The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge presented their day old son to the world’s media on 23 July. Speaking for the first time since giving birth, a visibly moved Duchess of Cambridge said, ‘It’s been very emotional. Any parent will know what this feeling is like.’ Dr Lucy Russell looks back on the challenges she faced in becoming a mother for the first time.
It is often said that having a baby is a life changing experience, and so it is, but it is also more than that. Becoming a mother doesn’t just change your life; it changes you as a person. The early days can indeed be very emotional. Many new mothers feel overwhelmed, not only by the feelings of awe and wonder which are stirred by conception and pregnancy, but by bigger questions about the meaning and miracle of life. Becoming a mother is instantaneous, but learning how to mother is something that – for most of us – happens gradually. We grow and learn with our children.
Shortly after the birth of my first baby, James, a newspaper editor asked me to write an article about how, as a mother, you can keep a spiritual life going while handling the demands of young children. At the time I wasn’t sure a spiritual life was possible with a new baby; as I adapted to my new vocation, which seemed all consuming. An elderly friend of mine had warned me that life was going to change as she congratulated me on the news of my pregnancy. I had smiled and nodded in agreement, thinking about a few nights of broken sleep and learning how to change nappies. By the time James was born I had all the baby paraphernalia; the cot, baby bath, pram and car seat. He would be sleeping in our bedroom for most of his first year, but his room was decorated, ready and waiting. I was ready and waiting too, or at least I thought so. My friend was a mother of four and grandmother of nine, but nothing she could have said would have prepared me mentally – or spiritually – for the niagara of love, and the overwhelming responsibility, that arrived with James.
I had decided to put my academic life on hold and stay at home to look after James, but I thought that otherwise my life would carry on much as before – except I would have a baby to care for. But life changed: permanently and immediately. When a child is born, so is a mother. It’s like a hand clap – the two come together in the same instant: clap! I was no longer the most important person in my life; James was. He seemed like a miracle. James affirmed my faith. The experience was so miraculous it was simply too overwhelming to think about:
I felt that James was proof that anything (and everything) was possible for God. At that time I was very pleased to come across a prayer for a new baby written by Dorothea Warren Fox, to focus on and calm my thoughts: Dear Lord, I am so newly come I do not know my name. I do not even know yet, Lord, if I am glad I came. Grant me the time to grow in love, rejoice that I am here. Bless those who make me warm and dry. Lord, keep my mother near.
Soon I began to realise that not only was it possible to have a spiritual life and a new baby, but having a baby actually deepened my spirituality. Motherhood is an empowering and inspiring experience. Although at first it did seem that having a baby meant I was so busy I had no time left for God, as James grew, I started seeing all things new through his eyes. Witnessing and encouraging the awakening of James’ spirituality as we went on walks to look for cats – or played on a pebbly beach in winter – left me wondering at creation.
When James was two we bought a blow up paddling pool and bags of play balls to fill it with until the weather warmed up. The week after we bought it, it poured with rain. James spent the early part of one morning with his nose pressed against the patio doors watching the rain fill his paddling pool. ‘Go outside, Mummy? Play in the balls?’ he asked. I confess I felt at least as fed up and frustrated as him, and possibly more so. I took a deep breath and went under the stairs to root out some waterproofs and welly boots. ‘Garden? Balls?!’ exclaimed James. ‘No we’re going for a walk to find some puddles!’ We arrived at my Godmother’s house half an hour later, a bit damp, and ready for juice and biscuits (or in my case, coffee). While Aunty Jenny hung James’ socks on the boiler to dry, he told her all about how he had splashed mummy in the puddles. It had been fun, and I’d been reminded of Matthew 18:3: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.
Being a mother isn’t an easy job. It isn’t always very stimulating, and it can feel very lonely at times. But it is an important job, and an open invitation into the kingdom of heaven. Parenthood presents the ideal opportunity to become like a child: to have fun, to explore, to do things with no obvious purpose. Children take pleasure in simple activities, like playing with play dough and cutting and sticking. We live very busy lives; there is much we can learn from our children in spiritual terms. Sometimes, I just stop and watch what the children are doing for a couple of minutes and lines from W H Davies’ Leisure come to mind, ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?’ When you spend time with small children you remember what it was like to be innocent, fearless, and to have complete trust that you are loved and are going to be cared for. As Camilla Carr and Jonathan James write at the front of their book (about surviving their kidnapping by Chechen rebels) The Sky is Always There, ‘being human, our nature is love, our nurture is fear’. Having James was not only an opportunity to share with God in the creation of a new person; it was a reminder of what it meant to be a child of God.