Following Mary in the Fourth Trimester: A Mother’s Meditation
In the wee hours of the first Sunday of Advent, I sat in front of the manger scene on our home altar. My husband had just placed it there Saturday morning with my toddler. The timing was providential as I went into labor at dinner time that evening. I sat on my exercise ball, working through my contractions. I tried to focus on the scene in front of me: the two glowing candles, the figurines of Joseph and Mary partially illuminated in the dark of my living room, and the empty manger, waiting for Baby Jesus to be placed there Christmas morning. I waited for my baby, too. As the waves of labor washed over me, I tried to think about what it must have been like for Mary as she labored with the Christ Child. What joy must have pierced her heart! She would be the first to behold and cradle in her arms the God-man who would save the world.
My daughter was born a couple hours later, about seven minutes after we arrived at the hospital. Although going through the intensity of transition on the car drive and the hectic preparation to bring her forth immediately upon arrival was not ideal, I will never regret those couple of hours laboring in front of the manger by candlelight. It was a harbinger of what was to come in the weeks ahead, cradling my newborn as we celebrated Advent and Christmas and striving to stay the course with Mary in what is called the “fourth trimester” - those couple of months following birth that are truly, in a way, the birth of a mother.
The birth of my first child rocked my world in the best and most challenging ways. She has since continued to challenge me and I feel I have only begun to understand what it means that your vocation is the means of your sanctification. This time, knowing a little more what to expect, I desired to spend my fourth trimester following in Mary’s footsteps. I know more now how desperately I need her guidance and help. Mary is a model for us all in every season of life, but during this Advent and Christmas postpartum season I desired to focus on three lessons she teaches us: surrender, selflessness, and silent reflection.
Surrender: The Annunciation
Mary’s fiat is the perfect example of surrender. The angel appears to her, a young woman, and tells her something beyond possible imagination: she will bear the Son of God into the world. It require her complete gift of self. She does not know how this miraculous thing will take place. She does not know how to raise a God-man. But without knowing all of the possible outcomes of her “yes” she gives her complete, unhesitating consent. She surrenders herself to God as his handmaid, to do with her as He sees fit.
Motherhood always requires surrender of body and soul. Whether you carry natural children or adopt, once a child is born and in your care, you are your child’s home. The early days following birth are a haze of aches and pains as you recover, but recovery does not entail neglecting duties - your newborn needs you more than ever as they have come into the bright and strange world outside of the womb. A woman’s body is given over to this new life in a new way - nursing, holding, carrying, changing diapers. There’s hardly a second of the day when I am not in physical contact with my newborn or thinking about the next thing I need to do to care for her. Not only in the physical, but in the spiritual and emotional levels a woman is given over. With the birth of each of my children I am reminded both of how strong I am and how impossibly weak I am. I have not been able to control what happens during my labors, I have not been able to control whether or not my children are born healthy. These are things I have had to entrust to the Lord. I have had to surrender my control. I have had to surrender my children. I have had to surrender my own desires to care for the pressing needs of another - now two others. I am not always good at this surrender. There are times when I desperately desire to control how my children sleep, how my body is recovering from pregnancy, and how I manage my home. But daily I try to follow Our Lady’s example and say with her fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.
Selflessness: The Visitation
Almost as soon as Mary finds out about her own pregnancy, she makes haste to help her cousin, Elizabeth, who is in her third trimester. Mystics have said that Mary was Elizabeth’s midwife, the first to cradle John the Baptist in her arms as she helped bring him into the world. Most women in their first trimester are not running to the aid of another, but Mary is not consumed with herself or the noble task to which she has been called. Rather, she rejoices with Elizabeth. In true humility, she recognizes that the great things the Lord has done for her are not consequence of her own doing but are rather consequence of God’s great goodness and mercy. Her soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her savior because she is not self-consumed. She is not vain. She is not anxious about herself, but is humble and selfless. She therefore has the interior freedom to correctly give glory to God and to give herself in humble service to Elizabeth.
When my first was born, I wildly grasped at my fleeting personal time. There was nothing like being needed by someone 24/7 to make me realize how selfish I was, especially with the gift of my time and energy. Going into this postpartum season with two children to look after, I attempted to empty myself of this. When my toddler came in while I rested, I smiled and said I was happy to see her, even if I truly desired nothing other than to be alone while the newborn slept. I read books to her when she asked even if my husband tried to distract her. I made sure fo look my newborn in the eyes and speak softly to her every time she was awake. Now I know how fleeting those early weeks are. I know now that there will come a day when the baby will let me put her down for a nap rather than always sleeping on my chest. There will be a day when I can go to Mass by myself and pray without distractions. Now is not that time. Today is not that day. So I hold my newborn close and spend as much as I can with my toddler while the baby sleeps. I try to imitate that joyful selflessness of Mary by truly delighting in my children and not begrudging them their childhood neediness.
Silent Reflection: The Presentation
Mary at the presentation is the picture of the mother’s interior life. This event took place roughly six weeks after she gave birth which is generally around the time women are considered “recovered” and return to normal life and activity. She comes to the Temple during this time to do as God asked - for herself fo be purified and make an offering on behalf of her son. What she encounters is something startling - a temple priest and elder, Simeon, makes a prophecy about her child. He has waited many years for the child Messiah and can now depart this life in peace. Mary learns that her heart will be pierced with suffering. She does not question Simeon. She ponders in her heart what this holy man has said to her. Luke’s Gospel has Mary continually pondering in her heart what the Lord is doing in her life. This pondering allows her heart to expand as she contemplates the infinite goodness of God and the wondrousness of His plans.
This is something I am still working on as we celebrate Candlemas and as Lent approaches. I need more time for silent reflection, for a true openness to the interior life. In many ways the life of a mother is disposed to the interior life. I entrusted with the task of forming souls. I am always at a repetitive task that leaves my mind free to contemplate. But my life is also rife with “disruptions”: the boisterous songs of my toddler, the cries and coos of the baby, and the running list of to-dos constantly going through my head. Yet these “interruptions” into a life of contemplation are a launching point as well. They are multifaceted opportunities to give glory to God that my hands are full, my home rings with the crying and laughing that tells of life being lived, and I have the needs of others to help draw me out of myself.
In the (many) moments when I struggle to surrender, struggle to be selfless, struggle to seek silent reflection I cry out to the Blessed Mother with these words, “Mary, be a mother to me now!” May this prayer be often on my lips and in your heart!