40 days with baby bird
The Orthodox Church has a custom– or some would say rule– that after giving birth, a mother should return to church after waiting a period of forty days. It reflects the scriptural account of Mary, who presented herself at the temple forty days after giving birth to Jesus.
People say a lot of other things about it, and why this custom exists. Whatever the theological symbolism, and despite having taken notes furtively in Erickson’s canon law class at seminary, I’m more capable of appreciating the practical value of this waiting period than the spiritual. I can only think of these forty days as a period of recovery and adjustment to a new reality. At first I thought this seemed like an unnecessarily extravagent period of recovery, but I’m realizing now that recovery from childbirth is comparable to nothing else I’ve ever had experience with. I need a lot of time, whether or not I wake up feeling like I do on any given day.
I can only wonder, since this custom began in the middle ages, why the period wasn’t longer. Women in Byzantium were not discharged from cushiony hospitals after being looked after by a legion of nurses, then armed with pain med prescriptions for the weeks ahead. They couldn’t send their husband to Walgreens for a variety of soothing treatments. They couldn’t go online to the La Leche League FAQs to find solutions to their breastfeedng quandries. Baby soothing contraptions like battery operated bouncers, swings, and pacifiers weren’t invented. Despite, or maybe because of my utter reliance upon all of these post-natal succors, I keep thinking I might be ready once again to have a normal day of activity. This has not proven to be the case. One outing with the stroller is enough to send me back under my quilt, donning the fuzzy aromatherapy socks that a more experienced mother of three gave me. Esme seems to be on the same slow track as me, and reacts with grumpiness to anything more strenuous than being burped.
We’ve started calling Esme, among other nicknames, baby bird, because of the way she sometimes cranes her little neck upward like a baby bird asking for a worm. I’m realizing that these weeks– her first several weeks outside of the womb– aren’t really comparable to ordinary life, either for her, or for me. But, like most Americans, I feel the tug to get back to normal life, not be bothered by something so useless as rest. A few days of nearly getting sick has shown me that I need to think of this time in the way that the Church leads me to, in a practical sense. I’m hoping that if there is in fact a deeper theological potency behind this literally byzantine custom, it’s meaning will sprout and grow inside of me in forty days time, if I don’t plow it over with my heedlessness.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, Savior, save us.