Source: Orthodox Family Life
Today’s American families usually prepare for the birth of a child financially and physically: We put aside money for room additions and begin education accounts. We take out insurance policies. Dad wallpapers the nursery and sets up a crib, while Mom buys Huggies by the case. But what do we do spiritually to prepare to welcome God’s gift?
According to Holy Tradition, Mary spent almost all of her childhood in the Temple preparing to become the Mother of our God, the Theotokos. She “soaked in” the holiness of her surroundings, and was taught and cared for by the angels of the Lord. She learned what she would need to do to nurture her Son, the Son of God.
As a young woman, the Theotokos was approached by the Archangel Gabriel for her consent before the conception of our Lord, so she was able to begin preparations for His arrival immediately… through fasting and prayer, with the support of her relatives.
We Orthodox Christian families can prepare spiritually for the birth of a child, too — a child who will someday be part of the Church, and there “work out” his or her salvation. We can start before birth to give our children the tools and skills and mindset they’ll need to achieve that goal:
Thank God for the gift He has given you. New life is precious, especially in our fallen world, and it is completely impossible without God! Consider asking your priest to offer a molieben (short service of thanksgiving) when you discover your family is expecting a new child. For couples who have prayed for God’s help and struggled to conceive, this is a natural response, but for couples (or single mothers) taken by surprise, giving thanks may not be the first reaction. Remember that, planned or not, life is miraculous!
Pray for the health of the child and mother throughout the pregnancy. Preparing for a new child is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually stressful, even under the best of circumstances. Family and friends can join together to pray with the expectant mother, as well as for them both.
Expectant mothers (and fathers) may need extra prayers and support if they encounter problems along the way, such as severe morning sickness, gestational diabetes, or toxemia in the mother, or defects in the unborn child. (Remember, too, that every Orthodox Christian has a guardian angel… Based on personal experience, I think they’re “on duty” before a child is born, even though we parents and godparents don’t actually ask God for one to be sent until the exorcism before Holy Baptism. An extra prayer asking for the future angel’s intercession couldn’t hurt!)
Pray for “great” godparents to be lifted up for the child. Don’t underestimate the importance of sponsors in the spiritual life of a child: they help the child’s parents teach him or her about God, and through their example, how to properly love and serve God.
Expectant parents may find wonderful candidates to be the child’s godparents among those who prayed with and for them throughout the pregnancy. This was definitely true for our family, when routine blood test results indicated that our new baby could have serious defects. For four days, we lived on the prayers and love of several families close to us while we waited for our appointment for an ultrasound and amniocentesis. (Thank God, the initial test results were wrong, because doctors had underestimated the age of the baby.)
Deal with the stresses of pregnancy with more frequent participation in the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion and increased scripture study, not less.
In the face of fatigue and just feeling crummy, many expectant mothers cut back their efforts in many areas, hoping for some rest. Let the housework slide —it’s not important in the long run! — but keep spiritual efforts going. Whatever the expectant mother and her family do to come closer to God — by going to Church services, praying regularly, continuing ministry efforts, etc. — improves the “environment” in which the child grows both before and after birth.
Pregnancy is also a time ripe for sins, including doubt of God and His gift, apprehension and despair, sometimes even anger. The healing Body and Blood of Christ removes the weight of sin and gives much-needed strength to the expectant family — and It nourishes the baby through his or her mother even before birth.
Consider names for the child by studying the lives of the saints, especially those commemorated around the time the child was conceived (that is, his or her “real” birthday) or when he or she will be baptized and chrismated. Our family chose ‘Mitchell John’ for St. John the Baptist, because based on the original due-date the doctor gave us, the finding of the saint’s head was near the baby’s conception and his synaxis was near when the baby would be baptized. The ‘Mitchell’ (a form of Michael) turned out to be appropriate, too, because our baby was born near the Synaxis of the Archangels.
Include icons for the child’s room on your “layette” list. An icon of Jesus Christ and/or a guardian angel to hang over the child’s crib make wonderful baby shower presents. You have to know the name of the child before an icon of his or her patron saint can be purchased, though. We called friend & iconographer Nick Papas the day our daughter came home from the hospital to give him the news and the name — Kathryn for St. Catherine. We’ve already warned him about Mitchell John, too!
Plan ahead for the Prayers of the Naming of a Child and his or her Baptism. There are many lovely ethnic traditions surrounding both of these joyous, thankful services. The whole parish family can look forward to celebrating a new arrival. (See OFL, vol. 5 iss. 2, for more on the naming.)
Fasting Tips for the Expectant Mother
Most doctors/obstetricians will advise their patients not to fast at all during pregnancy, stressing the fact that the expectant mother needs more calories and better nutrition than normal. And every priest with whom I shared our family’s good news has made a point of telling me that the Church does not require expectant mothers to fast or abstain.
Our family’s blessing was a surprise, so we had an extra wrinkle in the fasting/maternal nutrition department: We went through all of the Great Fast without knowing I was expecting. No meat, no fish, minimal dairy (a concession to our 5-year-old’s love of Kraft macaroni & cheese), a light snack and one meal a day… I was dizzy throughout the Great Fast and actually fell over several times (mostly on Wednesday evenings when we were at Presanctified, during the Prayer of St. Ephraim), but my doctor and I both blamed the problem on a stubborn sinus and inner ear infection.
When we discovered that I was expecting on Lazarus Saturday, toward the end of the first trimester, my first concern was for the baby’s health: had I unknowingly starved this child, caused brain damage, or stunted his growth? My doctor reassured me that many, many women who follow strict vegan diets have healthy babies every day… they increase their caloric intake, and add more peanut butter and bean/rice combinations for protein, etc. The babies are fine, as long as the mothers balance their diet carefully, and eat often.
A monk from the Midwest offered me this comforting thought when I was struggling with the issue of having fasted for so long, and continuing some type of effort for the upcoming Holy Week: Fasting will never hurt you or the child, who God loves and gave to you; fasting hurts the devil… the baby will be fine, because your body protected and nurtured him… now go eat something!
Thank God, we were all taking vitamins and eating spinach salads to “keep healthy” during the fast. We were using real recipes from the Taste and See cookbook, too, instead of eating just pasta (our former fasting-food staple). If I had been eating more, more often, I probably wouldn’t have had any dizziness problems at all, and not discovered I was expecting until I actually got kicked.
But every woman is different: some women can’t stand the sight or smell of food, or certain foods (like our neighbor, Susie; the only thing she could keep down for the first six months was plain chicken breast). Some experience serious gas and bloat problems eating vegetables of any type, or horrible heartburn that is only helped with yogurt or milk.
The bottom line is, if you want to fast while expecting — or feel you need to fast — talk to both your doctor and your priest about alternatives. Fasting is a vital spiritual tool, and doesn’t need to be abandoned completely. Here are some things you might be able to try for fast days:
During a longer fasting season, limit the kinds of foods you eat — without limiting quantity or skipping meals — only on certain days (e.g., no meat or fish on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but keep the dairy).
Make the foods you eat simple. Use simple cooking methods, and stay away from dressings or spices to make food taste good.
Avoid the things you “crave”. In my case, late in pregnancy, I craved KitKats; no argument can be made for the nutritional value of these fat-laden, chocolate-covered sugar bars, so they’re a good candidate for “pregnancy fasting”.
Finally, you may want to talk to your priest if you have difficulty abstaining before Holy Communion on Sundays and feast days during your pregnancy. Many women become light-headed if they don’t eat something in the morning, and your priest may advise you that you may eat a small amount “for medicinal purposes”. Remember to keep what you eat simple and light: juice and whole-grain cereal, for example, rather than a western omelet with hash browns, bacon, and toast (save that for after Liturgy!).