Post Author: Compiled from members of the Young Clergy Women International/Alumnae Fertility Journey Facebook group
Humble thanks to the brave women who contributed their stories to this piece.
We are in the thick of Advent. Inside the church, we are quick to turn our focus to Elizabeth, to Mary, to drawing parallels between the waiting time of pregnancy and the waiting time of Advent. Outside the church, Christmas cards show up in our mailboxes each day with pictures of smiling families dressed to the nines for Christmas portraits, or religious cards with silhouettes of pregnant Mary riding on the donkey, led by Joseph, down the road toward Bethlehem. Singers on the radio remind us that it is “the most wonderful time of year.”
Except when it isn’t.
“Sometimes I hate this time of year,” one colleague admits.
Because for those who long for children that they cannot conceive, for those who know the loss of a pregnancy or the loss of a child, for those who are childless beyond their choice or power, this intensely child-focused time of year is anything but wonderful. Hear the voices of young clergy women colleagues as they reflect on the tension of this season:
“Over Thanksgiving, I got to spend a stupid amount of my time with my kickass nephew. He’s three, and just wanted to put all the balloons on the couch so he could jump on them and watch them scatter. Over and over and over. It was tedious and boring and he didn’t always cooperate. But it was time spent with the most adorable three year old, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything…well…except maybe a tiny human of my own. After I caught my sister watching us all google-eyed, and saying, “Y’all are so good together,” it was panic attack city for the rest of the trip. At the airport, I finally broke down and told my husband how completely broken I feel—how because I’m 35 and my eggs are low quality and there’s a 1% chance of us conceiving naturally, I feel like I’m less of a human. Less of a woman. But no time for that now. Because it’s Advent…during which I, a barren woman in her 30s, have to spend all my professional time celebrating someone else’s blessed pregnancy.”
Advent is a time of year when the miraculous pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth can feel like a slap in the face to those who long to be granted the same favor. It is a time of year when pictures of happy families on Facebook news feeds serve only as a reminder of what seems so far off, so impossible. It is a time of year when the baby in the manger reminds some of our friends and colleagues of what they have so long-desired, of what they have lost.
“Last year, I was pregnant when I planned Advent. I was to preach on different people in the story of Jesus’ birth. I felt like Elizabeth even though my struggle has not been so long. I imagined telling my congregation, who knew our struggle and prayed for us, that we were expecting on Christmas day. Except I had a miscarriage, another I should say, right before Advent began. So in a season when we focus on new life, on God becoming a baby, all my babies were dead. Images that once moved me–unabashedly pregnant Mary meeting with joyously pregnant Elizabeth, for example–make me want to scream, why not me? But instead, I push through, trying to be as busy as possible, numbing myself as best I can so I don’t think too much, all the while telling my congregation to ‘wait’ and ‘keep alert.’ The good news of great joy of which the angels tell seems too far off for me.”
In this waiting season of Advent, how might we expand our imagery and theological imagination beyond images of pregnancy and childbirth? How might we speak differently about the holy and heartbreaking practice of waiting, knowing that waiting is sometimes full of grief instead of expectation?
“Now that we know we cannot conceive without medical assistance, we are waiting-mode. Waiting to heal from surgery, waiting for our RE appointment, waiting to begin our first IVF cycle, anticipating tests and interventions that scare the crud out of me, anticipating the terrifying moment when I have to stick myself with a needle, waiting to see if it worked, waiting to see if a positive pregnancy test results in a real baby. The worst part of this current stretch of waiting is that we are simply sitting, twiddling our thumbs. There’s no more active trying for us. We just simply have to wait until it is time to start our IVF cycle. The fruitless waiting is emotionally exhausting. Advent is all about waiting, I get that. I usually love Advent because of this idea of expectant waiting; I romanticize it. But this year, Advent reminds me of how hard it is to wait. The message in Advent for me this year is that waiting stinks. It is hard to wait when you’ve been through so much, and have already been waiting for so long. It is hard to wait when you know that there are still no guarantees. It is hard to wait and to trust that there’s yet a promise out there for me, and that it could be fulfilled.”
One of the gifts of Advent is that it offers us a faithful alternative to forcing joyful Christmas smiles for the month of December. Advent says that lament is acceptable and faithful. A “not yet” frame of mind, and the grief that goes with it, are apropos to the season.
Sisters, when we preach about Mary this season, might we focus less on her miraculous pregnancy and more on what it means to live by faith during the difficult waiting. May we emphasize the long grief of Elizabeth and Zechariah’s childlessness instead of skipping to the happy ending. May we imagine new ways of telling the Christmas story that aren’t limited to ooh-ing and aah-ing over toddlers in tinsel halos. May we keep an eye out for those individuals in our pews whose eyes tear up when our liturgies and prayers reference “pregnant waiting” or when they glance into the waiting manger. And may we offer them an understanding nod, a listening ear, or a prayer of comfort. As we walk with one another in this season, let us hold Advent as the uncertain time that it is, and seek to care for and bless those who need a safe space to say, “Sometimes I really hate this time of year.”
Image by: Konstantin Lazorkin
Used with permission