet radiating so many primal needs– not just for food, sleep, and shelter, but for love, for contact with another human being. From the moment he was born, Tov needs human touch like he needs air. I sense it, and I instinctively give it: I can’t help but kiss him all over every time I see him, even when he’s wailing (and mind you, I HATE the cry of babies) because his vulnerability triggers a tenderness inside me that is so wonderfully human yet so gloriously sacred.
Those instinctive kisses, that tender ache, are the sound of my heart breaking– or rather, it’s the loosening and softening of the rigid fibers of my “grown up” heart, so immunized to the harshness of this world, so desensitized to the sanctity of human life, so cynical to the condition of mankind. That’s the moment when I think about the day God created man and woman in His image. He glued together the whole universe for the pleasure of us humans, and declared, “It is good”– or in Old Testament Hebrew: “It is tov.”
We named our son “Tov” at a time when things weren’t “good.” David had just lost his mother to a car accident. She was a healthy, vibrant 64-year-old woman with at least 20 more healthy, vibrant years to live. One second she was on a walk she’s been on for years, and another second, she was gone. A month before, she was visiting us in Los Angeles, meeting my parents for the first time, learning to make kimbap from my mother, and beaming proudly next to David during our belated wedding pictures. Tragedies like this one remind us of how little control we have over our lives, how quickly life extinguishes, like flame on a matchstick. There’s grief, and there’s shock– shock that we had dared to forget about Death that awaits all of us.
On a lesser scale, things weren’t all that “good” for me career-wise. I was in the midst of an uncertain job transition. For someone whose identity is so wrapped around my career, it was an incredibly stressful time, in addition to dealing with losing my mother-in-law so suddenly, and dealing with the constant grief of my husband as we experienced our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without his mother. I too was reflecting on the fragility and vanity of life, but also the fragility and vanity of my own ego, identity, and self-worth.
Yet in the midst of this all, even at times when God felt far away, when “good” things seemed absent from our life, when I felt insecure and destabilized and unsure, I felt God’s presence. He was there, with us. He is here, with us. And His presence feels…good. Like Psalm 23 says, His goodness (tov) and mercy followed us every moment; His rod and staff comforted us. I sensed God’s goodness during the quiet still times, as well as during those tumultuous moments when an internal war raged inside me. Things suck majorly, but He is good. He was and is always good.
“Tov” has different shades of meaning. It means “good,” but not just in the simplistic English sense of “good.” In Hebrew, the definition of “tov” is rich and expansive. That word “tov” is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to describe God’s goodness, His creation, our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, the community of believers. “Tov” refers to how things were meant to be, the way God created and intended, when heaven and earth marries into one. As such, “tov” is God in His whole perfection– perfect harmony, perfect righteousness, perfect justice, perfect peace, perfect love, mercy, patience, and grace.
This world we experience right now is not what it was meant to be. Death was not meant to be. Pain was not meant to be. Loss was not meant to be. Pride, ego, strife, bitterness, rage, jealousy was not meant to be. I know this truth deep in my soul, that something was not right with our world, but we also have hope, because we know God is in the midst of restoring this world. We see glimpses of tov– that wholeness, that goodness– in this world: through the mysterious peace and comfort in our soul; through the supernatural kindness and love of others; through moments like Tov’s birth, when we experienced God’s pleasure and delight in His creation.
My relationship with God has softened a lot over the years as I get to know Him more. As a child, I would sing “Jesus loves me, yes I know,” yet the image I had of God was a stern father with his arms crossed, shaking his head in disappointment each time I messed up. I would imagine him saying to me, “I love you, but…” Always a “but.” “I love you, but why did you do this and that?” “I love you, but you’re still not there yet.” “I love you, but it would be better if you did this and that.” I may be secure in God’s existence, presence, and salvation, but that mental picture of a disappointed, head-shaking father doesn’t exactly entice me to run to him for comfort and encouragement, or fall in love with him.
In the past several years, I’ve been reworking some of my twisted perceptions of God’s heart towards me, and especially so in the last three weeks as I hold my son in my arms, heart breaking at his utter vulnerability. There are many things I wish Tov would do– I wish he would gain weight faster, nap longer, eat more in one feeding, fuss less in the middle of the night. But whether he meets these wishes or not, I look at him, dirty diaper and wailing and all, and I think with fullness of heart, “I love you”– full stop, period. No buts.
The more I read the Bible and understand the Gospel, the more I reflect and experience who God is through the valleys and the green pastures, the more I realize that when God sees me, He smiles and says, “You are tov.” Despite all my sin and shame, He sees me through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and sees tov restored in me. During those moments when I struggle and suffer and strive, I think God looks at us the way I look at the naked vulnerability of my son, and just as my heart breaks, His heart breaks.
That’s why we named our son Tov: Because not only is he just the most perfect creation ever, not only did he bring so much good into our life, but because he is the living reminder of God’s goodness, an imprint of God’s thumb, the warm, aching beat of God’s heart towards us: Tov.
He is Tov, and my prayer for my son, for as long as I live, is that he will be tov to everyone in his life, and spread the goodness of God to all. You are tov, Tov.
Two weeks update
It’ll be two weeks tomorrow since Tov was born.
They say the first two weeks are the hardest. “They” say a lot of things. Another group of “they” also warn, “You think now’s hard? Wait till [fill in blank].”
I think I get it: Parenting is hard. I never thought it would be easy, so it wasn’t a shock that I’d be sleep-deprived; that my brain would soften into mush from lack of intellectual/social use; that my body is now a non-stop feeding machine.
No. What surprises me is how much I actually do enjoy being a mother. Who would have thought? Not I. Not the person who didn’t want kids because she thought she could never sacrifice her personal comforts and conveniences; not the person who never really liked babies.
Indeed, my life has changed. It’s not even like it’s evolved– it’s been replaced by a completely different life, at least for now. I have very little autonomy over my life now. My entire day is currently controlled by a tiny human being named Tov.
Here’s how a day looks like for us now:
David and I take turn on shifts. Since he’s still working and I’m on a 12-week parental leave, and since I’m the only one who can breastfeed, I handle the bulk of taking care of Tov. I watch Tov from about midnight till 6 or 7 am. Then David takes over for about three hours while I catch up on some sleep. Those two hours or so are the longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep I get for the whole day. I’m usually up between 10 and 11 am, starting the day by immediately breastfeeding Tov, putting him down for a nap, then gulping down coffee and breakfast before working out. Then I feed Tov again, pump for 20 minutes, rush in a shower, and try to squeeze in a few chores before the next feeding session. My lunch is usually lying half-eaten on the kitchen counter, waiting for me to take a bite any chance I have.
David helps out intermittently throughout the day– watching Tov while I cook or run errands, changing his diaper while I pump, re-swaddling him when he wiggles out of it, sterilizing the bottles and nipples, cleaning the house, cutting up the countless boxes of Amazon deliveries we order for Tov. After dinner and a walk, David watches Tov from about 9 pm to midnight while I sneak in an hour of “me” time and then nap about two hours in preparation for the night shift.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s only been 14 days, but it already feels like half my life.
Much of it is a mental game. My mind refuses to let my body feel tired, so my body keeps chugging away, though how sustainable this lifestyle is, time will tell. David is exhausted. You’d think he would take advantage of the full night’s sleep, but some nights he wakes up every hour to check the camera in Tov’s room. One time at 3 am, I saw David shuffling into the nursery and leaning down the crib to peer at Tov.
“Why are you up?”
His voice and eyes still crusty with sleep: “I had a bad dream.”
“About Tov. I dreamt that he was not OK.”
I’ve had those dreams too. One night I laid Tov on my chest because he kept fussing, refusing to sleep until I held him skin-to-skin. I fell asleep with my arms around Tov, and dreamed that he suddenly began shaking violently from a seizure. I startled awake in terror, only to find him still sleeping peacefully in my arms, his body temperature matching mine, his heartbeat pumping away.
Sleep deprivation isn’t the most challenging thing about taking care of a newborn– it’s the doubt that my child is more resilient than he looks. He’s just so tiny, so utterly fragile– not even 5 lbs, with skinny arms and legs, and a weeny head barely the size of a grapefruit. Currently, my goal is simple: Keep Tov alive.
When I was pregnant with Tov, I remember wanting him out of me asap so I can stop thinking about miscarriages and stillbirths. I thought it would be more reassuring to be able to physically watch him. Nope. Now that he’s out, we apparently have to worry about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and jaundice and weight loss and excessive sweating and overheating and low immune system…and the list goes on.
One night in bed, I did some research on SIDS, and that was the worst thing to do when I was trying to go to sleep. It seems like literally EVERYTHING is a hazard. Infant rolling to his side? He might DIE. Infant not sleeping on his back? He might DIE. Infant not producing at least six diapers a day? Might DIE. Infant sleeping peacefully in his crib? Guess what! He still might DIE! For no known reason at all! How is it legal that the hospital let us take this fragile creature home without a paramedic? No wonder studies say for every child she has, the mom may age two additional years: There will always be something to worry about, frankly because so many things about raising a human being is entirely out of your control, out of your expectations and plans and goals.
And yet…that timeless cliche: It’s all worth it.
Every midnight, when just as my brain entered deep sleep, David quietly cracks the bedroom door open: “Hey Mom? Wanna trade?”
The first night he woke me up like that, I complained, “Why are you calling me Mom? I’m not your mom.”
“Because you’re a mom now,” he replied simply.
How bizarre. One minute I’m writhing in pain in the hospital, cussing my lungs out, and now I’m a mom who willingly wakes up at midnight to feed a child every two to three hours, sometimes every hour. From the moment Tov was born, everyone at the hospital called me “Mom.” “Hi Mom!” the nurses would chirp as they enter my hospital room, “Time for your IV drip!”
I had no name. I was Mom. I don’t know if I like it. But I don’t dislike it, either. Because I did become a Mom. I’m someone’s Mom.
I’m a Mom who wakes up at midnight eager to see my boy again. I’m a Mom who can’t help kissing my son’s little pink face every time I see him. I’m a Mom who now watches my child sleep for entertainment. I’m a Mom who does all this all with inexplicable joy and wonder.
How incredible, this maternal love that burbles out of me like a deep mountain spring. It defies logic, since logically, this kid is a major pain in the butt. He sharts on me, whines a lot, demands food all the time, sucks the nipples dry, does not contribute to the household chores or finances, can’t even talk properly to explain why the heck he’s crying at 3:30 in the morning. Really– he’s just a giant drain of money and time and energy. Yet I would do anything for him– things I wouldn’t do for other babies, or even for myself– simply because…I’m his Mom.
When Jesus taught us how to pray, the first two words are: “Our Father.” Or Abba– a colloquial, intimate term for “father.” I always found that so profoundly touching, that that’s how God wants us to first call Him. Not Lord, not The Almighty, but Father, Abba. And now that I’m a Mom, I think about this often from a mother’s point of view.
Tov is not old enough to call me Mom or Omma, but when he cries out, I respond instantly. Even if it’s sometimes just to sit still and wait to see if he’s able to self-soothe back to sleep, I respond instinctively– my ears are perked, my mind alert, I’m actively listening and attentive to his needs. I’m looking forward to learning more about God’s attributes as a mother. That’s one of the wonderful things about the way God created us in His image– He imbued in us characteristics of Himself that we naturally imitate on earth, an incarnated reminder of His character and His heart towards us.
So tonight, around midnight, when David wakes me up at the end of his shift– “Hey Mom?”– I’ll roll out of bed, tired and sleep-deprived, but willing to love on my child, because I’m his Mom.
Tov’s birth story
This post is for my newborn son, Tov Jun Lee-Herrmann, born May 4, 2022 at 5:51 a.m., weighing 5 lb 1.5 oz and measuring 18.5 inches. He burst into the world yowling 5 weeks earlier than his due date, a tiny but strong, wiggly human bean meeting the world with curious eyes. I am not a scrapbook mom, nor am I good at taking pictures, but words, I have plenty. Here is our birth story.
“I think we need to go to the hospital.”
It was about 4:20 am, and I had to shake David out of a deep REM sleep before he finally rustled awake.
“Wha?” he mumbled.
“Wake up, we might have to go to the hospital again.” At that moment, I felt another contraction building up, and I bent over onto the bed, moaning.
And so it began. Tov’s birth. His conception was a big surprise. His birth, at five weeks earlier than expected, was also a big surprise. We weren’t ready for either, but no matter: Tov was ready for us.
Whenever people asked me my due date, I told them June 5, but added that I have a feeling he might be born a little early. Lots of mothers say they have a “mommy intuition” about their babies, and sometimes they’re wrong. I knew my “intuition” stemmed mostly from a desire to be done with all the aches and discomforts of pregnancy. But our baby had been measuring small, so I didn’t want him coming out too soon.
David and I had made a bet on when he’ll likely be born. David said June 2. I said I think he’ll be born between week 37 and 38. Either way, we thought we still had at least several weeks to prepare, and let the list of “things to do” pile up unchecked. We were both wrong about the due date (but I was closer, so I win).
We had our baby shower on April 30. It was a casual and simple but lovely event. I near broke my back prepping most of the food, spending more than three hours baking a three-tier confetti cake from scratch the night before, and getting annoyed at myself for once again, overestimating my capacity to do it all. I had also been suffering awful cramps for days– painful, gnawing aches in my lower abdomen that felt like bad menstrual cramps.
I was not a joyful mama. I remember mostly feeling irritable and tired and uncomfortable the days leading up to the baby shower. The morning of the shower started out terrible. I did not have enough sleep. My back ached; my uterus ached. I found out that the three-tier cake I had spent hours making had slid onto the floor into white creamy mush. Several people texted me last minute saying they could not make it to the party for various reasons. A friend who had planned to fly out from Baltimore to help me assemble the charcuterie canceled her flight two days before the party because of an unexpected work situation. I felt ugly and mean, mired in one of those moods in which I latch onto anything to worsen my irritation. I was even tempted to just cancel the whole event, because I hate these sort of events and why am I doing so much work for what would surely be terrible anyway, blah blah whine whine.
David, too, was feeling the stress. That week had been emotionally fraught for him, and therefore for me as well: His father was in town– the first time he visited without David’s mother. It felt weird to have him here without his wife. He walked around the house unwhole, like he’d lost his limbs.
“Lee would have helped you with the baby shower,” David’s dad said repeatedly: “She would have loved being here for the shower. She would have been so excited.” And that, too, was echoing in David’s mind, and my heart broke for him, yet I confess that during my meanest moments, I also felt pity for myself: We couldn’t have one moment of pure celebration for the new baby, one special moment of “us” as soon-to-be parents, and one moment of honoring me as a very pregnant, soon-to-be mother, without death casting a heavy shadow over it all. I think I was mostly too busy to really process all these tangled, twisty thoughts and emotions, but they were there, pinching and inflaming my inner peace and joy.
So that morning, three hours before the baby shower, I snapped at David. He was incredibly emotional and weepy that morning, and my mean state didn’t want to make room for sympathy or empathy. I just wanted to get the day over with, and any display of vulnerability, of having to be a caregiver, felt burdensome.
We would have hosted the party with frayed nerves and tension had David then not asked, “Can we please pray? I feel the enemy attacking us. I really feel like we need to pray today. We haven’t been praying enough.”
“Fine,” I said, and kept my stony expression as David prayed out loud. And though I still felt irritable, my cold heart melted, drip by drip. We needed that moment of prayer, even if it was just for five minutes. Why do we always forget this most vital practice to shalom? We need to pray– not just when we’re feeling sad and chaotic, but every time, any time, anywhere. I also felt assured. My respect grew: David is a good husband, and he will be a good dad.
And from then on, instead of rooting for things to get annoyed about, I found genuine gratitude: My friend Lindsey sacrificed her Saturday morning to help me assemble chicken salad sandwiches, chop vegetables, and everything else I needed to prepare a mini feast. She saved the party. I couldn’t have done it without her. My friend Olivia, who couldn’t make it last-minute from Baltimore, provided more than half the stuff for the charcuterie– a magnificent cheese board, five kinds of cheeses, gourmet preserves, dried fruit, nuts, crackers…she went all out, and refused to accept any payment from me. Another friend, Chelsea, opened up her charming beach house in Manhattan Beach to hold the event– and that space turned out to be perfect.
About 30 people came to the shower, many driving a long way. I don’t know of anyone who gets excited about attending a baby shower. Well, I know I myself never found those all that exciting, so I felt weird asking people to attend mine. But people came, bearing smiles and mazel tovs and gifts, showering us with their love and blessings. (Tov, remember these people. The blessings they sprinkled on you that day are like fairy dust, glitters of generosity and good will that I hope you’ll sprinkle on to others.)
That baby shower was only about 10 days ago, yet it feels like a lifetime away. That was Before Tov. Little did we know, it’ll be the last party we’ll be attending for a while.
Tuesday, May 3. I woke up feeling some mild upper abdominal pain and lethargy. The day before, I had woken up feeling slightly nauseous and had projectile-vomited my breakfast, but had felt better after puking. But this time, all throughout the day, I felt like crawling into bed and staying there. I wondered if I should call my ob/gyn. But I had an interview that afternoon with an author for work, so I didn’t call my doctor until around 4 pm after the interview. She said it might just be gas reflux, but asked me to visit the clinic to get my vitals checked, just to be sure.
“I’m just going to pop over to my doctor for a bit,” I told David, as though I was making a quick grocery run.
David gave me a look of alarm: “Should I come with?”
“You can, but you don’t need to,” I said. “We’re just doing a quick check-up, for peace of mind. It’s probably nothing.”
David decided to tag along. And good thing he did, because my “quick check-up” turned into “you should probably go to the hospital,” which became an eight-hour observation. We didn’t return home until past midnight.
Here’s what happened: At my ob/gyn’s clinic, they strapped my belly for a non-stress test (NST). The baby’s heart rate was beating at about 170 bpm, which is abnormally high. His heart rate had never gone over 156 bpm before. We kept observing his heart rate, waiting for it to slow down, but it stayed above 170, at times leaping to 190 bpm. After more than an hour, my ob/gyn recommended we go to the hospital for longer observation. Again, I thought: Probably not a big deal. Baby’s just a little excited, that’s all. (I don’t know what’s with me– I always seem to assume there’s not a problem until it punches me in the mouth.)
By the time we reached the hospital, 50 minutes later (darn LA traffic!), I was feverish, shivering with a chill, and aching all over my body. My temperature was 101.6. The nurses strapped me up for a NST again, and once again, the baby’s heart rate was consistently above 170, sometimes reaching 200. That was when I actually got worried. They tested me for Covid (negative), flu (negative), and respiratory syncytial virus (also negative). They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. They hooked me up to an IV drip and antibiotics. By 10:30 pm, the baby’s heart rate had thankfully dropped to a steady 150s, and my fever had gone down. I was experiencing some mild contractions, but otherwise, the doctor didn’t see clear signs of preterm labor, so she sent us home, telling us to come back if I start having contractions that are five minutes apart.
I knew I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, however. When we got back home, I was feeling hot and trembling with chills and aches again. I went to bed right away, hoping a good night’s rest would blot out the remaining virus or whatever’s ailing me.
4 a.m. I woke up feeling like I needed to pee. I would have lingered in bed a little longer, had I not felt some liquid trickling out of me. I bolted up– is that my water breaking? Or is that pee? Still heavy with sleep, I waddled to the bathroom and emptied my bladder. And that was it– no more trickle of unknown fluid. OK, phew. I guess it was just pee. Some random incontinence, which is normal during third trimester. I washed my hands, changed, and went back to bed.
Then my lower abdomen started hurting. This time, they weren’t throbbing menstrual-like cramps– they were sharper, deeper, coming and going in powerful waves. I lay in bed, trying to go back to sleep, but the pain only increased. By then, I had had only about three hours of sleep, and David was lightly snoring beside me, completely out cold. Surely this can’t be labor, I thought. I’m only 35 weeks along and I just came back from the hospital! But I couldn’t ignore this pain. It worsened until I was moaning, while my exhausted husband slept on, completely unaware.
I realized this was something different. I went to the kitchen, called the hospital, and told the nurse on call what was happening. She asked me the usual questions: Any bleeding? Strange discharge? Etc. “Come in if you feel really concerned,” she said.
And that’s when I felt another pain daggering me from inside, and I couldn’t respond to the nurse without gasping. Her tone shifted; she sounded more serious. “Come to the hospital,” she said. “OK,” I gasped.
So I woke David up. He got out of bed in a daze, barely registering what’s happening.
“Oooh, I’m so exhausted,” he groaned. “I don’t think I can drive all the way there again.”
I thought I might smack him, but then another wave of contraction began. My knees unbuckled, and I groaned louder than my husband. That’s when I saw his eyes focusing more, suddenly aware that I wasn’t just complaining about a minor ache anymore.
We had nothing packed. The next 15 minutes, we scurried about the house, throwing things into a suitcase just in case we had to stay overnight at the hospital. It took me longer because I kept having to stop as the contractions rolled in and out, no more than two or three minutes apart. Yet even as I dumped toiletries and clothes into the suitcase, I couldn’t believe I might be in labor. This can’t be happening, not now. I was a first-time mother– what did I know about contractions and labor?
But then I started feeling leakage again– not a gush, but uncontrollable leaks that flowed in little squirts. The fluid was clear, sweet-smelling. “I think my water broke,” I told David.
Somehow we got into the car. My pain level had gone from 7.5 to 9 by then. Or maybe it was 10. I was writhing and bellowing in pain, yet I underestimated my pain level to be at 7, because my mind just couldn’t comprehend: I thought labor was an hours-long or days-long process, with pain levels gradually increasing. How could I already be in the later stage of labor, with contractions only a minute apart now? My experience defied all the research I had read up on labor. But if I was in labor now and already in this much physical anguish, what would a level 10 pain feel like? Unthinkable!
It took us about 30 minutes, without traffic, to reach the hospital. I was holding onto the handle bar by then, and my moans were now little screams. David screeched up to the entrance, and the parking attendant, seeing my expression through the window, rushed up with a wheelchair, and told David he could just park in front of the entrance. I waited for that one minute between contractions to hobble onto the wheelchair. The elevator roll up to the labor and delivery unit felt like forever. A couple entered the lift with us. The woman was not in a wheelchair, and she looked peaceful, like she was on her way to the mall. They had a scheduled C-section that morning, they told us. “Congratulations,” I groaned from my wheelchair.
Level 3. Finally. The nurses at the front desk, like the parking attendant, took one look at me and immediately called for more nurses. A small team in scrubs greeted me in a rush. One nurse– I’ll never forget her kind face– leaned towards me and asked if I wanted an epidural. I was confused– right now? Right away? “Maybe I can wait a little longer,” I told her. Again, I thought I had hours left till delivery time, so I wanted to pace myself. Besides, I still wasn’t sure if I was actually in labor.
I’m an idiot. I had no time. I was at pain level 10, not 7. The contractions rolled like stormy sea, crashes of lightnings and thunder and jagged waves. I writhed and screamed and cursed. I don’t know how, but somehow the nurses managed to get me into a hospital gown, though I remember them gripping me by the shoulders and telling me I needed to stay still for a few minutes while they hook me to an IV. They called my ob/gyn, but by then, I was already 8 cm dilated. Five minutes later, I was 10 cm dilated. It was only about 5:30 am, 90 minutes since I woke up needing to pee.
I turned to that kind-faced nurse: “Um, I’ll get that epidural now!” I remember her saying nothing, just looking at me with sympathy. David was standing to the side, not knowing what to do. A nurse beckoned to him: “Dad, you can stand next to her now.”
And then I felt the urge to push. Or poop. Both. Gross. Everything about labor and delivery is just gross. Wet. Messy. Uncontrollable. Undignified.
Speaking of undignified. I had watched a dozen birth vlogs on YouTube, and had listened to a dozen women bray like a donkey, moo like a cow, neigh like a horse, yip like a dog while they were in labor. How undignified, I thought: What are we, farm animals? I imagined myself giving birth with my mouth firmly closed, silently, elegantly bearing the pain with grace.
HA! I wasn’t a farm animal. I was worse. I was a banshee. A banshee howling expletives. My screams and curses shook the room, probably woke up the entire block. They just blared out of me. I could hear myself sounding like a torture chamber, but that was the only way I knew to manage the pain without an epidural.
5:51 a.m. The dreaded ring of fire. And then…I felt him slide out of me. And there he was, in the midwife’s arms, purple and wrinkly and smeared with white gooey vernix, his mouth shaped into a triangle as he released his first cry on earth: “WAAAAAH!” Someone put a pink and blue striped beanie around his head, and they lifted him into my arms.
“Oh my God.”
I remember in one birth vlog, the mother immediately bursting into tears. “I love you! I love you sooooo much!” she repeated over and over again, sobbing and sobbing. “I love you so sooo sooooo much!”
All I could say was one phrase: “Oh my God.” I awkwardly, gingerly held the tiny 5-lb human being in my arms, just staring at him in silence.
I was simply in shock. The love and joy came later. Everything had happened so fast. Between Feb 1, when I first found out I was pregnant, and May 4, when I held my baby in my arms for the first time, three months had passed. Three months, from “oh my god I’m pregnant” to “oh my god he’s here.” How did this happen? Now I had a living, fragile, wiggling crying creature on my chest, his heartbeat pulsing on mine, his body heat warm and sticky, with so many urgent needs the moment he was born. He was no longer an invisible alien in my womb. He had a face! Ten tiniest fingernails and ten tiniest toenails. Little indented nipples. A nose. Blondish eyebrows. Blue-grey almond eyes that opened and stared, framed by teensy eyelashes. Pink gums, tiny tongue, skinny arms and legs. A human expression that looked like David.
And he was mine. Ours. Oh my God. Oh, my God. Life is so indescribable. Oh Lord. You created life so magnificently, it mutes me.
David cut the cord after a second of hesitation (why are men so squeamish with blood?). I had enough sense to ask my ob/gyn, who arrived just in time to hear the baby’s cry, to let me see the placenta. She lifted a disk of wobbly, bumpy, veiny black-red organ. “This is the miracle right here,” she said, with wonder and admiration in her voice, even though she’s probably seen several hundred placentas: “This here kept your baby alive. It is a thing of miracle.” She also showed me the bloody, deflated amniotic sac, and the spongy, twisty tube that’s the umbilical cord. I too was in awe. What hideous organs. Hideous, but magical.
“David! You want to see my placenta?” I asked.
“Nope,” David turned away, swallowing his bile. Well, he did good, all things considering.
After cleaning up the baby and checking his vitals, the whole delivery team cleared out, dimming the room and leaving David, the baby, and me alone in the room to bond for two hours. The two hours flew by. We kept staring at the tiny boy, touching his ears, stroking his full head of hair, laughing for no reason. Because the baby is premature, he needed to go to the NICU for 24 hours, so we soaked up the first two hours we had. (I was still running a temperature at the time, so I was no allowed to visit our baby for a whole day– understandable, but brutal.)
Tov Jun Lee-Herrmann. Tov is “good” or “goodness” in Hebrew (as in, mazel tov). I’d always loved that word since I read A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Jun is Korean for “handsome, pleasant.” My mother came up with that name. Lee-Herrmann because I’m a radical feminist (ha). I’ll explain his name in another post.
Tov is exactly his name. He is good. Beautiful. Perfect. God is good, perfect– tov. He had brought goodness into our life when we most needed it.
Today, as I write this, Tov is one week old. For us, it’s been 7 days into a new era: From Before Tov, to After Tov.
Help, the father of my child is gonna be a real softie!
We probably should have done this sooner, but for the first time, David and I had a more serious conversation about what we want to be like as parents.
A few nights ago, I caught my first glimpse of how our parenting styles might differ when Shalom, my worthless cat, peed on the couch– again. She had had a pee spree when she first moved into David’s house with me, anxious about the sudden new environment and resentful towards David who shook her entire life. The peeing mercifully ceased after several months, but the collateral damage was hell: pee stains and stenches on the couch, on David’s pillow (twice!), several new bedsheets, and a door that’s always, always closed to the master bedroom.
We had some peace for a bliss moment. And then, a couple months before I found out I was pregnant, Shalom started peeing outside her litter box again, randomly and sporadically. She peed on the bottom of the steps. Then upstairs by the couch. Then on the corner wall of my office. She was anxious again, sensing something off about me before I even knew myself. We know it’s not due to some medical problem because when I was gone in Mexico City and Poland, she abruptly stopped the peeing spree. Clearly, I was the trigger.
Anyway, all this to say, I’m ready to toss this cat out the window. Quite literally. Anyone want this cat? I’ll give her away for free, plus a dozen grateful hugs as bonus.
One evening, Shalom peed again on the couch while David was sitting RIGHT THERE, watching baseball. She slunked to the edge of the couch, squatted, trembled her little butt, and released her foul-smelling liquids, all the while staring STRAIGHT into David’s horrified eyes. What. A. Little. B—-.
“SOPHIA!” David called out, like a toddler tattling on his brother. “Look what your cat did!”
“How dare you, Shalom!” I yelled at my cat, while she nonchalantly plopped on the carpet and stretched out as though she hasn’t just committed a disgusting act. “No shame! Bad!”
We decided she really needed to be taught a lesson, so we picked her up and banished her to the balcony outside our living room. Two years ago we had set up a cat house for her there that she never used, because she refused to be outdoors. She meowed piteously then, staring mournfully at us through the glass doors. This cat is really the devil.
“No!” I told her through the glass door. “You need to feel the weight of what you’ve done!”
I didn’t care that cats can’t be “taught” like a human child, or a dog. Shalom is acting out from anxiety, sure, but she’s caused us an immense inconvenience– not once, not twice, but at least about three times a day for months! And for months, we had cleaned up after her, while continuing to feed her, clean her litter box, pet her, love on her. The equilibrium of justice was off! Whether she understood it or not, it was time for her to suffer some inconvenience and discomfort for once. It was only fair. It was only just.
“Leave her out for the night,” I told David. “She needs to be punished.”
He didn’t answer. He sat back on the couch, but couldn’t concentrate on the baseball game. He kept turning to the side to look at Shalom, making guilty eye contact with her large sad eyes, while she meowed and meowed.
The next thing I knew, she was back in the house.
“WHAT!” I exclaimed. “Did you let her in?”
“Yeah…” David replied. “I felt bad.”
Oh my God. This guy. Couldn’t even last a full 10 minutes. Heart softer and wobblier than Jell-O.
“Is this how you’re going to be as a father?” I said. “Our son is going to manipulate the hell out of you. I’m going to be that awful Tiger Mom, and you’re going to be the one he runs to to twist your heartstrings.”
“…yeah…” David said, hanging his head.
Oh dear. I saw our future in a flash. I’m going to tell our child no, and he’s going to run straight to David and somehow convince him to say yes. I’m going to enforce some discipline, and he’s going to sob as pitifully and dramatically as he can, and David’s going to take him out for ice-cream and cotton candy– and they’re going to do it all behind my back. “Don’t tell Mom,” David will whisper to our son while the little sinful child giggles, learning that mischief shall always go unpunished so long as Daddy’s around. I just KNOW it. The thought gave me heartburn.
So one night, on our walk after dinner, I asked David what kind of father he wants to be. How is he going to discipline our kid? Will we spank him? Ground him? Talk to him? How do we want to raise him in faith? What if he refuses to go to church one day? What kind of conversations are we going to have with him, when he asks us questions about something in school, or something his friends said or did, that don’t align with our values?
David, unsurprisingly, said he doesn’t think he wants to spank our kid. “I was never spanked,” he said. “So I think I’ll just tell him, ‘I’m disappointed in you. I’m not mad at you, but I’m disappointed in you.’”
I inwardly rolled my eyes. David was a golden child. He never disobeyed, never broke the rules, was a darling in every way. No wonder his parents never spanked him– there was no need to. His mother called him her “best friend” and talked to him like a friend every day. I, on the other hand, developed a temper that needed to be restrained, a stubborn streak that needed to be tamed, and lots of sinful impulses that needed to be bitten in the bud. If our child turns out to be anything like me, merely telling him “I’m disappointed” is not going to work, I told David.
We ultimately decided we’ll take things one step at a time. We have to get to know our kid better, to know what kind of disciplinary method works best for him. But for me, spanking is an option. David might differ, but that’s a conversation for another day. Who knows, maybe our kid will turn out like David, and we won’t ever need to have that conversation.
Please God, don’t let our child be like me. But if God operates like I operate with Shalom, He’ll recognize the sufferings I’ve inflicted on my own parents, and given how tilted that scale of justice is, he’ll dip it so I get a taste of my own parents’ misery.
p.s. Still on offer, a pussy cat named Shalom! Will give her away for FREE!
Reflecting on Our Two-Year Anniversary
It was our two-year wedding anniversary last Sunday. We didn’t do much, didn’t exchange cards or gifts. Instead, we went out for dinner two days earlier at a Japanese restaurant that serves the prettiest set meals. Our anniversary just felt like another regular day, until I took some time to reflect on our last two years as man and wife, and everything we went through together.
I remember being at a work retreat several years ago. My colleagues gathered at a hotel conference room, and we each took turns introducing ourselves, since we all worked remotely and rarely got the chance to get together in person. One colleague introduced herself, then turned to us younger staff members and said, “I don’t think you younger ones know this, but marriage is hard. It’s really, really hard. You have to really fight to make it work. Nobody told me this.”
At the time, I was in my late 20s and single. But I remember thinking, “What are you talking about? All I hear is how hard and awful marriage is.” My generation is a product of divorce and broken marriages. So many people of my age group have been scarred by their parents’ dysfunctional marriages, and they carry that emotional baggage and psychological trauma into their relationships. My own parents have a long, healthy marriage, but they model a very traditional marriage that made me assume marriage is not for me. At least within my social circles, everyone knows marriage requires hard work and sacrifice. That’s why so many of us delay marriage for so long, or pay so much for therapy. I don’t know of any of my friends who walked into their marriage starry-eyed and giddy, but I know too many who became insomniac with anxiety leading up to their wedding, terrified of making the wrong choice, of wrecking things, of unforeseen changes and hardships.
And then I got married. Sure, marriage is not a breeze, but neither was being single. As someone who had been single for 32 years, I think being married is way better and easier than being single, especially when you’re past your mid-20s. In trying to set us up for realistic expectations about marriage, I wonder if some people went to the other extreme.
David and I got married at the start of the pandemic, when all church services and schools went online, grocery stores made you wait in line outside with masks on, and all wedding venues shut down. We spoke our vows in our backyard, our pastor marrying us from six feet away, and our friends and family watching us in their bedrooms via Zoom.
Year one of marriage was a bit of a blur. The pandemic froze time into one surreal era. It felt weird and impossible to celebrate typical big milestone events such as weddings, honeymoons, birthdays. We woke up the next day on our stay-at-home “honeymoon” with nothing to do. That year David and I spent a lot of time stuck at home, our marriage beginning and continuing in a long stream of mundane, sheltered activities. We worked from home, I read, he watched TV, we went on our daily evening walks, and repeat.
I suppose that’s just what married life is– doing mundane things together– but there was also a sense of being robbed not just of our actual honeymoon, but the honeymoon phase. I realized how important it is to celebrate life milestones with community. It is other people– their smiles, their cheers, their scent, their mere physical presence– that help mark those milestones, not just the milestone itself.
David began feeling somewhat depressed, and though I sometimes lectured him for letting the pandemic bring him down, when we’re both privileged to work from home, not suffer financially, and remain healthy (ever the preacher’s daughter), I too felt a loss– a loss that seems trivial in the grand scope of what was happening around the world and in our country, but still, on a personal level, a tiny loss that deserves some recognition and a formal burial.
Year two of marriage felt like a continuation of that frozen surreal era of the pandemic– until Sep 18, when David’s mother died. And then time, instead of feeling frozen, melted and roiled into storm and waves. We entered into a new era then, from pandemic surrealism to nightmare surrealism. Even now, David sometimes shakes himself, wondering, Is this for real? My mom’s really gone? Meanwhile, I resigned from my job, not knowing if I’ll ever find a journalism job again, spent three months unemployed, and then one month before starting my new job, found out I’m not only pregnant, but already in late second-trimester.
Yet we survived, and continue to survive– not barely hanging on, slogging through each day hacking and groaning, but strong and steady. Our married life is as boring as our second-year anniversary. We’re not cute, or romantic, or dramatic. We haven’t had any fights, nor is our love life hot and passionate, but it’s the small trivial things that formed the linchpins to our marriage– holding hands when we go for walks, tucking David into bed every night (he’s a baby), cleaning up after our cat Shalom’s pee spree, all with this lingering cloud over us that something is not quite right with the world, but at least we’re in it together, side by side.
Death shook us. Grief is an intensely lonely and personal journey. As much as I love David and want to be there for him, I found myself restrained by the very fact that it was not I who lost my mother. There were things that David had to face alone, things he had to hear from God and God alone. My words, my presence, my touch sometimes helped, often didn’t, and at times actually hurt, especially when it turned into preaching, when I try to rub in Scripture like ointment when David’s wounds still need washing. There’s never the “right” things to say to comfort and console someone in grief, because what David needs to hear changes by day, by moment, by mood, and more often than not, I learned that the fewer words uttered, the better. Time heals, but never brings back what’s lost, never turns back, never makes what’s broken whole. David is changed. I am changed. Our marriage is changed.
And just as David’s walk in grief is sometimes lonely, so too is my walk as a soon-to-be mother, when the father of my child can’t feel pure excitement for a new baby without the puncture of loss of his mother. Those two events are tightly coiled, impossible for David to untangle and separate. I can’t feel David’s happiness without also feeling his sadness, and that makes me sad, too. So like our wedding, which as joyous as it was, also had a tinge of loss and sadness to it, so too does my pregnancy feel like a tie-dye blend of contradictory emotions– joy and sorrow, excitement and fear, gain and loss, life and death.
Now, as we enter year three of our marriage, we also have less than eight weeks left till the baby’s due date. This is yet another era of surrealism. And just like so many people warned me about how hard and bloody marriage is, everywhere we turn, we get a lot of “just waits” about the coming baby. “Just wait till you hit third trimester, and the back aches and cramps begin!” “Just wait till the baby’s born, and you get no sleep!” “Just wait till the baby’s a toddler, and the terrible twos come!” I don’t need these unasked for advice and warnings– I’ve already convinced myself, long before I got pregnant, that having kids is terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. From the first time I involuntarily caught sight of my friend’s engorged postpartum boobs, to noticing the dark eye circles of new parents, to hearing babies screech and wail on the airplane, I had told myself and David, over and over, “We are not having kids, ever.”
But then, I thought the same about marriage, and as much as our marriage will never make it to a Hallmark movie, I enjoy being married, even its inconveniences and sacrifices and aloneness and irritations. Because at the end of the day, I have someone I can and want and will love– sometimes not all together, but there’s something simplistically wonderful about having someone to call yours to love, someone you daily strive to love better and wiser, someone whom you know God placed in your life to be loved specifically by you.
Happy two-year anniversary, David. I love you.
Traveling as a journalist while third trimester
I was about 29 weeks pregnant when I boarded the KLM flight to Warsaw, Poland, for my first reporting assignment at my new job.
It’s obviously my first time traveling so far away with a visibly pregnant belly, so I didn’t really know what to expect. The last time I traveled internationally while pregnant was in January to Mexico City, and I was barely showing at the time, and didn’t know I was pregnant. This time, there was no hiding that bump, even with layers of baggy clothing.
As I strided into the narrow aisle of the aircraft, I could see the eyes of passengers zoom into my middle section. Before deciding to travel, I had double-checked with my doctor that I’m safe to travel. She said as long as I’m less than 35 weeks, with no sign of contractions or bloody discharge, I should be fine, though she was willing to write me a doctor’s note prohibiting me from traveling if I needed it. I told her I didn’t need it.
Two weeks before the trip, an older Chinese man, who took it upon himself to appoint himself my LA-based father figure (I don’t know why, but I always seem to only meet wonderful people), had advised me repeatedly that I should not invite any stress into my life while pregnant. “I don’t know what’s up with western people and their ways, but our Asian culture, we believe in the mother resting as much as possible,” he told me: “So please. No stress. Rest.” My husband tattled that I had originally planned to fly to Ukraine, in a “please tell my crazy wife she’s crazy” tone, and the man’s eyes widened with alarm: “What! No! No traveling. There are plenty of stories to tell here in Los Angeles!” He even told my boss to take it easy on me, to which my boss– who has been incredibly gracious and supportive– apparently exclaimed, “No, it’s not me! It’s her!”
OK. Yes, it’s me. But honestly, with everything that was going on in Ukraine and Europe, with me just starting my job as a reporter hired to write global feature stories, I was getting even more stressed simply reading the news from my chair in Los Angeles. I could certainly do some reporting through Zoom and WhatsApp, but in order to tell a story well, I felt I needed to be there. I needed to see people face to face, shake their hands, breath in their scent, feel the raw energy and emotions.
So there I was, on a KLM aircraft on a Wednesday afternoon, shoving my seven-month belly into the cramped space between my seat and the seat in front of me. And then I prayed for nobody to sit beside me.
When I booked that flight, I made sure to choose an aisle seat so I can shuffle to the bathroom to pee every 15 minutes without irritating my seatmate. But I also made sure to choose a seat with empty seats beside it, so that I can stretch out. The day before, when I checked in online, I saw that the two seats next to me were still empty. I held my breath, hoping, praying.
By the time I sat down, with the two seats next to me still empty, I was so confident that my prayers were answered I happily put my backpack on the seat next to me. I was all prepared for a relatively comfortable flight, and thanking God for it.
Then a woman came up and pointed at me, and said in loud commanding voice, “Those are our seats.” Behind her was her husband, quivering with a walking cane and a stooped back.
“Oh! Sorry,” I said, taking my backpack off their seat and shuffling out into the aisle so the couple could gingerly inch their way into their seats. As the husband groaned while settling into the middle seat, he turned to me and said, “I gotta warn you: I snore.”
I didn’t curse God, but I did shake my fist: Why, God. Why. It was such a simple ask.
They looked to be in their mid-70s at least. The man was hard of hearing, so his wife practically screamed into his ear, enunciating every word she uttered. Her hair was an artificial strawberry blonde blob, her nails polished pink, and her lips puckered into a perpetual scowl. The man had gentle blue eyes, mottled trembling hands, and a soft belly as large as mine. I felt uncomfortable looking at his frail body squeezed into the middle seat, and felt uncomfortable as his elbow poked out of his personal space into mine, sometimes bumping me in the ribs.
Yay, the joys of the economy seat. I admit: My mood instantly turned sour, and I whined internally like a toddler. I had really hoped I would at least get some sleep in before landing in Warsaw and jumping right into a full day of reporting.
I did not get much sleep. Economy seats are already by default cruel and unusual punishment, but my seatmates, God bless them, were loud. The man gave me a fair warning: He did snore– like a bear deep in hibernation, with occasional startled snorts. When he wasn’t snoring, his wife was fussing about, shouting, “Where is my MASK!”
“Eh?” her husband said, half-deaf, half-snoring, and half-asleep. She leaned into his ear and spat out each word as crisply and loudly as she can: “I. CAN’T. FIND. MY. MASSSSSSSSSK!!!” “Oh,” he said, and they both fidgeted about looking for her missing mask, elbows and feet sticking into my space while I tried to sleep. She lost her mask at least three times during the flight. It also didn’t help that my baby was super active throughout the flight, practicing break-dancing or water polo or whatever it is it’s doing in there.
Then it was time for our meal– always the highlight of any flight. I don’t know what it is, because unless you’re in business or first class, airplane food usually sucks, but every time I smell that warm toasty scent wafting through the aircraft, signaling the start of mealtime, my heart sings. It’s really the only thing I look forward to during an economy international flight.
The flight attendant in blue wheeled the food trolley to us. “Chicken or vegetarian pasta?”
“White wine!” the wife barked.
“White wine,” the husband requested.
“Certainly, and for your meal? Chicken or vegetarian pasta?”
“Pasta,” the wife yelled.
“White wine,” the husband requested.
“No, no,” the wife hissed into his ear: “She asked: CHICKEN. OR. PASTA!”
They both got pasta and white wine. I got the chicken, which turned out to be three tiny globs of white meat swimming in reddish sauce.
The wife ripped off the plastic covering to her tray of pasta, stared a half-minute at its contents, then turned to her husband with sour lips and brows: “This looks like dog food.”
That, the husband understood. He turned to me and joked, chuckling, “Gourmet meal, huh?”
For the first time, I felt a certain camaraderie with my elderly seatmates, united by our mutual distaste for the dog food-like dinner we got served. It really didn’t taste too bad, but nothing feels as uniting as complaining about the same thing together.
I survived the flight, and my selfish heart had softened by then to which I said a little silent prayer of safe travels for the crotchety couple, wondering why they were flying to Europe at their old age. But I suppose they could wonder the same about me, an obviously pregnant woman traveling by herself.
I landed in Warsaw, via Amsterdam, at noon, feeling a little dazed from sleep depravity and adrenaline. Waiting for me were Ruslan and Maxim, my travel guides for five days, two Ukrainian guys from Kyiv who had left Ukraine one month before the war, based on a prophetic sense while praying that they needed to leave Ukraine soon. If they hadn’t left, Maxim would have been stuck alone in Ukraine, as he had just turned 18, and Ukraine had banned most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving Ukraine. (Ruslan is in his 40s, but he would have been allowed to leave, since he has more than three children.) I had warned them I’m pregnant (though not how pregnant), and they took it upon themselves to make sure I never had to carry my own bags throughout the trip.
It’s a little strange, being pregnant during a work trip. It might be my imagination, but men’s eyes seem to soften when they see my belly, and some look more carefully at me with curiosity, though most don’t ask questions, simply bowing their heads to me and saying, “God bless you.” Women, especially mothers, spot my belly and give me small smiles. Several asked me when I’m due, whether it’s a boy or a girl, and if it’s my first. When I told one Ukrainian refugee woman that I’m seven months along, she exclaimed, nodding at her 18-month blonde child, “Oh! I had my daughter at seven months!” I felt a little stab of worry then– I knew I was facing a small risk of preterm birth while overseas, and I prayed I don’t go into labor while in Poland.
Let’s talk mom guilt. Apparently that’s a common thing. The internet message boards I stalk are full of pregnant moms chirping their anxieties and guilt about what they should do or shouldn’t do, what they did or didn’t do, and begging for someone to tell them not to feel guilty. When I found out I was pregnant at almost six months, my sister-in-law messaged me a sweet note trying to assuage me that I needn’t feel guilty for not knowing. I was touched but perplexed– I hadn’t even thought to feel guilty. Even making the decision to go on this reporting trip to Poland, people around me were more worried and stressed about the trip than I was, and I felt both touched and irritated at their concern.
Perhaps I have an inflated sense of security, or perhaps I’m just irresponsible. But once my doctor approved my travel plans, I didn’t see the need to worry over things that are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unlikely to happen. There’s enough stress as is– why pile on more unnecessary stress?
And then I caught a cold.
It started with waking up one morning with a sore throat. I had been in Poland three days by then– three very full days, with non-stop visits to churches and church-run refugee centers helping Ukrainians who fled the war. I was up before 6 am every morning, and in bed after midnight completely exhausted. I had been running on the ground the moment I got off the plane in Warsaw.
I didn’t think much about the full schedule. After all, that’s usual for a reporting work trip. Except I wasn’t “normal” anymore. I was running for two, and pregnancy had diminished my immune system and energy levels. By day four, I woke up at a hotel near the Ukrainian border feeling like I had been hit by a freighter. I tried working out as usual, but got so out of breath and dizzy that I crawled back into bed for a 15-minute nap.
That whole day, I felt like I was moving underwater. Every movement hurt and ached. I sat at breakfast smiling at my travel companions, but barely hearing a word they were saying. I forced food into my mouth, but my stomach heaved it back up the entrance of my gullet, and there the undigested food sloshed all day during a bumpy, long, overheated car ride, until finally I squatted by the side of a road and puked out puddles of my breakfast onto the dirt field.
The nausea stalked me all day. If I hadn’t felt the baby still kicking inside me, I would have been wrecked with worry for the baby’s health. I wondered several times if I did the right thing coming here, mocked myself for playing mission impossible. I guess for me, mom guilt takes the form of scorn and derision: Who do you think you are, some sort of martyr journalist? You fool, you ridiculous person dragging everyone down with your pregnancy cold.
I have no profound insights to share except that I had to swallow my pride and admit I’m no Superwoman. I’m just a regular human needing to learn to listen to my own body cues. Mind isn’t always stronger than matter, as I tend to believe. But sometimes, God gives you the strength you need.
That late evening, as we made our way to our last interview in Przemysl, an old border city, I strongly considered just staying in the car, stretching out in the back seat, and knocking out. I was so, so tempted to tell my travel companions to go on to the interview without me. But I crawled out of the car and hobbled like a granny nun up the hill to the church, and somehow, I made it through the interview– and it was a really good interview. I was glad I pushed through– but also glad to crash early to bed that night, and pass out for a full eight hours. And my body, given the rest it needs, woke up the next day feeling ten times better. It’s amazing how the body springs back when it’s treated well.
The last three days in Poland, I was by myself, without Ruslan and Maxim. During one of those days, I re-visited a warehouse in the outskirts of Warsaw run by a Ukrainian church. That warehouse opened within a week of Putin’s invasion, and currently serves as a hub for prayers, collecting and sending out emergency supplies to Ukraine, and hosting refugees who now work as volunteers there. It is a beehive of activity– men and women, young and old, buzzing about like bees, murmuring and bellowing in Ukrainian and Russian, organizing first aid supplies into boxes for front-line soldiers, unloading pellets of food from trucks arriving from Spain and Estonia and Germany, discussing strategy and priorities for the day.
The founding pastor of that church and warehouse is Pastor Oleksandr, or Pastor Sasha, a stocky, high-foreheaded former gang-leader Ukranian with greenish eyes and sonic energy. He sets the pace and energy at that place, and I rarely saw him sit down for a break. He was constantly marching from one room to the other, meeting with this bishop and that missionary, booming and ordering with the deep voice of a military sergeant. In the midst of that busy day, he still made sure to greet me and show me around, offering me coffee and dates and bananas and chocolate. Ukrainian hospitality doesn’t stop for no war.
That afternoon, I sat with a group of men in the office, all Ukrainians. Some of them are Ukrainian-American missionaries and ministry leaders who flew out on one-way tickets to Poland to help. One of them, a white-haired Ukrainian-American Assemblies of God missionary from Florida, asked me when I’m due, and if it’s a boy or a girl. He was the first man to ask me that. I told him the baby’s sex and the baby’s name, and the meaning behind the name, and he beamed.
Then he leaned forward with a sincere expression and asked, “Is it OK if we pray for you and the baby? We would love to pray for you. It is so important to pray for a new life.”
I was startled, though I shouldn’t have been, given that I was in the midst of praying ministers. But I suppose I didn’t expect these busy people to stop everything they’re doing– important, life-saving work– and pray for a stranger and her unborn child. That day, the Russians had bombed a critical bridge, blowing up the only way for the warehouse trucks to bring much-needed food and supplies to the war-torn Chernihiv region. They had several trucks waiting on the other side of the river full of emergency goods, and no way to reach the people who need it. There were a lot of logistical complications to work out, and lots of meetings ahead. And here I was, a reporter from Los Angeles, sucking up their time and attention. Or at least, that’s how I felt.
But I was still recovering from a cold, and I never say no to prayers, so I said yes, I would love prayers for the baby.
The missionary called out to his comrades in Ukrainian, including Pastor Sasha, asking if they wanted to pray for me and my baby. Everyone’s eyes lit up, and they shouted yes with enthusiasm, immediately leaping to their feet. They gathered around me and put their hands on my shoulders, and together, they prayed out loud in passionate Ukrainian, the kind that comes with uplifted palms and pumping fists.
I had no idea what they were saying, but I understood their hearts. It was a heart of giving, of blessing, of pure brotherly love. I felt my eyes sting with tears, and my face crumpled as I willed myself not to burst out crying. Instead, I breathed it all in– their hearts, their prayers, their beautiful foreign words of blessing over a child who involuntarily traveled with me across the world to report on a war. And my spirit received it all with gratitude and affection: Amen, amen, amen.
On the long flight back to LA, I sat back reflecting on the last nine days in Poland. Has it really only been nine days? It feels like a month. My mind and heart were full of new sights and voices and relationships and feelings that I did not have on my flight to Europe. I felt full, so full.
And then the baby kicked. Rolled. Air-guitared and danced.
I put both hands on my belly, and the baby responded to my touch, dancing wilder. And for the first time, I felt a deep emotional and spiritual connection to my unborn child. We experienced this trip together. We witnessed the work of God and His people together. We received blessings together.
I felt a little weepy again, and I silently whispered to the baby, “Thank you, aga yah (baby in Korean). Thank you for coming with me. Thank you for staying strong, and reminding me that I’m not alone. And now, we return home to abba.”
The so-called woman’s curse
The baby has been moving a lot more these days, especially at night when I’m in bed.
Sometimes I wish I can carry an ultrasound around with me to see what the heck the baby is doing. Is that a fist jab or a tiny foot kicking or a hip bump? Sometimes it feels like the baby is doing a little gymnastics routine, other times it’s either backpedaling or breast-stroking, and then sometimes I’m pretty sure it let out a series of hiccups.
It is the weirdest feeling, and not all that pleasant, but neither is it unpleasant, nor painful, nor uncomfortable. It just feels really, really weird. Like there are fingers inside me, sliding across my organs as though playing a piano. Like there’s an alien developing inside me, which I suppose is pretty close to what is happening. There’s a living mini-creature swimming in the amniotic fluids of my uterus, gradually growing stronger and bigger by the day. What a bizarre thing to happen to my body, after 34 years of it being my own.
Everything feels abnormal. I can’t lay on my back anymore, can’t walk without feeling like my pelvic floor is literally going to drop to the floor like a heavy sack, can’t sit in any position that’s comfortable for long, can’t eat a full meal without feeling like my squished gut is going to pop out of my gullet. I’m only a week away from third trimester, and I shudder to imagine what it would be like to lug a watermelon-sized belly around for several weeks.
But there’s also wonder and awe: My body is creating a human being! Obviously I’ve known what a woman’s body can do, since I was a toddler watching my own mother’s belly grow with my brother, but now that I’m experiencing for myself all these biological changes, I’m astounded that I’ve never seriously considered the fact that billions of women throughout history, from all over the world, have been bearing and birthing children. That this is “normal,” just part of the natural cycle of life.
Now I see: I have been living in a world full of daily, constant, repetitious signs and wonders, and I’ve been blind to it. I see pregnant women waddling at the grocery store, buy gifts for my friends’ baby showers, celebrate the birth of my nieces– and I would be happy for them, but I didn’t once stop to step back and wonder, Wow. What magic. This is amazing. God is amazing! How ingenius is His creativity? How purposeful is the way He designed the woman’s body!
One of the first things I learned in Sunday School was Genesis 3: the curse of man, the curse of woman, the curse of the serpent. After Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and disobeyed God, God cursed Eve, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Well, jeez. No wonder I didn’t find marriage or child-bearing at all appealing.
Even as a kid, I was never impressed by the women in the Bible. There’s Sarah, the matriarch of Israel, who just seemed like a bitter, submissive woman who did whatever her husband told her to do. She pined away most of her life longing for a child, and then tried to claim her servant’s son before abandoning both of them to wild beasts in the desert. There’s poor pitiful Leah, whose beauty paled in comparison to her sister’s, so she desperately and pathetically tried to earn her husband’s love by bearing him son after son. There’s Tamar, whose greatest compliment was from a father-in-law who claimed her more righteous than he, because she tricked him into sleeping with her– for what? A son. Then there’s Ruth, who submitted to her mother-in-law by laying at the feet of a much-older, wealthy stranger, and oh boy, what did she get in reward? A son. There’s Hannah, who had a seemingly-devoted husband but cried bitterly at the temple each day…for what? A son.
In the New Testament, there’s Mary, whose single greatest act in her life, again, was giving birth to a son. Of course, that child was also the Son of God– and I can appreciate the trepidation she must have felt about what it meant to miraculously conceive as a young engaged virgin– but really, what other great thing did she do in her life besides host Jesus Christ in her womb? Did she lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and blast sweet water out of desert rocks, like Moses? Did she sling a stone into a giant’s forehead, led an army on horseback into multiple battles, and rule over a powerful, prosperous kingdom, like King David? Did she, like Apostle Paul, travel across the Asia Minor, enduring shipwrecks and flogging and starvation and prison, planting churches and spreading the gospel to the world?
No, she did not. She squatted in a manger and pushed out a son. As a girl looking for female role models in the Bible, it seemed to me that the women exemplified as great figures of faith in the Bible were mostly all…mothers. Or wives. Or wives longing to be mothers– but not even daughters will satisfy them, only sons. The only truly badass woman was Deborah the warrior prophetess, and she doesn’t even get one-tenth of the space that most other men in the Bible get. I felt disappointed and dismissed as a young Christian female who admires and longs for chutzpah and charisma, aplomb and glory. Is this the best God expects out of us? To be wives and mothers? Surely, Lord, there’s more for us.
But I also felt uncomfortable with today’s societal expectation that we modern women should be able to “have it all.” That we can have our careers and independence and marriage and motherhood, that we can balance both the traditional masculine accomplishments and our femininity/sex appeal. Sure, it’s challenging to balance all those responsibilities, but a strong able woman makes it work somehow, so yes you can, you beautiful badass queen! That idea feels just as oppressive as the idea that a good Christian woman’s place is at home organizing Easter plates and homeschooling five kids, bonus points if you can play hymns on the piano and have adopted kids with disabilities from Russia or China.
Of course, the hubris in me still aims to be that woman who manages both motherhood and career with breezy class. We all (or maybe it’s just me) admire Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett for “having it all,” yet also hate her guts for merely existing, for setting a near-impossible bar for us earthling women by not only projecting brilliance in her academics and career path, but also somehow raising seven children, two adopted from Haiti and one with Down syndrome. I don’t know how she does it, but it makes my dirty soul feel better to believe that she cheated somehow.
I have been rethinking a lot of my low view on motherhood since I found out I’m pregnant. I don’t feel confident to call myself an omma yet– that still kind of freaks me out a little– but in bed at night, as I lay quietly feeling my unborn child do karate chops and somersaults, I don’t feel fear or anxiety. I feel awe. I feel wonder. I feel…like a miracle. Like I’ve been sprinkled with a fistful of magic dust. And I telepath-talk to the child, Hello there, little one. Are you for real?
What mystery– this powerful, magical thing a woman’s body can do. And I wonder, why us? Why did God choose to design the female body, and not the male’s, with the ability to do the most supreme thing any human being can ever do: create life? Nothing God does is accidental– He is an intentional creator, an unmatched imaginator who designs and builds with precision and purpose.
So I ask again: Why us? Why woman? God could have easily made both men and women able to bear children. But instead of choosing the man, the “stronger” sex with the (typically) bigger bones and muscles, God chose the “weaker” sex, the woman, to endure one of the most amazing and taxing experiences on the human body. And women throughout millennia, short and tall and big and small, of all race and ethnicities and ages and socioeconomic background, have continued the miracle of life by the natural functions of their bodies.
But that act is not without pain and sacrifice. I think of the Genesis 3 curse, the pain of childbearing– and from everything I’ve researched, pregnancy, labor and birth, and the postpartum stage do sound rather awful, even with medical advances such as the epidural. All that fluids and organisms that come out of us? Gross! Our body is rarely ever the same after we tear our body apart to push out a fully-formed human, and neither does our heart completely heal from the all-too-common traumas of miscarriages or stillbirths or infertility.
Yet even with all that discomfort and anguish and lifelong scars, the Genesis 3 curse does not erase this mindblowing marvel: The woman’s potential to bring life to earth. And to me, the most incredible thing about this act is the amount of self-sacrifice it takes. Think about it: The most powerful thing a human body can do is inextricable from self-giving sacrifice, from the uncomfortable symptoms of pregnancy to the searing pain of labor and delivery, and then the long, aching process of recovery while nursing a newborn who gives nothing but demands everything.
Even the so-called woman’s “curse” has redemptive, gospel characteristics embedded in it. I see God’s goodness and wisdom in this “curse”– that His ultimate purpose isn’t to punish and inflict pain, but to redeem and glorify the woman, and kiss her with an embodied taste of His own self-giving sacrifice when He willingly died on the cross for us. With this ability to bear child is God’s desire to make His heart known to us in the most intimate, visceral way possible.
And so the woman’s weakness is her strength, her suffering her crown. God’s “curse” becomes a blessing, one designed specifically just for the woman. Not something to ever poo-poo at, even if she never becomes the second-most powerful man in Egypt like Joseph, or builds the temple and composes wisdom literature like Solomon did.