40 days with baby bird

Posted by on October 10, 2006


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.

  1. anna j
    October 10, 2006

    Fascinating post, Jules . . . I find it strangely comforting that your new identity has not miraculously transported you out of such human tendencies as restlessness with resting [words are funny sometimes with their parallel meanings!]. Comforting in a feeble, human sort of way. The way that I reassure myself out of fear-of-the-future by reminding myself that I take myself with me wherever I go, and that new situations/adventures/challenges will challenge me without taking me into some completely unknown territory–or rather, the territory may change but my identity will remain the same and will therefore provide a comforting sort of consistency . . .
    Ok, I will stop now, as I am beginning to ramble.
    I must say, though, before stopping, that I has happily cheered by the lovely photo of beach-bumming Esme 🙂

  2. Julia
    October 11, 2006

    I feel I should clarify that the above photo is not at the beach, but on the rug in my living room. Three people have mistaken it for the beach so far. This will not be the first or last time that my crummy camera has distorted reality.

  3. Erin
    October 11, 2006

    She is the most beautiful little creature…

    And I have often wondered about those 40 days, and how much adapting you can do in that time.

    I hope all is well for the Wickes family!

  4. Courtney
    October 11, 2006

    Drink up this time. Before too long, 40 days will feel like 40 seconds! She is absolutely beautiful!

  5. anna j
    October 11, 2006

    So I’m slightly embarrassed now. But also no longer confused as to how you and Jeff managed to whisk Esme off to the beach so soon after her arrival without leaking news of your vacation 🙂

  6. Jenny
    October 11, 2006

    Just think of it Julia–it’s the one blessed time of our life when the Church says, “STAY HOME, stay in your P.J.s, snuggle that babe!”

    When Anna was newborn I (being a bit euphoric) actually rushed back to church. This time around I’m hoping to Carpe the 40 days!

    I think it is a great gift that the church calls us to pause after the most signficant events of life–birth and the death of a loved one. Death has a 40 day period as well, although I don’t think anyone is expected to stay home.

    I think we need that time to pause and reorient ourselves to our new lives. Isn’t it strange how suddenly new life can become?

    Esme is amazing. I love that picture of her–and your nick name for her–baby bird. It’s perfect!

    Jen