I am absolutely thrilled to begin a new series on Orthodox Motherhood that I am calling “Chat With An Orthodox Author.”
I know that many of you love to read books written by and for Orthodox women, as do I! So, I thought it would be amazing to get to know some of these writers a little better.
Our first author chat is with Laura Jansson. Laura is the author of the recently released Fertile Ground: A Pilgrimage Through Pregnancy, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. Let’s dive right in to our interview with Laura!
Tell us a little about your most recent writing project. What is it about? What inspired you to write this book?
My most recent writing project is also my biggest one ever – it’s a book entitled Fertile Ground: A Pilgrimage Through Pregnancy (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
Fertile Ground is the book that started growing in me alongside my first pregnancy sixteen years ago. I was astonished by the spiritual growth that I was undergoing at the same time as my belly was growing, and by the striking new dimension my Christian faith took on in the light of the experience of co-creating new life with God. Yet none of the birth classes or books I came across were talking about this. They were all focused on the pros and cons of different medical procedures, or which vegetable was the size of my baby that week.
But as I began to serve other families – first as a childbirth educator and then as a doula – I learned that I wasn’t alone. I was blessed to witness the beauty and grace of lots of other women as they lived out in their bodies and souls the reality that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. I came to see that for everybody, pregnancy is a time ripe for change – a time when the old self is being undone, and our tender Lord reaches out, offering to renew us. And so I started to write about it.
Fertile Ground is therefore the book I wanted to read during my own pregnancies. It
takes the form of a series of reflections, one per gestational week, on different themes we wrestle with during these times – for instance, hospitality, pain, nesting, control, waiting, and self-denial. I draw on a wide range of sources: stories from my own life and the families I have served, passages from Scripture and the Church Fathers, medical studies and biological fact, and the practices, prayers and iconography of the Orthodox faith. These sources point the way for us to transform our pregnancy into a prayer, and the hard slog of motherhood into a path to salvation.
Tell us about your faith journey. Have you always been Orthodox? What drew you to/ causes you to stay in the Faith?
I grew up the daughter of a seminarian, then a priest, in the Anglican Communion (the Church of England, to be precise). Our family home was a Rectory right across the street from our church, and parishioners were in and out of our house all the time. If someone came over for lunch, it might be the Bishop, or equally one of the inmates from the local prison doing community service in the churchyard.
I studied Theology and Philosophy and Oxford University, because it was what I knew and did best, and though it was amazing privilege to be there, I’m afraid I regarded it as more of an interesting academic exercise than a chance for spiritual formation.
I met my Wisconsinite husband at the Anglican church in Berlin, where we were both living for a time. Very early in our relationship, my husband was offered his dream job as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper covering the Balkans, and we had to decide quickly if we were serious about each other. That would be a yes!
So we began our married life in Serbia and it was that experience that first put Orthodoxy on the map for me, but I wasn’t yet thinking of it as something other than a Serbian cultural thing.
When we moved to the US to raise our children and were looking for a church home, we found our way to a beautiful Orthodox parish in Milwaukee and fell in love. There was a great mix of ethnic backgrounds, cradle and convert Orthodox, and lots of young families, and we immediately felt as if we were among friends.
It was a time of our life when we were acutely aware of our need to sit at the feet of those wiser and more experienced than ourselves, and this was a place where we could rest and grow. Even without being able to participate fully in the Divine Liturgy, we felt the prayers begin to rub off on us, and slowly we desired to enter deeper and deeper into the faith.
Thanks to God, we just celebrated the tenth anniversary of our Chrismation as a family of four. Since then, we have welcomed two more kids into the Jansson clan, so I am humbled to say that I am now raising cradle Orthodox of my own. (I can’t say I know what I’m doing, but my children and my husband are patient and forgiving of my many faults.)
We now live back in the UK – in fact, back in Oxford where I was a college student. It’s an interesting experience to return to my own country, to my old haunts, with a different faith. But just like I did when I was growing up, I live right in the neighborhood of church – St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. We can leave home when we hear the bell ring and still be (just about!) in time for Liturgy. And because I work from home (as a mother/doula/writer), I can often come to weekday services by myself during the school day. God is still teaching me many things!
What does your writing process look like?
I’m just a regular mama with a micro-business of my own, so I’d describe my writing process as “catch-as-catch-can”. I snatch writing moments late at night when I should be sleeping, or while dinner is in the oven. I always have a notebook nearby to record passing ideas. The best ones seem to come either in church or in the shower!
Because I don’t get much time to work, it took me about three and a half years to write Fertile Ground. During that time my life went through several phases. In one of the phases, I hired a homeschooled teenager to look after my preschooler for a few hours a week while the others were in school. I would type furiously as they coloured, or played outside, but when my time was up I’d have to put the laptop away until the following week.
During another of the phases, I found myself unexpectedly organizing an international house move on a couple of months’ notice, and progress with my book came to a grinding halt. (My publisher was incredibly patient!) The phase that really got the book written was once all four of my children were in school and my deadline was looming large. My husband and I set up an office with our desks facing one another, and I got down to it.
In the end, I needed to learn to temper my perfectionism, and just call it good. I’m not sure I could write a book without a deadline. I certainly could not have done it without a huge amount of support from others, not least without my husband to house, feed and clothe us all while I spent vast hours on something unremunerated. He believed in the value of my work even when I doubted it myself.
We’d love to know about your family! What can you tell us?
For the past seventeen years, I’ve been married to an amazingly creative, faithful and energetic man. His work is somewhat flexible, and most days we are able to take a morning walk or eat lunch together, just the two of us.
We have been blessed with a son and three daughters. Two of our kids are in high school and two in elementary school, so there is a bit of a gap between our two “crops”. This is accounted for by a baby who was miscarried between our living children numbers two and three. We have a pet dog, a good-natured mutt who fools himself he is still a puppy.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? Why?
Ah, it’s long been my heart’s desire to visit the Holy Land, but it seems a tricky place to take children, so it looks like that will have to wait.
We’ve recently been talking about visiting Sweden, where my husband’s paternal grandfather, and therefore our surname, comes from. But the amazing thing about living in Oxford is that the world comes to you. I step out of my door and hear several different languages spoken before I even reach the corner. Visiting lecturers, musicians and exhibits from around the world are always coming through.
One of our daughters has Godparents from Ethiopia and Eritrea, and we were recently able to walk into town with her to see an exhibition of ancient Biblical manuscripts from those countries.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I was one of those children who brings eight library books home on a Saturday morning and has finished them all by Sunday afternoon, so it’s hard for me to pick out a favorite.
But recently for her birthday I gave our nine-year-old a book I absolutely loved – Mandy, by Julie Andrews (yes, that Julie Andrews! Who knew she could write as well!). It’s about a little girl who climbs the wall of the orphanage where she lives and discovers a little abandoned house which she makes her own – and finds an unexpected friend along the way.
It’s such a joy to see your children move into the same imaginary world you also once inhabited. You’re making me think, I’d like to borrow my daughter’s copy and read it again!
What is one of the best books you have read recently?
I loved Maternal Bodies by seminary professor and mother, Carrie Frederick Frost (Paulist Press, 2019). It examines several phases of motherhood, including pregnancy and breastfeeding, through the lens of icons.
This book like mine was released in 2019, which turns out to have been a bumper year for books by Orthodox women about the special incarnational witness that women’s bodies, in their fertility and infertility, offer to the world. (I’m thinking also of Under the Laurel Tree by Nicole Roccas.)
Though Carrie and I were not aware of one another’s work until after our respective books were in production, it was astonishing to see the commonalities that turned up, and so affirming to know that there are other people out there doing the same work I am trying to do. Though two two of us are among the first to be writing about childbearing from an Orthodox perspective, I pray that we won’t be the last, but that on the contrary we are greatly outdone by many magnificent books that are to come!
Thank you, Laura, for sharing with us! I hope that many of you are inspired to take a look at Laura’s book Fertile Ground. It would also be a fantastic gift to any woman in your life who is pregnant!
Laura S. Jansson is an Orthodox Christian doula, childbirth educator and mother living and writing at the intersection of birth and faith. She earned her Masters degree in Theology and Philosophy from the University of Oxford, UK, and has also resided in the USA, Serbia, Germany and Fiji. Since 2005 she has guided scores of expectant mothers on the path to parenthood, witnessing with wonder as bellies and souls grow along the way.