Doubt, and then Joy
Thirty years ago in mid-December, I sat, staring at the dying Christmas tree. We’d bought it at Thanksgiving, tying it to the top of our tiny Ford Escort and hauling it the 300 miles from Birmingham, where my brother lived, to Perry, Ga.
My husband growled when I told him I wanted to do this. Surely there were Christmas trees in Perry, where we lived. looking at my eight-months swollen belly, he knew he had better comply. By the time we got it into the house, neither of us admitted how badly the tree had been beaten on the trip. We wound the lights around its branches, hung our meager ornaments, wrapped the small number of presents and put them under the tree.
And then the needles began to fall off.
I tried not to think about my parents’ tree, filled with bright white lights, the small bells that had belonged to my grandmother, the glittery birds we had given my mother one Christmas. I couldn’t travel, fat with baby as I was. It would be my first Christmas away from home.
How had this happened? How had I found myself just four short years our of college, hundreds of miles from home, married and expecting a baby, when I was clearly a baby myself?
Oh we were ready for the baby, who was not due until January, but still. The nursery sat, freshly painted, the crib filled with borrowed bumper pads, pillow and soft blankets. The small dresser had been carefully filled with powder-scented drawer liner, itty bitty diapers and tiny t-shirts, the few footed things I’d bought that could dress girl or boy.
I was tired of waiting. Tired of the body and the swollen feet, the back aches and the indigestion, and I was ready for it all to be over.
But I was not yet ready, to be a mother. How could I mother anyone, when I still so needed to be mothered myself?
Each day, I waited, pacing the five rooms of our tiny house, fingering the blankets, folding the tiny clothes, imagining the kind of mother I would be. Silently I admitted only to myself that when this baby of mine started to cry, I would likely cry louder myself.
What kind of mother?
Would I be patient and kind like my own mother, or more true to who I already was — insecure and overly emotional. Would I bring laughter into my child’s life, or would my incompetence at the job bring only pain?
I wasn’t very good at trusting God, even though in these last three years He had flat out filled my life with joy and grace. Why couldn’t I understand that God would equip me with what I needed to care for this child, even if I didn’t yet know how?
Had my own mother wondered these same things herself? (Probably not one minute when she was expecting me, third child that I am. But maybe with the first two.)
Before church on Christmas Eve, we took our picture in front of the tree, the room lit only by the twinkling lights. My large red maternity dress blocks most of the tree, so it’s hard to tell just how dead it really was.
I kept a journal while I was waiting — the only time in my life when I have done so faithfully, and five days before Christmas, 1983, I was at least ready for the holiday: “waiting, hoping, crying is all there is left to do,” I wrote. I’m sure I cried myself to sleep that night, my poor husband probably wondering just who he would have to parent when the due date came around.
At church that night, I’m certain I thought not one thing about Mary. My prayers were likely about asking God to keep my childbirth experience relatively pain free and short. My petite sister had a few months earlier given birth to a nine pound baby boy, and had sworn to me that she would never do THAT again. (She did, just three years later.)
But if I had, that year, thought more about the Christmas story and less about own Christmas away from family, I would have seen a certain kinship with Mary. Swollen body, surely, but both of us mothers-in-waiting, hopeful of what our children would come to be.
Christmas morning turned out to be one of the happiest in my memory, even still. I picture our tiny family — husband, dog and me — listening to Christmas music, sitting on the sofa, covered in blankets. We cooked together (well, the dog didn't... he just ate) — something we have rarely done since — so happy we were, knowing that Christmas would come again, with any luck, within a week.
The next day, we threw the tree out. The weather turned so cold that our washing machine froze. The cleaning lady didn’t show up, so I spent the next few days on my knees, not praying, but trying to get the house clean enough for my mother to visit.
I know for a fact that I went to bed crying on Dec. 29th, telling my husband that I was sure he wished he’d married that girl, the artist he knew in college, instead of fat, miserable me.
Within hours, Christmas started coming again, and the present was a healthy baby girl. Beautiful and wide-eyed. Ours. And we could hear the angels singing. Don’t they sing at every child’s birth?
What joy God filled our lives with from that day to this. I learned to mother. And though there were days I knew I made mistakes, I look at my daughter now and know God gave me the tools I needed to raise her up right. In a couple of weeks, our post-Christmas baby will be 30 years old. 30. I have no words, except thank you, God for filling my life with such indescribable joy.