To be a pregnant woman is to generate a force field where all the ordinary rules of courtesy apparently dissolve. Nice, normal people, people who would rather die than consider themselves rude, let the oddest things fly out of their mouths: “I knew it by how fat you’re getting! Was it planned? You’re so old/young to have a baby. Are you disappointed it’s a boy/girl? Why would you find out, it takes the magic out of everything. You look ready to pop! Are you sure it’s not twins? You should definitely eat/not eat that. Get ready to never sleep again, ha ha! You know where babies come from, right?”
What they mean is: “It is so astonishing that people come into the world this way that I don’t know what to say about it. I have many complicated feelings from my own participation in this awesome creation, the babies I was or wasn’t ready for, the ones I wanted who didn’t come, what they cost me, what they gave me, the absurd sacrifices that are so easily described and the sheer love and joy that never can be, the amazing people they grew into who are so different and yet the same as those snuggly little lovebugs of yore, that if I think about it for more than two seconds, I weep with the mystery of it all—and you are a part of that mystery now, don’t you understand?”
When I was expecting my first baby, one woman reaching for these words of connection accosted me to ask why I would burden him with a December due date, “the worst time of year to have a birthday.”
What I thought was: Why didn’t I “pick” one of the other eleven months to have a baby? I did my best to pick any given one, as far as that goes, but no February or June or August baby ever picked me; after an indefinite advent, it was only this December baby who made it from the far other side of existence to enter my world, and now I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What I said was: “Christmas is my favourite time of year.”
A developing baby’s heartbeat flutters very fast, well over one hundred beats per minute. Until just a hot second ago, historically, these hearts fluttered in secret, known only to the baby and to God. But thanks to the use of sonography in obstetrics over the last few decades, we in the outside world can now eavesdrop on this activity.
That spring I had listened in awe to my son’s heartbeat. I thought, No human ear has heard this sound before, this sound that was not being made in any way just a few weeks ago, but now it is, and I just heard it for the first time. God willing, it will continue on unbroken for the next eighty or even a hundred years. And then . . . ?
Rather than contemplate the theft of mortality, what is (who is) someday becoming what is not, I would refocus on the gift of natality: from what is not to what is. This heartbeat, this person, came into being out of—where? First there was nothing. And then there was heartbeat. Technically, this heartbeat is merely the promise of natality, which means birth; but we know, this baby and I, that he exists already, and birth is just his next adventure.
To make good on this adventure, the night of his birth was full of movie moments, from the water broken in yoga class (a comedy) to the frantic, futile effort to get everything in order first (a caper) to the race to the hospital in the dead of night (an action flick) interrupted by a siren directing us to pull over. The beam of a giant flashlight probed the car, with a police officer peering over it. “Any reason you’re in such a hurry?” he inquired. I wailed for dramatic effect, but not untruthfully. “Go! Go!” he commanded, his flashlight waving us on our way.
At the hospital, no sooner did I get strapped into the monitor than it became apparent this could be a very different kind of movie. One more spin for that familiar sound before we got to meet the maker of it, but the sound was not familiar.
For one long, surreal moment, time stood still. The world ceased to turn or even seemingly exist outside that dark room with two frightened parents, one still hidden baby, and half a heartbeat. Natality and mortality threatened to collapse into a single event.
Natality and mortality threatened to collapse into a single event.
Suddenly, the world burst back into the room in a flurry of lights and shouts and personnel and consent forms and PPE and a race down the hall to the operating theatre. This was not a movie, it turned out, but a hospital procedural, the kind where everyone panics and plays it right down to the wire before a heroic surgeon saves the day. After quick, clean work, “It’s a boy person!” she announced. His squall was the gladdest of tidings.
When we released the news, people called to tell me “well done.” “But I didn’t,” I would mumble back, dimly aware that I was not supposed to argue about this, but feeling compelled to set the record straight. It was the doctor, bless her, who gave him safe passage where I failed (not a word that I would think of any other mom, but there it was). I had no regrets about that and trusted it had been the right decision. I just needed it to be said that the event was between Dr. Hero and him, and not me. The best that I could offer him had come from someone else.
Years later, I would read an essay that recast the whole scene from a different vantage, rewinding the film to show what it looked like from a different point of view. In “Birth on a Cross,” Brad East writes of watching his wife splayed out in cruciform for each of her caesareans. “Her body is pierced; from her side, intermingled fluids drip and flow, the wounds and substance of a mother’s love.” Accepting pain in giving life, she will bear the scars for the rest of hers. Here is my body, given for you. Yes, even—or especially—in surgery, with its arduous recovery.
“As the cross is a curse that saves, so childbirth’s pains are a curse that nevertheless gives life,” East writes, echoing a similar point made by Giovanni Testori (“the pain of birth that already has within it the pain of the cross”) in a dialogue with Luigi Giussani published as The Meaning of Birth. “And this is the extraordinary thing,” Testori says: “That if you go back behind the pain of birth, you find an act of love”—love, he elaborates, “that arrived to the point of no longer being able to know itself except with the help, intervention, and presence of God.” While some children are conceived in love, and some not, the love that unites creation is present in each one—indeed, demands to be manifested, from what is not to what is.
“I look back on the very real pain that I suffered to bring my baby into the world, and it bizarrely fills my heart with happiness that I could do that for love of her,” writes Haley Stewart of her own difficult pregnancy and birth. In “Julian of Norwich and the Suffering Motherhood of God,” she reflects on Julian’s mystical vision of Christ, who “very affectionately said these words, ‘If I could suffer more, I would suffer more.’” This morbid idea baffled her, until in becoming a mother she came to understand how even pain could be a gift of love. “I would have done that a thousand times just to meet you for a moment,” she coos to her newborn—the epitome of offering needlessly to suffer more.
Perhaps it’s not so much that love must be expressed as the gift of pain as that it demands to be given somehow, and sometimes pain is all one has to give. The force of love breaks through so insistently that it finds expression even in involuntary giving. “The body’s sacrifices may be small and ordinary, but they can nevertheless be costly,” writes Natalie Carnes in Motherhood: A Confession, pondering the gift of calcium the mother’s skeleton makes to the baby’s, for which she will pay the rest of her life. “We do not choose to send calcium from our bones or to make these other sacrifices of care. Our bodies simply do these things, caring for the vulnerable one within as if charity were the grain of the universe, as if we were already a charitable people.”
Perhaps it’s not so much that love must be expressed as the gift of pain as that it demands to be given somehow, and sometimes pain is all one has to give.
“You made charity natural to me,” she continues, addressing her daughter. “Without my choosing, you made me more merciful because you came to me like Christ. You came as Christ to me, not because you were divine or sinless but because like Christ, you came to me as a stranger in need, offering grace.”
The grace of unexpected charity is among the themes of Robert Penn Warren’s 1937 story “Christmas Gift,” which follows a young boy travelling through the snow to fetch a doctor for his sister, who is in labour. He stops at a general store to ask directions, where a group of men huddled over the fire regard him with gruff curiosity. One of them surprises everyone, including possibly himself, by offering the boy a handful of red candy sticks—peppermint for the holiday?—before he goes. “You must be sick, giving something away just off-hand like that,” somebody remarks. “You go straight to hell,” the giver wearily replies.
The boy finds the doctor, and they forge back through the snow. Through intermittent conversation, a picture of the child’s life emerges. He apparently hangs on his father’s every word, most of which are profane and of dubious veracity. The father is a sharecropper on the outs with the landowner, each one blaming the other for the nonexistent harvest. He has any number of “bastards” to care for, a term possibly meant more teasingly than literally, except as applied to the labouring girl, “my sister on my maw’s side,” the boy has learned, having never heard of her till she turned up on their doorstep last summer. The doctor does the math to figure out what she must have realized those six or seven months ago to bring her here, following in her mother’s footsteps in bearing this unintended child. It all goes above her young half-brother’s head except to note that his dad “raised holy hell fer sartin” while the poor girl tried her best to blend into the furniture, at which she had succeeded until now.
When they reach their destination, the boy offers a piece of his candy to the doctor, who takes it without a word.
On the surface, this Depression-era story is a strange, bleak addition to the canon of holiday literature. Outside the title, no one even mentions Christmas. But there is that peppermint, and the chain of giving that it generates, surprising even the givers at what they feel themselves inspired to do. And there is the baby.
This is not the sort of baby about whom people go around making annoying but genial faux pas. One of the men at the store compares the young mother to a calving cow, and this is probably one of the nicer things that people have to say about her. In poverty and outside respectability, this is the sort of baby everyone is meant to understand is not supposed to be there. But it is that baby, her baby, just exactly this sort of baby who brings renewal to the sorry old earth.
The “sagging sky,” the “empty fields,” the “wet grey light hung over everything,” the crops that failed, the fatalistic comments about death and decay, every part of the landscape in icy greyscale—and yet, a burst of life! A whole new human person from nothing into something. His existence already stirs untouched depths of generosity in others, just like another baby bastard whose birth into an awkward situation is celebrated at the nadir of the year. The red blood of childbirth prefigures the blood that will be shed for humanity’s salvation, signified by the red stripes on a peppermint stick.
Another December, I had another baby boy. His birth was like a marble rolling down the same track but staying on where it tipped off before: Another midnight journey to the same hospital amid the same festive surroundings (even a cop on the same road who festively declined to pull us over), but with no near miss this time. Another Sunday’s child, “bonny and blithe and good and gay,” born the day before his brother’s birthday. Another glad new thump at the heartbeat of the world.
Having “twins” six years apart means living in a happy little time loop where the changing days don’t seem to have a cost. Here is the older one, so astonishing and clever and perceptive—and if I should miss the baby he used to be, so full of snuggles and silliness and wonder, well here’s the mirror image of him climbing up my leg! You could almost fool me that I’ve somehow cheated mortality, with the intimations of it so gaily scrambled.
Natality and mortality, and the reversal of mortality, all came together one night under a bright star.
As their time of year approaches, a lyric from a carol struggles to the surface of my attention—something about born to die? No wait: it’s “born that man no more may die,” from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” But of course, it is the former too. Natality and mortality, and the reversal of mortality, all came together one night under a bright star: “Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” Even when the illusion of the time loop one day falls apart, there is a greater hope to rest in: just as natality is not really the beginning, mortality is not really the end.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year,” resolves Ebenezer Scrooge in a more famous corner of the holiday canon. By those excellent lights, one could hardly avoid having a baby at Christmastime, with every day annexed into the celebration. This is a time loop I can truly get behind. With the eternal calendar undone, we might as well undo the annual one too, right? Just imagine what could be: sometimes winter, always Christmas.