Mary Wasn’t a Postpartum Pageant Queen

The traditional "churching" period of 40 days safeguards what is for many an intimate time of physical and emotional complexity, recovery, and growth. 

PUBLISHED ON

February 2, 2024

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Pro-life news outlet Live Action recently published an article highlighting the “extra special accomplishment” of momfluencer Hannah Neeleman, of Ballerina Farm fame, who gave birth to her eighth child just 12 days before competing in the Mrs. World beauty pageant.

“It’s been a postpartum like no other,” Neeleman captioned an Instagram video showing her trying on outfits, getting her hair and makeup done, and exercising. “Your Mrs. American (and baby girl American) are here and ready to roll!”

As a 29-year-old mother 33 weeks pregnant with my fourth child, my immediate reaction was an eye roll and a chuckle. I guess anything’s possible when you have a full glam squad and your husband is heir to a global airline dynasty! But I’m not here to join the already massive internet contingent of Ballerina Farm critics. The Live Action piece simply called to mind something I’ve felt compelled to write about for a while now. 

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In my small Catholic parish in rural Pennsylvania, on the farthest outskirts of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I am blessed to be part of a thriving community of mothers. In our little group, there are currently ten pregnant moms, including myself, and two friends who just had babies in December and January. When I read articles like the one mentioned above, I think of these beautiful women and the sad, confused culture that surrounds us. 

Modern medicine has made it easier to think that a woman can “bounce back” earlier and earlier after having a child. Of course, there’s an economic advantage for companies to have female employees return to work as soon as humanly possible, and then there’s the cultural pressure to return to an acceptable exercise regimen and social calendar (ideally before anyone has the chance to notice that something has changed). But as Catholics who understand the Church’s teachings on the dignity of women, we should be wary of such standards. 

I’ve been personally troubled over the years by these pressures while also experiencing a deep revulsion to such crazy expectations. In my search for consolation and clarity, I was inspired to discover the Church’s somewhat lost tradition of “churching” women after childbirth.  In my search for consolation and clarity, I was inspired to discover the Church’s somewhat lost tradition of “churching” women after childbirth. Tweet This

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, or Candlemas. This day commemorates when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for the first time to consecrate the holy child to God, in accordance with Jewish law. What also occurred that day but is less known or celebrated today is the ritual purification of Mary, who, though pure already, submitted herself to the process out of obedience and as an example to all women. 

The Purification, as the feast was once commonly called, entailed the Holy Family offering sacrifice to God in the temple around 40 days after the birth of Jesus, so Mary could receive ritual (not moral) cleansing, as well as a blessing from the priest. I won’t go into all the details here, but Msgr. Charles Pope gives a great summary of the Old Testament origins of the practice and the negative connotations of “purifying” mothers from childbirth that explain why it gradually fell out of vogue post-Vatican II. Still, the beauty of this rite deserves consideration. 

In her wisdom, the Church retained the practice of blessing and offering thanksgiving for mothers four to six weeks postpartum for centuries. And while a blessing of the mother is included in the Rite of Infant Baptism, the churching period of 40 days safeguards what is for many an intimate time of physical and emotional complexity, recovery, and growth. 

Reviving the practice of churching, according to Msgr. Pope, would help “rescue and fulfill the tradition with the beauty of Christian faith and the dignity of mothers.”

Now this was something I could get behind. It made perfect sense: we are the Theology of the Body people. For a woman to return to work, or working out, or even to Holy Mass too soon, is to deny the awesome nature of what her body just went through. And while the term “self-care” has become trite in many traditional Catholic circles, there is nothing more Catholic than honoring the body—the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit—with our words and our actions.

Some women have an easier time in pregnancy, labor, and postpartum than others. For some, it depends on the particular pregnancy. But it must be made clear that there’s nothing sinful or shameful about taking sufficient time to recover from childbirth. Scripture reminds us that Jesus favors the meek and the weak. As St. Paul writes:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

My parish moms’ group is a shining example of the beauty that unfolds when we invite others into our weaker seasons of life.

Over the past several months, we’ve set up meal deliveries for one another and swapped postpartum recipes. We’ve watched each other’s kids for ultrasound appointments and even when Grandma couldn’t get there in time for labor. Most importantly, we’ve prayed for each other and shared some of the struggles of pregnancy and mothering little ones. 

We’ve experienced what it’s like to be truly needed and to be in need. This is a good place to be. And rather than fight against this beautiful vulnerability, mothers should be encouraged to embrace it as a chance to receive God’s abundant grace and afford others the chance to benefit from it.

Even in vibrant Catholic circles, where we push back against our anti-natalist world by celebrating big families and childbirth, this very virtue can become a vice if we embrace a kind of works-righteousness about giving and recovering from birth, forgetting where our help comes from. I learned this lesson after my third child was born and I was recovering from labor and Covid at the same time. 

As much as I hated feeling that weak and vulnerable, it was then that I truly felt that all God ever wanted from me was my surrender to His perfect will. I wasn’t making sourdough—I wasn’t even making my own bed—and I certainly wasn’t prancing around in couture gowns with a carefree smile on my face. But God was as near to me as He had been on the days when I had my act together. I received meals and help from friends and family (my sister-in-law goes straight to Heaven for lovingly watching my kids while I convalesced), and I experienced God’s abiding love.

I learned that even in times of weakness, our bodies can reveal deep spiritual truths, the most profound of which are expressed in the crucified Christ’s mutilated body, offered up in love for the sins of the world.

Pope St. John Paul II puts it this way:

The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God [God’s love for man], and thus be a sign of it. (TOB February 20, 1980)

When we women fight against our own feminine nature and cave to societal pressure, or even a misguided sense of piety, we fail to receive the peace and grace God wants us to experience during what should be a uniquely sacred time, and therefore we fail to communicate certain truths about the dignity of motherhood. So, if Mary, the perfect woman, took 40 days to recover from the birth of Jesus, you can take that time too. 

Let’s celebrate Hannah Neeleman for bringing new life into the world and using her social platform to highlight the beauty of family, but let’s not miss the greater beauty and wisdom to be found in leaning on God and others as a witness to the supernatural goodness of ordinary motherhood.

To close with words from the great St. Edith Stein, “The world doesn’t need what women have, it needs what women are.”

Author

  • Carly Kashmanian

    Carly Kashmanian is a freelance culture writer and editor based in the greater Philadelphia area. She is a wife, homeschooling mother, Catholic convert, and alumna of The King’s College in New York City. You can find her writings at CatholicVote, Fox News, TheBlaze, Faithwire, and Theology of Home. Follow her work on Twitter @carlyhoilman.

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