Postpartum Lent: A strange discipline

By Rachel Adams

A week before Ash Wednesday, and just a few days before I would go into labor with our first child, my husband asked me what I was giving up for Lent.

“Sleep,” I said, only half joking. “But really, I’m not inclined to add deprivations to my life right now.”

My daughter Marian was born on February 18—the first church service of her young life was Ash Wednesday. She’ll reach six weeks old—which I have been told is a turning point in the difficult postpartum period—the day before Palm Sunday.

This beautiful little girl is my Lenten discipline.

But what an odd discipline.

I normally have a way of “doing Lent” that involves, well, a lot of doing. Reading, journaling, spending time alone in prayer. This Lent I set aside my physical appetites and needs, not for my spiritual life (which feels neglected), but for the appetites of a tiny human who is frantic if she can’t latch right away and needs all her concentration to poop.

I thought this morning that perhaps I could do my Transformation Intensive prayer exercises while nursing.

That was a no-go. Entering into an imaginative exercise turns out to be nigh impossible while a squirmy, whining child is firmly attached to my body. After trying for a while, I succumbed to  weariness. I put on music, sat in my rocking chair, and stared out the window, finding just enough concentration to listen to the words and let them pray for me.

Maybe that was, in some ways, truer to Lent than my past efforts. Perhaps my weariness fast-tracked me to that poverty of spirit that in other years I have fought to attain. Perhaps postpartum-as-discipline isn’t about the reflection and attention I give to making it so. Maybe it just is, and mere recognition is enough.

I am not fasting, because breastfeeding doesn’t allow it. But there is something strikingly ascetic about breastfeeding, and I find it more difficult than fasting. I pour myself out literally. I am exhausted and uncomfortable, and I choose to continue being so every three hours. Discomfort rather than comfort, and food instead of fasting because it is necessary to someone else.

I keep vigil every night. I don’t think about it—I think of little besides the time and the soreness and which hold will keep both of us moderately comfortable. But I heard an Orthodox monk say that the first step of vigil is merely to stay awake, and sometimes I succeed.

And occasionally, unbidden, in the plane between wakefulness and fitful dreaming I am a mother ewe with a little lamb, and the Shepherd sits up with us in the night watches, his eyes full of tender pride.

Yes, postpartum is ascetical, full of silence and solitude. And the other times, full of crying and attachment, can be even harder. I feel it scraping away the built up, unreal parts of me—first the polished, hard, calloused crust, then deeper into the soft, fleshly, comfortable parts—leaving only a quivering, raw center. That center is both weaker and stronger than I imagined. She crumbles into tears of desperation and even rage at a sideways look but picks herself up to resume the relentless rhythm of feeding without so much as a groan.

But I fear I make this sound terrible, like some dark night of the soul.

I have felt this scraping before, but always the cause was something that could fairly be called a trial: grief or loss or illness. In a word, something bad.

But this? No—this is joy and new life breaking me.

Sometimes I cry from weariness, yes. But just as often I weep for the peace of my daughter’s  sleeping body in my arms, the childlike love in her eyes, or sheer gratitude that she is finally here. I’m sometimes tempted to blame hormones or sleep deprivation, but she is worth that depth of emotion—this child who we waited and prayed for, who is a consolation after so much loss and struggle, who is a beautiful new being, valuable beyond measure.

So I undertake even the hard parts happily, not for some abstract duty or good, but out of a very concrete love. When we sat up, both crying because she was hungry and I was heavy and neither of us could figure out how to get the milk from me into her, it was my love for her that made it feel unbearable. Only a few weeks in and I can’t imagine life without her. Love is stretching me thin.

Maybe that, too, is closer to the heart of Lent. Maybe it’s not the fasting that reduces us to poverty, but that which comes and fills us in response. Maybe the beauty of Jesus’ holiness is what truly cracks us open, because we are not big enough to hold it.

Perhaps all I must do is acquiesce to the emptying I am already undergoing and endure the growing pains and stretch marks as love and joy balloon into my cramped and stingy heart. Maybe this Lent that is all that is necessary. Maybe, at the end, when Marian goes into the waters of baptism, I will also be ready for rebirth into resurrection. Not because I was disciplined, but because Living Water will always flow to the lowest point, and I have in the darkness, lacking words for more, prayed only for mercy.

Maybe Lent and discipline and fasting are just the words we use to say that Love must stretch and scrape and break us to make room for his overflowing life.

Rachel Adams is the discipleship manager at Church of the Resurrection and hails from Oregon. She and her husband Blake have been at Resurrection since 2018.

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