The first time I realized the Christmas story had a deeper meaning for moms was the year my sister-in-law had a December miscarriage. It was her fifth.
My husband’s family was gathering in Denver to celebrate Christmas together that year, and she and my brother-in-law, the oldest of my husband’s four brothers, were the last to arrive. The morning of their scheduled arrival, after the rest of us were already two days deep into overeating and negotiating space in the crowded house, news started to spread like a game of telephone. Someone had received a text — my mother-in-law, I presume — that my sister-in-law had been pregnant, farther along than any of the previous times. But at that week’s doctor appointment, they saw the same static image on the ultrasound screen they had seen too many times before. Another heartbreak.
When they arrived later that day, tears fell from her face the second she walked in the door and had to face us all. This was supposed to be the big announcement. They had waited to share the news of their pregnancy until we were all gathered together under one festive Christmas roof. What perfect timing it would be. Instead, this. The heartbreak was palpable, like a ghost moving through the room with us, impossible to see but impossible to avoid.
The worst part was the Christmas Eve church service. I had never noticed before how much Christmas is about a baby.
I’d heard the Christmas story a million times before, of course, but it was a story complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Baby Jesus born to Virgin Mary in a manger in Bethlehem, destined to live a sinless life and die on the cross to redeem all of humanity and then we all get to live happily ever after in divine communion with God the end. The Christmas story is rife with fairytale and metaphor and meaning, and after hearing it a million times it can all feel a bit philosophical; a bit unrelatable.
But that Christmas Eve in Denver, the pastor talked in plain terms about the birth of the baby Jesus, comparing it to the births of his own sons. He went on and on about birth and babies and the love he felt for his wife as she became a mother. My brother-in-law squirmed in his seat, alternating between trying to comfort his wife and looking like he might get up and walk out in exasperation. I kept silently begging the pastor to move onto the Wise Men or the prophecies or more general themes of redemption. Anything other than all this talk about a baby. It was brutal.
We all survived that Christmas, somehow, and by the time we went to the next year’s Christmas Eve service my sister-in-law was six months pregnant with my now seven-year-old nephew. At the Christmas after that I’d be pregnant with his cousin, my oldest son. Christmas would never be the same again.
Yes, the Christmas story is about a baby. A baby who saves us. It’s a ridiculous concept, that a helpless baby might save a person, let alone all of humanity. But Christmas is different as a mom, and I get it now. My babies, in their way, saved me.
They saved me not in a mystical, fairytale kind of way, but in a scrappy, confrontational way. Their arrival in my life was like a call to a battle I didn’t know I needed to fight; a battle to find my authentic identity.
I have had an easy, privileged life — parents who love me and provided for me, an education that prepared me to be able to provide for myself, a husband who is loving and respectful and faithful, a career that has been challenging and profitable. And let's not forget the two babies, one biological and one adopted, both with smiles that can light up a room and a love for each other that is so sweet I want to bottle it up and get drunk off it.
I am fortunate that I have never needed to be saved in any of the tangible ways that so many people do. But in all of that good fortune, it was easy to stop paying attention. It was easy to drift along, from annual review to annual review, anniversary to anniversary, summer vacation to Christmas vacation, and let life happen.
Having kids changed that for me. I had a hard adjustment to motherhood, catapulted into a sea of uncertainty as my body became unfamiliar and stayed that way for much longer than I anticipated, my career became unfulfilling, my marriage more stressful, my time more precious. I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. It was an immeasurable gift to be their mother, but as the demands of motherhood consumed me, I felt my identity begin to slip away. And I let it, for a while, afraid that my sense of disorientation in my own life meant I was taking motherhood for granted. What would a woman like my sister-in-law, who had gone through so much to become a mother herself, think if she knew that motherhood was drowning me? I was lost and embarrassed.
Eventually, I realized that I could no longer drift idly along. While the drifting had always led me to the next good thing in my life before kids, as a mom, drifting led me further and further away from my sense of self. I had to learn how to pay attention. Not just to how I was feeling, but why. Not just to what I wanted to do, but what purpose that served. Not just to where I wanted to go next, but where I didn’t.
I ventured out on a new career path, one I had dreamed about but never had the guts to pursue. I developed a new relationship with my body, one that made me feel stronger not just physically but mentally as well. My husband and I continue to do the hard work of learning better ways to communicate and meet each other’s needs. It’s all a work in progress, but it’s work that feels worthwhile and that I’m committed to doing. None of these practices have been the obvious next step, the one I would have arrived at had I just drifted along.
I didn’t know I needed to fight these battles before I had kids. I didn’t know I needed saving. But then there they were, helpless and miraculous. Demanding and redemptive. Disorienting and grounding. They are giving me a life I hadn’t known was possible. More than that, they are giving me an identity I didn’t know I possessed. They are helping me write my story, not by handing me the words but rather by living out their own little stories so loudly that I am forced to find the words myself so that I’ll have a story to tell. It is the greatest gift of my life, to believe that I have a story to tell.
The Christmas story is about a baby. A baby who came to save us. A miracle indeed.
Photo by Emily Gnetz.