Mary was a distant figure for me before having children. As a child she was the part in the nativity I never got to play (my short brown hair meant that I always lost out to my long blond-haired friends). As an adult, to me she was the venerated saint of Catholics, whose hailing brought a comfort I did not understand. I knew she was important, but I could not relate to her.
It was when I was pregnant with my first child, due at the end of November that I gained a new found understanding of Mary. Heavily pregnant I felt huge and exhausted. Travelling in a car for any length of time was uncomfortable so imagining the journey on a donkey, sitting upright with no where to lay her head must have been exhausting for Mary. Singing Christmas carols that year suddenly brought a whole other meaning of Christmas to me – anticipating the birth of the Christ child from Mary’s perspective.
When I gave birth to my first born, despite being in one of the top London hospitals (with a view of Big Ben from my labour ward), I still experienced anxiety at the new experience and unfamiliar sensations of labour that come with being a new mother. How must Mary have felt in unfamiliar, unhygienic surroundings and far from home? I could only imagine.
As my girls grew older, I sought guidance through books on how to parent, how to manage a tantruming toddler and how to keep my patience when sleep deprived but I wanted a Christian perspective too and not many books resonated with me. I struggled to get to church with two small children (my husband was director of music at our church), so I was not getting the spiritual sustenance that I needed. It was at this time I found Mary again through the medium of poetry.
The Book of Mary is written by a British feminist theologian, Nicola Slee. In it Slee reclaims Mary from the unattainable, “perfect” mother often depicted in art, religion and culture and re-imagines her in many ways: As an exhausted mum who sits with her infant at 4am whilst her tea goes cold and the washing slowly dries (‘4 am Madonna’), someone who bakes bread, who has hairy armpits and who is a victim of the laundry basket (“Mary of the Laundry Basket”) just to give a few examples.
Reading about an “authentic” Mary who experienced the relentlessness of housework and at times, the isolation of motherhood helped me connect with her at a time when I could not connect with my church community.
Advent has become a more sacred experience for me since having children and I could enter more fully into an understanding of the time of waiting and anticipating. I am very unlikely to experience pregnancy at this time of year again, but I definitely see Advent as a time to slow down and to look after myself. Unless I do so, I cannot possibly be in a position to give my best to my girls and husband and ensure I make it to those important Christmas events.
Oh, and I did get to be Mary after all.
I waited 30 years, but 4 weeks after our first born arrived she made her debut appearance at church as baby Jesus in the church nativity. Well worth the wait.
[Image Credit: Used with permission from artist Laura Kestly, Cage Free Art]
How has the season of Advent changed for you over the years?