Are you enjoying your baby?
How often do new mums hear that questions asked?
How often do we smile, through a lump in the throat and blinking away tears, and whimper “yes”, when we really mean “no”?
This week in the Church calendar we celebrated Candlemas: the moment when Mary took Jesus to the temple, 40 days after his birth, for her purification. And tomorrow is Time to Talk day, when we are encouraged to talk about mental health issues and end the stigma that surrounds them.
New mums know something about mental health. Mary would have been no different.
Forty days post-birth is significant: forty days is just shy of six weeks, and six weeks is the magic number.
At six weeks a mum’s body should be healing well after the trauma of birth.
She will see a doctor to be checked over and told she’s doing well.
She will start to feel reassured that her baby is gaining weight.
The baby might be starting to sleep for longer than an hour or two.
Feeding should be getting easier.
The baby has probably started to smile.
The shock of birth is wearing off, and life might be returning to normal.
And by six weeks a new mum is probably feeling more confident and less hormonal.
But sometimes, some of this stuff doesn’t happen. First time round and it wasn’t like this for us.
Our baby didn’t sleep unless we were holding him.
His screaming meant we had to sleep in shifts, and 3 hours of broken sleep was a good night.
He wasn’t gaining weight like he should have been.
Feeding was definitely not going well.
I was carrying the terrifying burden of caring for such a vulnerable and tiny person.
We were crumbling under the pressure.
By ten weeks things had improved, but it took me longer to recover from the emotional strain and the exhaustion.
I wonder how it was for Mary as she arrived at the temple six weeks after giving birth?
Was her baby sleeping well?
Was he thriving and gaining weight?
Were Mary’s nipples cracked and sore, or had breastfeeding been easy?
Had she healed well after the birth?
Was she riddled with anxiety, or playing it cool?
Was she obsessed with protecting this fragile baby with a fierce love that burned in every ounce of her being?
Bellini’s painting of the Presentation at the Temple is deeply moving. Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us much about how this young girl felt as she took on the task of caring for this baby. How much did this vulnerable, sleep deprived girl sweat or hold back tears as she handed her baby over to Simeon? How much did her heart plummet as Simeon spoke of a piercing sword? Luke says she was amazed. How much did her amazement overwhelm her? Thrill her? Frighten her?
Bellini tells us what Luke does not. Here is young courageous Mary, flanked by women, hesitating as she passes her tiny bundle to Simeon. What is that hesitation? Is Mary beginning to understand the fullness of her vocation and the pain that it will cause her? Is she, like any new mother, finding it hard to trust a stranger with the wellbeing of her child, even for a moment?
Bellini paints the vulnerability and courage of every new mother. Revisiting the Candlemas narrative seems to be a good place to think about motherhood and mental health. The dangerous cocktail of major life change, anxiety and sleeplessness is enough to damage the mental health of any previously well person. It’s not easy to admit to struggling after having a baby. It’s almost impossible to say that you’re not “enjoying your baby”, because all your energy is going into just coping.
I hope that Mary had time to enjoy her baby. It wasn’t going to get easier for her, and there is endless comfort to be found in Mary’s story for any struggling mum. For the rest of us, it usually does get better. Or, at least, we become experts at dealing with our children at the stage they are in. New stages will always bring new challenges… and new opportunities for growth.
Graham Kendrick’s Thorns in the Straw is not an easy listen, but for me, it captures Mary’s bravery and commitment to her calling. If you click on the link you can watch Graham perform the song.
Since the day the angel came
It seemed that everything had changed
The only certain thing
Was the child that moved within
On the road that would not end
Winding down to Bethlehem
So far away from home.
Just a blanket on the floor
Of a vacant cattle-stall
But there the child was born
She held him in her arms
And as she laid him down to sleep
She wondered – will it always be
So bitter and so sweet.
And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night
And did she hear angels sing
Not so far away
Till at last the sun rose blood-red
In the morning sky.
Then the words of ancient seers
Tumbled down the centuries:
A virgin shall conceive,
God with us, Prince of Peace
Man of Sorrows – strangest name
Oh Joseph there it comes again
So bitter yet so sweet.
And as she watched him through the years
Her joy was mingled with her tears
And she’d feel it all again
The glory, and the shame
And when the miracles began
She wondered, who is this man
And where will this all end?
‘Til against a darkening sky
The son she loved was lifted high
And with his dying breath
She heard him say ‘Father forgive’
And to the criminal beside
“Today-with me in Paradise”
So bitter yet so sweet.