A limb skimmed the inside of my belly, the slick slide of it like a marble rolling underneath my skin. A tiny baby boy jostled my insides, engaging in his regular evening ritual of chaotic movement. I sat feeling his unknown shape bump up against my own, considering all this child’s unknowns: the thickness of his hair, the hue of his eyes, the shape of his nose. Closer than a brother, yet more mysterious than a stranger.
This is the child I did not expect. He is the child I would have told you, a year ago, I did not want. But his story, like so many, is bound up in the mysterious timeliness of a God who seems to enjoy astonishing us. As I sat – nine months pregnant – during Advent, surrounded by reminders of Jesus’ imminent birth, I found myself dwelling often on the sacred surprises we neither expect nor fully deserve. In 2020, like many others, I realized how often love calls us to take frightful, beautiful risks.
It was a Saturday morning, the week after Easter. I woke up knowing that I was pregnant. The reality of it had settled under my eyelids sometime during the night, and solidified by the time I fully awoke. I knew there was a baby inside me – even though my fertility planning app would have suggested such a thing to be out of the question.
While our toddler girls burst into our room, jumped onto the bed, and tickled their daddy awake, I slipped downstairs. I rummaged around the bathroom cupboard for the pregnancy test that was jammed into a back corner. The result itself was an afterthought: proof to show the rest of the world. I wasn’t surprised by its answer. I carried the test up to my husband, showed him the positive sign, and burst into tears.
I was ashamed, as a pro-life Christian, to feel this mixture of fear and stress upon discovering I was pregnant. I believed with all my heart that each life was precious. So many women never get to be mothers. I knew I was supposed to feel unadulterated joy in this new life. But I was also weary. 2019 was the sort of year that compelled me to beg with God for a respite in 2020 – a break from the emotional, physical, financial, and familial crises that had filled so many of our days. Yet here we were, four months into the year, navigating the unknowns of a worldwide pandemic. My husband was still required to commute to work every day, while I sheltered in place with two busy little girls, trying to meet deadlines and simultaneously keep them happy. We had been losing internet service and running water intermittently for the past several weeks, while my almost-two-year-old had developed a knack for danger and mischief that left me in a state of vigilant panic. There was no room, I felt, for more. No room to hold another life, its combined challenges and joys.
I knew I would choose this baby, say yes to him, despite my fears and exhaustion. There was never any doubt in my mind that this baby was ours, and that he was a gift to us. But I also knew that I was choosing him, in those early days, despite myself.
There’s a tendency in some pro-life Christian circles to fear acknowledging the difficulty in choosing life. But this closes us off to the love and empathy we must extend to women who truly need it. We dismiss their hurts, difficulties, and anxieties far too easily. I was reminded that day in April (and have been reminded many days since) of the women whose life circumstances are far harder than any I have experienced, for whom poverty, single motherhood, an abusive spouse, or a life-threatening condition make pregnancy frightening and perilous. I was reminded of how easy it is, as a pro-life person, to ignore or excuse the difficulty of embracing this unseen life.
But the truth of choosing life is that it necessarily involves embracing risk and fear. In a world that suggests we ought to be in control, or that we can make control for ourselves, pregnancy and parenting confront us with a whole slew of uncontrollable, unknowable realities. Contrary to popular slogans, parenthood cannot be planned. Sometimes the vestige of control is shattered in a relatively gentle way: when labor does not arrive when we thought, or the supposedly “simple” work of breastfeeding mystifies us and shatters our maternal confidence. Sometimes it takes a more tragic turn: in the heart condition discovered prior to birth, the child lost to SIDS, the grown daughter or son who struggles with addiction. Regardless, parenting requires us to make space for more than we think we can. It is a form of radical hospitality, and pregnancy turns this reality, this stretching in order to make room, into an embodied metaphor we mothers inhabit for nine months.
Embracing a new life requires more than passive acceptance. It is true that our bodies begin the process of preparation before our minds and emotions even register what is happening. But once the reality of another life is impressed upon the mind, another work must happen. Soul and mind reach forward into the darkness, the unknown, and make room where there appears to be none in an imaginative work of hospitality that begins bodily, but extends into every crevice of life.
“They know and feel, that the potential works in them, even as the actual works on them!” wrote Coleridge of both philosophers and caterpillars, comparing the inquisitive imagination to that “instinct” which impels the chrysalis to leave room for antennae yet to come.
This tension between the potential and the actual, making space through expectation and faith, is in fact a very apt description of the work to become a mother. Preparing room for a child can often appear to be a passive experience, letting the body take over. But it is what the late philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle called an “active passivity”: one in which gentleness becomes subversive and radical through its determined and resolute nature.
As the months of my pregnancy passed, I thought often of the Virgin Mary, of the powerful gentleness which characterized her motherhood and her life. No other woman knows more fully what it means to cultivate a free and open hospitality to the mysterious, beautiful child within. In her simple yet radical obedience – her words “Let it be to me according to your word” – active passivity takes on new meaning and potency.
“This is precisely her greatest glory: that having nothing of her own, retaining nothing of a ‘self’ that could glory in anything for her own sake, she placed no obstacle to the mercy of God and in no way resisted His love and His will,” writes the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In Mary’s revolutionary act of hospitality, God’s will and liberty were “in no way hindered or turned from [their] purpose by the presence of an egotistical self.” She watched and waited, embraced the risk and fear of a broken world – one which would assail her and her son, time and time again – and showed us a pattern of loving welcome.
Dufourmantelle writes in Power of Gentleness (2018) that every act of human caregiving is bound up in gentleness’s active passivity and determination to make space. Through powerful gentleness, we embrace the fragility and singularity of the other. But gentleness is also a form of caring distance, of making “way for what is most singular in others” – seeing them as they are, rather than merely as we want them to be.
Hospitality “means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy,” writes Henri J. M. Nouwen in Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (1975). “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” No matter how well known the other may be, it is ultimately the act of one mysterious soul reaching out to another – which requires us to respect the distance and freedom of the other. Though “empty space tends to create fear,” he writes, “the paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free.”
In 2020, I felt more sharply the distance and mystery which exists between human persons: the divergence of opinion and experience, geography and belief, flesh and spirit. But with every new month of challenge and heartbreak, something in me responded by softening and stretching yet a little bit more. It was not a perfect process: all too often, I gave in to fury and petulance, pride and vanity. But from the solitude of March to the growing darkness of December, I felt my arms stretching open wider, wanting to truly see and love in a way I had not before.
Whether dealing with increasingly acrimonious national political discussions or the unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve all been called to make space in our lives for a risky love, a powerful gentleness, that would challenge us to exercise more grace and strength than we thought possible. We’re called to give up control, again and again, as new unknowns unfold. But this sort of risky love requires us to demonstrate our own radical hospitality – online and offline – as we reckon with the mystery of the stranger in our midst, the unknown beloved, to whom God has called us to minister.
We fear God’s blessings more often than we ask for them, and seek to substitute our own paltry petitions for his awesome beneficence.
It may seem odd to refer to the unborn child as “stranger.” But that is what he or she is. It is a shock to see the midwife or doctor hold up a freshly birthed baby, red and crying and real. For all our intimate knowing of each other, this is our first encounter as separate individuals. For the newborn, the reality of our separation is sensed through vulnerability, cold, and brightness – unpleasant sensations to be hushed and soothed by a mother’s arms and breasts. For the mother, however, this meeting is the moment in which we say “hello” to the unique human we’ve, by some miracle, sustained inside of us, yet now fully see and know as other.
On December 21, a day before my due date, I went into labor. My other two babies arrived late, and so I had suspected I might have a Christmas baby. But my little boy arrived stunningly fast on the winter solstice, letting out his first strong wails only thirty minutes before midnight, as Jupiter and Saturn formed a “double planet” above us. My sweet midwife held up a wailing baby boy, and I stared at him with a shell-shocked grin on my face. Here he was, the unknown beloved I had waited to meet. Since then, he’s filled these dark winter days with an indescribable joy.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us that from the first time we hold our newborn children, we realize their growing will all be away from us. But this is what motherhood asks us to do: to hold space, to cultivate a free and open hospitality in which the other is always cherished but never possessed. Kimmerer compares this work to the green algae Hydrodictyon, the “water net”:
Hydrodictyon is a safe place, a nursery for fish and insects, a shelter from predators, a safety net for the small beings of the pond.… But a water net catches nothing, save what cannot be held. Mothering is like that, a net of living threads to lovingly encircle what it cannot possibly hold, what will eventually move through it.
I hold my baby boy knowing that these precious days will pass quickly – into new risks and unknowns, new challenges to love and gentleness. He will not always remain this close, this possessed, cradled safe in my arms. This is the challenge of motherhood: to love wildly, fiercely, determinedly – and then, by God’s grace, to let go.
I believe one of our greatest sins is that we are too content. We will take a little of God’s life, a little of his goodness, but are often afraid he will give us too much of himself. We are afraid of what the fullness of joy might look like. We don’t think we can take it.
And it is true that we can’t. There’s not enough life in us to match his own, not enough joy in our hearts to comprehend his mirth and delight. We fear God’s blessings more often than we ask for them, and seek to substitute our own paltry petitions for his awesome beneficence. We are only willing to go so far, to make so much room. We are afraid of his glorious life, and the risks it might require of us. Like Mary, we must make space: to accept our feebleness and embrace the mystery, knowing that God is good even – and especially – in our weakness and our poverty. As Nouwen says, it is only when we’ve realized our poverty that we can become good hosts.
“We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend,” he writes. “But when we say, ‘Please enter – my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,’ we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give.”
As I sit here now, cuddling my infant son, I think of the inn where Mary and Joseph were told there was no room. I shudder to think of my own hesitancy and fear as I cracked open the door of my own heart to give this little one room. With my arms filled with the promise I received that quiet Saturday in April, the tears of fear and uncertainty have been replaced with peace, my despair replaced with a quiet, deep joy. There’s so much more growing and stretching I have to do. But I am no longer afraid. Welcome, little one. My house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness, and my life is your life.