I got pregnant with my first daughter almost 4 years ago now; I subsequently carried her to term, nursed her for 23 months, and, in the same week that I celebrated weaning her, found out I was pregnant again. The cycle began again (or rather continued) with another pregnancy, the birth of another baby girl, and here I am, almost 5 months in to nursing and going strong. Sometimes I wonder when I’ll get my body back to myself, and yet some days I feel like my own body’s basic needs get neglected while I manage the various bodily fluids and functions of two small people. Not my favorite part of motherhood—to be honest. So when I went out for one of my runs this week, I brought along The Screwtape Letters (read by Joss Ackland) to distract me from lingering postnatal pain and help me disassociate from bodies for just a little while. Wrong choice.
I was winding my way up a steep hill when I heard the words “for they constantly forget what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.” So much for disassociating. In another moment, I listened as Ackland read “Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary.” Enslaved to the ordinary. That sounded so much like the way I’d been contemplating myself, counting diapers, trying not to consider how much time I spend nursing, cuing violins as a backdrop for my selfish moments….I started thinking about the way I view my work, and the way my time gets divided. I spend most of my day mothering, but of course the parts that I really enjoy are the stories and the snuggles, the coos and smiles, the parts that feel like play rather than shuttling to the kitchen for another snack or the bathroom for another diaper. Someone is crying. Someone is hungry. Someone is cold. Sometimes me too.
The more I try to quantify the bodily care work that I engage in for others, the more I start to feel like my work (which, in my mind, I begin to think of as my real work, meaning my writing and my teaching, my intellectual endeavors) gets pushed to the margins. In those instances, it’s easy to forget that intellectual work contains drudgery too, that there is no pure state of work that is always engaging and stimulating. By divvying up my day into center and margins, by describing some work as real and some as that which simply must be done to get on to the good stuff, I’m buying into a cultural ideology that devalues bodily care work. Such is the way of the world, but listening to Lewis reminded me that such is not the way of God. The Incarnation reveals just how deeply God cares for our bodies, and there’s nothing like caring for an infant to emphasize just how vulnerable, helpless, dependent the Christ-child was. Yet Christ took on flesh precisely so He could understand my predicament; the King of kings humbled Himself to wash my feet—and to die on a cross. For me.
Every week when I receive communion, I kneel at the altar, bow my head, hold out my hand for the bread and dip it into the shared chalice. His body. His blood. Given for me. And I’m tallying up diapers as I partake in a ritual that stretches through the centuries, incorporating me into a body of believers who trust that humbling ourselves before the altar bears some imprint on our souls. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis talks about the difference between lowercase church (“the actual faces in the next pew,” “the half-finished sham Gothic erection on the new building estate”) and the Church “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners….a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.” Those distinctions illustrate the paradox of the Christian life: earth-bound and heaven-minded, heaven-bound and earth-minded, creatures of flesh and of spirit. Listening to Lewis did not distract me from my pain or my self pity; it transformed the first and convicted me of the second, reminding me that as I stoop to change diapers I am doing nothing more—and much much less—than Christ Himself came to earth to do for me, body and soul.