Maternal Body

by Carrie Frederick Frost

About a decade ago I found myself pregnant with triplets halfway through work on a PhD in theology at the University of Virginia. My husband and I had thought long and hard about having a third child, so the joke was on us when—to our total surprise—we learned at a routine ultrasound that I was carrying not just our third child, but also our fourth and fifth. One of my many reactions to this news was to write a book.

Admittedly, penning a work of incarnational theology many not be the typical reaction to a triplet pregnancy, but there’s really nothing typical about a triplet pregnancy. For me, even though I had been a mother of two for several years already, the prospect of a trifecta of infants raised the spiritual stakes of motherhood: I was deeply driven to know more about how motherhood was understood within the Orthodox Christian theological tradition.

Simply by setting foot in an Orthodox church, one is overwhelmed by images of maternity: icons of Mary holding her infant son Jesus and other icons that celebrate the conception and birth of particular saints, such as Mary’s mother, Anna, and John the Baptist. Words in praise of Mary’s motherhood are often heard, as in the eucharistic prayers: “It is truly right to bless you, Theotokos [Birthgiver of God], ever blessed, most pure, and Mother of our God.” With all of these marvelous treatments of motherhood available, I assumed there were complementary theological treatises.

But this was not so. Despite all the imagery and hymnic praise of mothers that is part of everyday church life, motherhood is not a topic that has been taken up for deep theological reflection in the Orthodox tradition, despite the centrality of the Mother of God to our church. And thus, I set out to tap Orthodox sources—icons, feasts, homilies, and prayers—for theological information about motherhood, and my new book Maternal Body: A Theology of Incarnation from the Christian East is the result.

At the outset of my work, I expected to find affirmations of motherhood, since that was what I was seeing on the walls around me at church and hearing during liturgy and since motherhood was presented favorably in my church experience. I did find some affirmation, but I found other, more complex portrayals of motherhood as well. Most interesting to me, I found an understanding of motherhood in which spirituality and physicality are deeply intertwined, which affirmed my own experience of motherhood.

For me, motherhood is ferociously, joyously, inexorably, surprisingly physical. My march through the initial biological process of motherhood—conception, pregnancy, childbirth, the postpartum time, and breastfeeding—was full of palpable, material changes to my physical being. And this was exponentially the case during the triplet pregnancy. More than that, and beyond that time of early motherhood, are the ways in which motherhood anchors my attention in my own skin, in my body. No longer was I able to live largely in the abstractions of the mind; my existence was newly moored in my physical being when I became a mother, moored in my own maternal body. This experience was echoed by other mothers around me, and not just biological mothers; my friends who adopted children also experienced a new sense of embodiment.

I furthermore encountered depictions of motherhood in Orthodoxy that did not affirm motherhood as a vocation, and did not affirm the maternal body. In fact, I found times when my tradition denigrates the maternal body, contrary to its deep reverence for the human form based on the Incarnation. Encountering these disparities having to do with motherhood prompted me to reckon with the ways in which the church has failed to live up to its theology of the body. Discomfort with parts of one’s tradition is hardly an experience unique to me, particular to motherhood, or confined to the Orthodox context; it is shared with people belonging to ancient churches and faiths. We also share the need for ways of encountering the imperfect record of our traditions, and so reflection on this challenge also became part of the book.

Another shared reality with many other traditions with longevity is the limited space for women’s, including mother’s, voices within theological conversations and ritual practice. I reflect on the consequences of this at several places in the book, but, more than that, I look hopefully to the future, because now, for the first time in any significant number, women are entering the ranks of theologian, iconographer, hymnographer, historian, canon lawyer, liturgist, and so on. I believe this will not only bring a more holistic understanding of mothers, women, and their bodies into the church, but that it will be an untold blessing for the entire body of the church; for all people of all ages.

The more I worked on this theme of the maternal body, the more I realized that it pointed to a larger problem of disembodiment not limited to mothers or even to women. There are so many temptations that pull us away from our bodies today—screens, news feeds, other demands of modern life—and the consequences of living as though disembodied are tragic: we take care neither of ourselves, nor of creation. We need to be fully embodied in order to be our true selves, in deep communion with each other, the world, and the church. And God; Jesus, after all, chose to share with us an incarnate life.

Whether we are female or male, whether we are mothers or not, whether we are mothers adoptive or biological, we each make our appearance in the cosmos through a maternal body; our mother’s body gives us our own body. In these bodies we live our lives and find our way into the next. It is my hope that reflection on the maternal body, an unused lens for looking at the incarnation and our embodiment, will offer us new ways of understanding our experience as humans and better cultivating our relationship with our creator.

Carrie Frederick Frost, PhD is Secretary of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) and a Professor of Theology at Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.