This past week, some of my friends and I were talking about motherhood and Lent. All of them are either nursing or pregnant, and I, for the first time in years, am neither. They were saying, “I feel a little guilty for not fasting during Lent.” And I responded (in many more words): “Don’t feel guilty! I did, too. But now that I’m experiencing Lent without being pregnant or nursing, I won’t feel that way again.” Then they said, “Write a post on this for the Homely Hours!”* And so, I did.
Lent calls for sacrificial love through fasting every year. But that can look different, and it ought to look different for those who are are nursing or pregnant. Lenten fasting always comes with the caveat: “Those who are ill, those who are pregnant or nursing, those with strenuous jobs, and young children, etc. are not expected to keep this fast.” Our Mother Church asks us for different sacrifices at different seasons of our life, but she will not burden us with more than we can handle.
Now, in the past, while nursing or pregnant, I have worried that I’m making an excuse — pulling out a “get-out-of-Lent-free” card. So, I’ve felt an undercurrent of guilt, even if I’ve known rationally that it’s wise. Now that I’m not pregnant or nursing during Lent, I’ve confirmed what I tentatively thought before. Besides the fact that it’s not healthy for a pregnant or nursing woman to fast, it’s also too much. In my (definitely limited) experience, the daily sacrifices of a pregnant or breastfeeding mother are more than equivalent to the standard Lenten fast.
Last year, I was still nursing my 20 month old. But because she was was older, I thought I could start to fast. I would make it until around 2pm and would feel like I was going to disintegrate in a very unhealthy way (Now, there were other contributors there, including the fact that she was still sleeping like a newborn. But she was a toddler, so it should have been a little easier). For me, even with an older nursing child, it was still not a good idea to try to fast for a day.
But this year is different. And quite frankly, I’m finding it’s easier to voluntarily not eat for 24 hours than to involuntarily give up both sleep and a normal schedule for a nursing child. It’s easier to voluntarily fast than it is to have to eat so that you won’t be sick while pregnant. It’s easier because Lenten fasting is within my control. It’s incredibly difficult to accept with joy what I have no control over and what has no end in sight– the teething baby who won’t stop comfort nursing, the coughing toddler and nursing baby who take turns waking each other up, the pregnancy where you don’t feel like eating but if you don’t eat, you won’t stop throwing up.
There is a reason that Saint Paul says “She will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”** I used to bristle whenever I read that verse, now I find it so hopeful and encouraging. I take “childbirth” as the summing up of motherhood. In “childbirth,” a mother first gives up her body for the sake of another. She imitates Christ. She embodies the Gospel. And, as we know, this doesn’t end with childbirth. If she continues in motherhood with faith and love and holiness and self-control, the shape of the Gospel repeats itself in her life — in the night wakings, the comfort nursing, the constant giving up of what she wants in order to do what is best for her child. As my friend Michelle said, “In a way, with every action, a mother says to her child, ‘This is my body, given for you.’ “
Being pregnant or nursing isn’t a “get-out-of-Lent-free” card. These times of pregnancy and nursing can, in many ways, serve as a (much longer) Lenten season in our lives: purifying and growing us in our imitation of Christ’s sacrificial love.
Now, with that, another caveat: I’m not suggesting that if we’re nursing or pregnant, we shouldn’t do anything in terms of food for Lent. No, Lent is a gift to us. It won’t hurt anyone to give up sugar or butter or to eat fish on Fridays. But in all this, as my priest Fr. Wayne says, “we strive guiltlessly.”
In Lent, we offer our whole selves to Christ as living sacrifices. We sacrifice because He sacrificed Himself for us. We sacrifice meals, time, and resources. And, in the nursing or pregnant years of motherhood, we certainly sacrifice no less, even if we can’t strictly fast. Let’s follow our Mother Church with joyful sacrifice and without guilt for Lent.
*After our initial conversation, Michelle Abernathy immediately started working on this beautiful coloring page as a gift for mothers. I think it’s best one yet and is truly a contemplative delight to color. Download the Mother’s Lenten Garden coloring page here.
**I sent this post to my priest, Fr. Wayne McNamara, before I posted it to make sure I wasn’t saying anything out of line. Fr. Wayne is very supportive of what we do here on the Homely Hours. I’m so thankful to have a shepherd who takes the time to listen and offer feedback. These are his comments on 1 Timothy 2:11-15:
“A passage that is thrown in three directions. All three merit. I think the tendency is to feel like we must choose, but why not say that the word of God may have layered application?
1.) Some see merely a reference to women being kept physically safe in childbirth (this makes the least sense.)
2.) Others see the more literal translation leading to a different conclusion:
- Vs 15 might be translated most literally: “…but she (the deceived woman who became a transgressor, the same…) will be restored (saved) through THE childbirth/childbearing (i.e. Genesis 3:15 – Eve => Christ) (the article is there in the Greek. text and important.)
- The woman Eve may be regarded to include all Christian mothers and their relation to Christ.
3.) This has to do with the way you have articulated above. The idea being she is saved (sanctified/restored) through the (her) childbearing — with childbirth, the beginning, signifying not just the birth (labor) and all the implications of that initial trial, but also extending to the demands of nurture and raising the ones born to her. Certainly the way you have expressed it embodies nothing foreign to biblical thinking, and is very useful pastoraIly.
The deception and fall of Eve means she will bring forth sinful seed, but the birth of Christ brings the more sure hope of holy seed. Every woman with children colabors with Christ in the formation of that holy seed.