Saturday, January 12, 2008

Mothers and ancient child birth memes

I've been thinking about Candlemas. This is because the Mexican mother-in-law of a friend of mine made an epiphany cake, and I got the little plastic baby Jesus in my slice, and the forfeit is that I have to bake it in to my Candlemas cake. Ah yes, the Candlemas cake which I make every year (except not.)

Candlemas is of course the celebration of Mary taking Jesus to the Temple for her ritual cleansing after the impurifying act of childbirth. And it's when Simeon says the Nunc Dimittis, because now he's seen the Messiah he can die in peace. Oh, and Baby Jesus meets Baby John the Baptist. (Not that I'm buying into the narrative, but that's the story)

Anyway. So I was thinking about this ritual purifying of women after childbirth, 40 days after a son; 80 days after a daughter.

My immediate response was the knee jerk feminist "how dare They have decided that childbirth makes women impure?" but I've been thinking a bit more.

The period before the purifying was called the "gander" month, and the husband was responsible for everything domestic until the ritual purifying. It was a way of making sure women were able to rest and focus on bonding with the baby in the first 6 weeks.

They wouldn't be expected to go out in public - again, a way of ritualising the babymoon (and does anyone else get really distressed at seeing a tiny tiny baby still furled up but out in noisy surroundings?)

And then the practical things: postpartum bleeding takes about 6 weeks to stop, so it would be just about over when the purification ceremony would take place - and that post partum bleeding does take it out of you, and you don't want to be too far from home.

And 6 weeks is just about when milk supply calms down, so again, women stop being likely to spray milk all over everyone (I could hit people on the other side of the room if I wasn't careful in those first weeks). And they'll have got latch sorted.

There used to be the old adage about not having sex for 6 weeks after childbirth - is that still in operation? I can't remember - so it might also have been a way of getting men to leave their women alone for those first weeks.

And actually, there are still resonances. Statutory maternity leave in this country is 8 weeks. Even if you're only on the State maternity pay (200 pounds a week or something) you aren't allowed to go back to work until 8 weeks post partum, whether you want to or not. So there's an interesting secularisation of the same thing.

Yet again, it's one of those things which at first glance is patriarchal and despicable, but beneath the surface are subtle and woman-centred machinations.


Willow said...

Where can I get £200 a week statutory maternity pay? I think it's a little more than £100.

Just because there might be some minor benefits for some women doesn't stop this "gander month" idea being appauling.

You won't make me wait 40 or 80 days if, perish the thought, I have a daughter. Hubby and I are longing for me to be able to put baby down so we can have sex facing each other again.

I hope your plastic Jesus doesn't melt in the oven.


emma said...

That's the kind of typo (200 rather than 100) I wish they'd make at the Treasury :-) You're right. £100 is what it was.

What is it you hate so much about the idea of a 'gander' month? I rather liked the way it was expected that women would just drop everything else and look after the new baby rather than being expected to carry water and bake bread and things immediately post partum.

The ritual cleansing bit is yuck, indeed. Do you have any ideas about why that came about?

I won't make you wait 40 or 80 days for anything - are you talking about sex? none of my business, Willow :-)

Yeah, I'm a bit worried about the melting potential, but there it was, firmly cooked int the cake. Maybe it was a miracle.

Anonymous said...

"does anyone else get really distressed at seeing a tiny tiny baby still furled up but out in noisy surroundings"

I do get the feeling that a precious little person is not being treasured as it should. But is it rational? If the baby is not distressed is there a problem?

"I could hit people on the other side of the room if I wasn't careful in those first weeks"

Oh yeah? I could hit people across the street!

*starts boob squirting competion*

As for that cake tradition, I find it quite cute!

Haven't Health and Safety laws forbid the insertion of non-edible stuff inside food in here yet?

In Portugal they forbid the gift in Bolo Rei now. I say it's time to get the guns and carnations out again but people don't listen.

"Hubby and I are longing for me to be able to put baby down so we can have sex facing each other again."

LOL! How unMary of you. o_O

Anonymous said...

Never thought about it like that before..... good perspective to view from.

I like the idea of a celebration to mark the end of a babymoon period, although in what form it could take... maybe the cleansing was very different from how we imagine it (think lots of women celebrants gathered, baptism type of thing with mother as centre of pinwheel of family: basking in oil massage, hair treatment and then a final rinse in flowered water and re-dressing signifying the woman coming out of the temple is forever changed - a mother rather than maiden type of thing. Maybe the interpretation by a man viewing the whole thing might easily have been noted down as 'woman being cleaned after dirty, messy childbirth'.

Maybe anyway :)


Gill said...

*Stumbles in..*

Massage? Where's the massage?