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Of babies and bathwater

by
21 May 2021

Alice Watson reflects on the spiritual needs and possibilities of new motherhood

Zip Lexing/Alamy

A Woman’s Solemn Churching after Childbirth (Christen Dalsgaard, 1860)

A Woman’s Solemn Churching after Childbirth (Christen Dalsgaard, 1860)

I GAVE birth to my first son in 2014. I was relatively young, and, although I’d been to all the antenatal classes, I was unprepared — both for the trauma of the difficult labour and birth, and for the sense of shipwreck which followed. Becoming a mother was a huge shift for me, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

One of the first things that I did, once I was finally home, was to call my parish priest, to receive whatever blessing he could offer. In the months that followed, I clung on to the memory of that afternoon, knowing that, no matter how I struggled as I tried to navigate the first difficult months of parenthood, on some level that work was blessed. It sounds strange as I write it, but it helped.

As time passed, I learned that what I felt was not unusual; that this period of shifting identity — known as “matresence” (a term coined in 1973 by the medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, and recently popularised by Dr Alexandra Sacks to describe the physiological and psychological transition that people make when they become mothers) — was also being felt, to some degree, by the friends I had made as we embarked on motherhood together.

I’m unusual among them for having an active faith, but we all recognised and sought to mark the profound change that motherhood brings. As more children came along, we gathered for baby showers and “blessings”: rituals that marked the final weeks and days before birth.

I began to wonder why there was nothing that I could seek from my own church community: why, in a tradition that was full of ceremony and ritual, there was nothing for this — no liturgy, or balm of healing.

Of course, many point to the Prayer Book and its service for the thanksgiving of women after childbirth, “commonly called the Churching of Women”. As my interest in pregnancy and childbirth developed and became my MA thesis, I grew to love the churching service, both for its stark yet realistic liturgy, and for what it represented.

In past times, churching was an occasion of release, and (re-)welcome; it was centred on the mother, and her return into the life of the church. In the rubrics of the medieval rites of York and Sarum, special churching pews were used to mark the liminal status of the woman as she approached her return to communion.

Accompanied by her female companions, the mother would offer the chrism-cloth from her child’s baptism (which would have taken place during her confinement after the baby’s birth). Her labours would be recognised, and her safe delivery rejoiced in, and given thanks for. The medieval rites also focused on purification, recognising something of the struggle of pregnancy and childbirth, although overlaid with notions of sin and cleanliness which — rightly — sit less well today.

By the time of the Reformation, many of these more ritualistic parts of the liturgy had been stripped out, leaving a service predominantly of thanksgiving. We know less of the rituals that particularly fascinate me: those leading up to childbirth; the prayers for safety as a woman approached her time of delivery.

 

REFLECTING on my own journey, and the life of the Church today, I believe that there is still a place for the BCP rite — that it is a source of comfort, and recognises the transition which parenthood represents. But I also think that there is not only space, but a real need, for an updated service, in line with Common Worship, to provide resources marking pregnancy and birth.

As things stand, the old churching service has morphed into “Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child”, and the focus has shifted on to the child and away from the mother. In the liturgy, additional prayers are offered for the father, for siblings, for grandparents, for any “special needs” of the child, for health workers, and “after a difficult birth”.

No prayers are offered directly — in thanksgiving or otherwise — for the mother. Her work, her transition, is reduced to the possibility of a difficult birth, and the prayers are that it might be forgotten: “May this mother, remembering no longer her anguish, trust you in all things.” This seems inadequate, and fails to recognise the mother’s spiritual needs.

My MA work led me to explore rituals surrounding childbirth, both in the BCP and in modern spiritualities, which might be church-adjacent. My experience of ministry so far — especially with infants and parents — is that church offers particular possibilities at that stage, when there is a powerful need for connection, and gathering.

Issues such as isolation and a sense of loss are very real, and guidance through the early years, both for children and their parents, is key. Toddler and baby groups provide a form of church which is often under-appreciated, and yet, if these links are developed, can be a real stepping-stone into faith.

During my time at college, a friend who was pregnant observed that she felt spiritually unprepared for the birth. A group of us gathered for a service of blessing; to give thanks; to acknowledge fear; and to pray. This service, together with prayers and a liturgy of welcome (similar to a churching service), became the resources prepared as part of my MA.

 

SINCE ordination, my interest in this area has continued, shaped and deepened by the experiences of parish life. I’ve launched an annual service to remember babies lost in pregnancy or birth, which has reached a lot of people; and have started working as an honorary chaplain in the neonatal and gynaecology wards of our local hospital.

My work with young families, at toddler groups or our outdoor Wild Church, has reinforced my sense that the transition to parenthood can be a time of heightened awareness of spirituality and the presence of God. Although the pandemic has meant that I have met fewer babies in the past year, it has highlighted the fact that loneliness, disconnection, and shifts in identity associated with giving birth are all areas that are ripe for church involvement, through practical and spiritual support, and liturgical resources.

I’d love to be a part of work that further explores the faith experiences of those becoming parents, and how the Church can help to aid this transition. My own focus has been on those who give birth themselves, but it needs expanding to encompass a wider spectrum of parenthood.

 

The Revd Alice Watson is Assistant Curate of Kettering in the diocese of Peterborough. She blogs at hhoneylocusttree.wordpress.com. Twitter: @alicelydiajoy

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