Happy New Year! Have I got my dates in a muddle – surely it isn’t 2021 just yet? Well no… it’s new year but in the Christian church calendar: Advent Sunday. Today starts the season of Advent – candles and calendars and yes, Christmas is under four weeks away. Advent is a time of preparation and countdown to celebrate the birth of the ultimate miracle baby, Jesus Christ, and all the trappings of comfort and joy that are traditionally expected to go with it.
I’m a Christian, a vicar, and a woman who is childless not by choice, through a combination of infertility and circumstance.
So Advent Sunday and the approach of Christmas provoke some mixed feelings for me as I navigate my grief about never being a mother, especially when it’s my role to lead and encourage others as we prepare to celebrate our Saviour’s birthday, along with all the cultural baggage of Christmas and the extra Covid factor of Christmas 2020.
Christmas has always been special to me: the anticipation; the delicious smells; lots of time crammed into church with candles; singing and familiar words – and the uniqueness of a day when almost everything stops to make way for celebration and togetherness.
And yet almost every year of my life I’ve found myself crying at some point on Christmas Day – usually, it’s been a sense of being overwhelmed or disappointed or both, and that’s only got more intense with each passing year of having no baby, and now knowing I’ll never have a baby. I know I’m not alone.
Many of the families for whom I lead funerals tell me that they miss their loved ones particularly at Christmas. Our childless grief also doesn’t stop for Christmas and may even become stronger at this special time of year when the absence of the children, relationships and the roles we hoped to have are so apparent, and yet the world doesn’t acknowledge our situation.
Last year on Christmas morning I talked in church about joy and about grief, and several people thanked me for naming the grief they were experiencing. Five days before Christmas I’d been among a thousand people at the funeral of a twenty-five-year-old man who’d lived life to the full, had seen the potential in everyone and was killed in a terrorist attack by someone he’d helped. I told my Christmas morning congregation about the funeral and how, as we arrived, bells were pealing joyfully to celebrate Jack’s life – an odd juxtaposition with the rows and rows of people sitting inside silently and the many, many tears shed.
I could also have talked on Christmas morning about another aspect of my personal grief – my recent miscarriages, the end of fertility treatment and with that, the end of the hope that one day I would be a mother.
Maybe one Christmas I’ll stand up in church and talk about the deep grief involved in realising what it can mean never to have a child after hoping and dreaming of it for years, and how I’m weaving a life of grief, hope and meaning without my own baby.
On Christmas Eve in normal years, my church is absolutely packed and we act out the Christmas story with children dressed up as angels and shepherds and all the other characters. At the end, a real baby is placed in the manger. They are usually babies I’ve christened – I know them and their families and I often know something about their sorrows as well as their thankfulness for their baby. I do everything I can to support their moment in the limelight, including a parking space and a pew ‘Reserved for baby Jesus’ and I respond positively whether the baby sleeps or shrieks.
At the same time my baby will never be in the manger on Christmas Eve, will never be an angel or a shepherd, will never be cuddled by my smitten granny. That hurts deeply.
Being childless means I will never plan wonderful Christmas surprises with my husband for our children. There is a whole family of people who aren’t aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and great uncles who won’t get to spend Christmas with our children who were never born. It also goes even deeper – Christmas is a time of memory-making and meaning. Grieving childlessness at Christmas is also about the ‘who am I?’ question.
Advent and Christmas come when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere and candles are popular because they’re pretty and hopeful. The light of a candle is small and yet our eyes are drawn to them and the way they move makes them seem ‘alive’. The candle represents hope and the light that Jesus is for Christians the world over.
How does Jesus’ birth fit with my story, my grief and my hope of having a meaningful life without children of my own?
I’m fascinated by the whole very weird idea of God coming to earth as a baby inside the body of an unmarried woman in a strict society with a lot of emphasis on family life and God’s law. A miracle birth which is eclipsed by the much bigger and weirder miracle of God breaking into the world as one of us. Baby Jesus would grow up to be a single, childless man who broke a lot of the conventions of the time. Jesus was and is particularly trusted by people on the margins of society, including childless people. In Jesus’ life and in his death he embodies compassionate love. The story has a hopeful ending which is even odder than his birth. This ending prompted people to remember his promises about being there for and including forever anyone who trusts him.
The Bible is full of stories about every kind of human vulnerability and experience, including infertility, miscarriage and childlessness. There are many stories of women longing to be mothers – Hannah and Elizabeth among them – and yet I am struggling to think of one woman in the Bible who prayed for a baby and didn’t become a mother.
My namesake, Elizabeth, giving birth to John the Baptist in her old age has had an odd significance for me since I was at primary school and now I know why. And yet there are many people mentioned in the Bible who don’t seem to be parents: perhaps more non-parents than parents. Digging into the Bible and the way people have lived and prayed with it through the centuries, it becomes clear that it’s intended to surprise, to encourage approaching things from God’s perspective of compassionate love which can often reveal a whole different and deeper meaning. The mothers in the Bible tend to freely share their children for the benefit of the world, and especially those who asked God for years to give them a baby.
When I consider the love, compassion and sisterhood I have experienced amongst my childless-not-by-choice sisters of all faiths and none, I wonder whether this is a form of motherhood or ‘otherhood’ – or shall we just call it deep, compassionate love which we share with and for one another, and with anyone who is open to receive it.
Christmas is very strange because we only seem to glimpse the very beginning of the story – about a baby, a miracle baby. All the rest of the hope, the grief, Jesus hanging out with people who usually get left out, tends to get rather hidden in all the excitement, and I don’t think that helps any of us. Every human on this planet knows difficulty and pain as well as joy and it seems ridiculous to pretend otherwise.
This year because of Covid my church won’t be packed to the rafters on Christmas Eve, and there won’t be a real baby in the manger amongst children dressed as angels and shepherds. We may be able to gather in church at a distance with masks on; singing carols inside cars parked in the graveyard, and households may be able to join together for small Christmas meals. There is much talk about how to “save Christmas.” Many of us will miss our usual traditions and it will be incredibly difficult for those with little money or whose livelihoods depend on Christmas trade, and I really feel for people facing what may be their last Christmas. Does Christmas itself need ‘saving’ or perhaps Christmas can save us?
My favourite Christmas moment is usually on my way home from Midnight Mass: on my own, outside, in the dark. No crowds, no candles, no carols, no baby, but a sense in the very air of specialness, of holiness, of hope and love that is stronger than we can possibly imagine and with us in the things we find most challenging.
My hope and my prayer this Advent and Christmas is that all of us, whether childless or grieving or not, whatever we believe, might discover something new about love.