Sunday morning I woke to a fresh covering of snow. I tucked my 8-week-old baby, Natalie Joy, into a sling, wrapped a coat around us and headed into the January morning. The snow clung to the bare tree branches, blanketed the roof and blurred the lines between the grass and sidewalk. As I stood there with Natalie curled against my chest, it felt like the world’s first morning.
Despite my bloodshot eyes and weary body, life is suddenly fresh. Just as Natalie is new to the world, our life must be rearranged to accommodate her. My days are now defined by simple, repetitive tasks: change her, nurse her, try to get a smile out of her, show her something — the row of books beside my glider is her most recent fixation — and then walk with her in the sling until she falls asleep on my chest.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church women have a 40-day period following childbirth when they do not attend church. Instead, they are expected to spend those days bonding with their newborn, healing and adjusting to the awesome responsibility of caring for the child. At the end of 40 days, the woman and child are welcomed back into the community through a short set of prayers — called “a churching” — and the baby is baptized.
Time to Pause
Last year in “Solace from Silence: Comforting the Bereaved,” I described a similar 40-day period following a death of a loved one. These 40-day periods of intense adjustment mark the major thresholds of life, the earthly beginnings and the ends of our days with those we love most.
Just as it takes a long time to say goodbye, so too, it can take many days to greet a new life. During my 40 days with Natalie, life felt surreal — indescribably sweet yet fearfully weighty. Our family adjusted to Natalie — and she to us — through the haze of sleep deprivation and jumbled emotions. I struggled to meet her constant physical needs against the limitations of my own taxed body.
Five years ago, when my first child, Anna, was born, I rushed through the 40 days. Home from the hospital, I couldn’t resist the urge to clean, to entertain a steady stream of visitors and to go for long walks with Anna in the sling. Those walks attracted the contempt of the neighbors: Little old ladies shook their heads at me and said, “You and that baby should be at home resting.” I just smiled and said, “But I feel great!”
I continued to feel great, until my body crashed and I ended up at the doctor’s office with several ailments and a 102 degree fever. Looking back, I realize that my frantic activity was a denial of the significance of what had happened and was happening — the birth of my first child that would change my life in ways that I could not yet imagine or anticipate.
I realize now that I also rejected a unique gift — for once, I was expected to just lounge around in my bathrobe and slippers and snuggle my newborn while issuing requests from my glider. Especially in the early days, the work of caring for a completely dependent newborn while healing from the rigors of childbirth makes a dependent person of the mother as well.
The wisdom of this tradition extends beyond Christianity. Many countries around the world retain a 40-day period of nesting-in for the new mothers and their infants. During this time, women are relieved of their household and public duties. In many cases, a woman’s mother will move in to care for her and the older siblings. I’ve heard that in cultures where such a 40-day period following childbirth is respected, postpartum depression is rare.
A Time To Heal
From a Biblical perspective the number 40 points to a period of fullness. Moses communed with God on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights (Deuteronomy 9:9). The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years (Nehemiah 9:21), and in the days of Noah, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12). Likewise, Jesus’ fast in the wilderness lasted for 40 days (Matthew 4:1-2).
As much as this number signifies a set apart time that eventually comes to a close, I wonder if this number is also related to the hidden processes that occurred in every story — a progression from wet to dry, from lost to found, a season of spiritual growth through prayer and fasting.
Every woman who has given birth knows that the pain and struggle does not end when the child was born. A woman’s body endures huge changes during those first 40 days and needs time to heal. Interestingly, the standard period of time that most doctors recommend for women to wait before resuming a more active life is six weeks — just about 40 days.
Learning to Walk Again
Forty days seems just about right. Many people told me that the second child tends to be easier than the first. While I am relishing every moment with Natalie, her presence in our life means that nothing is as simple as it once was. There are now two car seats to juggle, two sets of needs to consider and an astonishing amount of gear to keep straight.
The first few times as I prepared to leave the house with my two children I felt almost paralyzed by the challenge before me. My friend Amber loves to quip, “It will all end in tears.” Which is a pretty apt description of those first doomed outings, marked by lost keys, cars that wouldn’t start, and an older child who tripped and fell in an icy puddle — the worst part was when I couldn’t pick her up because of the baby in my arms.
I felt as if I were suddenly handicapped and that friends with at least two children would have to show me how to walk again. I’m slowly learning how to balance two, but it takes time, and I’m grateful for a sanctioned time of adjustment.
When Anna was born, I was so eager to get back to “normal life” that I missed my 40 days. I now realize that I wasn’t acknowledging the reality that life would never be normal again. I needed to grope my way toward a new kind of normal and I needed time and space for that process.
A New Kind of Normal
I’m now on the other side of 40 days. My life now has some semblance of a routine, although the work of adjusting continues. Checking e-mail while standing and rocking Natalie in the sling is a whole new experience. Showering continues to be a struggle, and the small daily tasks — like folding the laundry and flossing — remain on the backburner.
For now, the central work of my life is the baby curled in the sling, squeaking and squirming and challenging me to slow down and to enter into the newborn now. Because she is my second, I feel the clock ticking constantly. This sweet, fleeting time is slipping away from us.
For 40 days, I was disorientated, elated, confused, and sleepy-eyed. I wasn’t quite myself — and I think it is always that way during the major transitions — the self that we thought we were must be remade. And this is the gift of the 40 days — a chance to be still in the care of the changeless One as life shifts around and within us.
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