It was a busy fall season in the church—a time when programs begin and new series launch. I was struggling to keep up, at one point collapsing on my couch for the good part of a month. The reason was not a full work schedule. I could handle busyness! No, I collapsed because I was pregnant and very sick with a condition known as hyperemesis gravidarum. Hyperemesis gravidarum is severe nausea, often immobilizing a pregnant woman, sometimes causing malnutrition.
A planned trip overseas to visit a ministry partner had to be canceled. My work had to halt. For three weeks, I was barely able to move. I carefully considered each morning if I had the strength to stand at my bathroom sink and both brush my teeth and wash my face. Flossing went out the window because I simply could not stand long enough to do it! Getting up and down the stairs in my home became major accomplishments.
I was miserable and felt guilty for being miserable. I wasn’t really sick, I told myself—I was healthy and pregnant! I had the privilege of conceiving and carrying a child. This was true. However, the reality was that the nausea was unbearable. I had been through it before, with my first pregnancy. I had desperately hoped it was a one-time fluke and that my body would better adapt to pregnancy the second time. But, alas, it reacted in the same violent, sickening way.
To counter how useless I felt, my mentor told me to lie on my couch and burn a candle and remind myself that God was pleased with me. I was used to producing, accomplishing, and moving through my goals with aplomb. But in that season, all I could do was lie down.
Working While Pregnant, As If I Weren’t Pregnant
After a month, with medication, I was able to move around again, and I returned to work as one of the pastors of a medium-sized congregation. However, the nausea never left during the entire nine months. I would drive home from work unable to stop at the store for necessities because of the energy it would take. I knew I would have to move from the car to the store, walk down an aisle, walk to a checkout counter, pay, and walk back to my car. It was too much.
My colleagues did not seem to understand how difficult simply working was for me. To be fair, I did not publicize this fact. I had always been of the mind that you should do the task you are given, find a way if needed, kill yourself trying, but get it done! (This is terribly unhealthy as I have learned, but it was still my mindset then and reflected the culture of the church staff I worked in.) Still, I was shocked when coworkers suggested that I should give my private office to a new staff member who would be working more hours than I! (I had taken part-time hours when I became a mother, as many women do.) No one acknowledged the difficulty of losing private office space while enduring Hyperemesis and preparing to become a breastfeeding, working mother.
I realized through the agony of those months that churches simply don’t know what to do with pregnant pastors! I was the first pregnant pastor that my church had on staff in their history as a church. There was no precedent set for how to accommodate pregnant women on staff, let alone go the extra mile for someone in a very difficult pregnancy.
The Difficulties Don’t Disappear After Giving Birth
There were no provisions for breastfeeding and pumping either, after I gave birth. With my first son, I would close the door to my small, private office, hook myself up to the breast pump every two to three hours, and keep on working. What a gift to the organization this actually was—my work going uninterrupted by the needs of my baby! But should my work have gone uninterrupted? Or should there have been an acknowledgement that parts of my physical body needed to be emptied throughout the day and stopping to do that was absolutely appropriate?
Did I contribute to the lack of support because I did not acknowledge my own limitations in that season of both breastfeeding and pregnancy? We would not require someone on crutches to climb stairs to a pulpit, yet I expected myself to do the equivalent while so sick I could not even make a stop after work.
A few months after my son was born, I was leaving a Vacation Bible School class that I was overseeing to nurse my baby who was on-site that day. A woman teaching the class stopped me and simply acknowledged my reality as a working pastor who was also a breastfeeding mom. That alone meant the world to me. Then, she affirmed me. She told me that the church was so blessed to have me continue my work as I lived into the realities of being a breastfeeding mother of a young baby. I had never heard those words before! I didn’t realize I needed encouragement or acknowledgment, but oh, how I needed it! I was fighting just to do the basics, while feeling unsupported as I kept doing all that was expected.
The experiences of pregnant and breastfeeding pastors does not need to be like this! If Target can prioritize nursing mothers in their dressing rooms, if Babies"R"Us can create special parking places for pregnant and nursing moms, if France requires that pregnant women go to the front of lines in public places, and if airports can place comfortable nursing pods in their hallways, surely the church can do as good if not better! We say we value the family and yet when our pastors are “in the family way,” we do little to nothing to ease their journey.
Isaiah 40:11 points to Jesus as the one who would fulfill this beautiful promise, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” Becoming a church that raises up women pastors is not enough, we must also strive to become safe spaces for pregnant and breastfeeding pastors. Just as Jesus gently cares for “those who have young,” may we also learn to lead the way in generous care for those who are with young among us.
7 Ways Churches Can Better Support Mothers
I’d like to leave you today with some practical suggestions for creating a supportive environment for pregnant and breastfeeding pastors:
- Three months (at least) of paid maternity leave required for women (and men!). This elevates the importance of bonding with a newborn and refuses to dismiss the drastic impact a baby has on each person in a family. Paid parental leave combats workaholic tendencies as a church system. This message will trickle down to the church at large, providing a living sermon to the value of family, self-care, and parental involvement in the raising of children.
- Breastfeeding mothers receive plenty of accommodations. Private offices are immediately given to breastfeeding mothers. Period. Even better, if the church nursery can be used for a childcare provider, it is encouraged during work hours so that mom can breastfeed and spend time with baby in intervals throughout the day. Finally, breastfeeding mothers are not expected to lead evening meetings or retreat gatherings that conflict with the sleep/feeding schedule of their child.
- Mothers of young children are not "benched" until their children are older. If an opportunity arises that a mother pastor is skilled and gifted for, she is given the option to pursue it or not. It is not assumed that she will not want it. She gets to decide. Mothers of young children have the same agency as every other church worker.
- Retreats and off-site events are scheduled nearby. Mothers of young children should be able to go home at night to nurse a baby, tuck in a toddler, or feed a kindergartner.
- Work from home is fully supported.
- Colleagues treat pregnancy as significant. Coworkers need to welcome, expect, and accommodate the difficulties that pregnancy and new parenthood bring—in the workload the mother is able to carry, the space she needs to rest or retreat, and the pacing/scheduling of off-site, required staff events.
- Both the church staff and congregation need to show appreciation to their pregnant and breastfeeding pastors. Acknowledging her challenges is also key. This is a chance for a church staff and congregation to be extreme in their graciousness and support.