Choosing a Lenten penance is supposed to be easy for a traditionally-minded Catholic. One does what all Catholics did before Vatican II: fast.
But being pregnant makes it a whole different ballgame.
We really aren’t allowed to fast three meals a day. With restricted stomach space and high caloric needs, it wouldn’t be healthy for the baby. So we’re back to square one, trying to find a way to be properly Lenten without starving our unborn children and not passing out from hunger while caring for other children.
Lots of people will tell you, “Just being pregnant is enough” or, “you’ll get plenty of chance to do penance at the end of that nine months!” That’s fine, but even pregnant women like to mark out their liturgical seasons. There are even exemptions for nursing mothers, and for some women, this would mean no Lenten penances for years on end! A mother especially needs some purposeful redemptive suffering to help her accept the daily toils and joys of motherhood. And Easter loses some of its joy if you shrug off Lent.
Here, then, are some ideas for pregnant women trying to think of a good Lenten penance:
1) Actually follow a recommended pregnancy diet.
This book (hereafter “the Nazi Book”) will get you started. Basically, as a pregnant woman, you’re not allowed to eat anything that tastes good. But you do need to eat your weight in leafy greens before the sun goes down. You’ll be missing the traditional Lenten fast in no time.
2) Follow gestational diabetes diet.
Even though you already went through the penance of fasting for the test, drinking the awful drink, and waiting 24 hours to receive the blessed phone call announcing that you passed the diet guidelines are really healthy. They have you eating lots of fruit. So, take your pick between Nazi leafy green diet or gestational fruit diet.
3) Read and follow pregnancy advice sites.
This can be seriously penitential. Did you know that pregnant women aren’t allowed to do anything?
Stay away from cats. Don’t walk up stairs with no railings. Don’t drink from water fountains. Have a headache? Too bad. Tough it out. And while you are at it, only sleep on your left side.
4) Set a prayer regimen for yourself to do before bed.
Even attempting to do anything useful right before bed is pretty penitential when you’re pregnant.
5) Be cheerful while other people do all the things you can’t.
When pregnant, it’s sometimes tempting to postpone things you can’t enjoy along with the group. Roller coaster park? Let’s wait until after the baby. Wine-tasting party? Keep it on ice. Sledding or ice skating? Stand out in the cold and watch. Hot tub? Stand out in the cold again.
In Lent, try facilitating other people’s enjoyment without getting cranky that you can’t join in.
6) Do the chores you hate more often.
Soon enough you will be too tired from sleepless nights to do chores anyway, so do those that are the worst for you and offer it up. It is like wearing your nicest close while fasting. No sack cloth and ashes here!
7) Go ahead and do the partial or full abstinence from meat.
There are enough food options that pregnant women can find their nutritional needs in things besides meat. Beans and rice, eggs, and (the allotted amount of) fish can fill in for meat any day. If you hate being creative with food, then you have another thing to offer up.
8) Do not complain about pregnancy symptoms.
Some people have easier pregnancies than others. Some people throw up all nine months. Some people gag on vegetables. Some people gag on meat. Some people are only comfortable while eating ice cream and pickles in bed.
One of the best things we can do as pregnant Christians is to offer it up. If your pregnancy is really easy, you have lots of options for other redemptive sufferings. If your pregnancy is really bad, then focus on the prayer part.