2016 and the Risk of Birth

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

My son entered the world to the sound of laughter.

February, 2016.

When you’ve been married for thirteen years, you know exactly what kind of humor your partner will appreciate when she’s actively pushing a baby out of her body, and Dan, sensing it would make me feel confident and safe, had the entire delivery room in stitches that night.

I don’t remember much of what he said, but I remember my OB laughed so hard I worried she’d drop the scissors as she passed them to Dan to cut the cord, and I remember being the happiest I’ve ever been when that little boy’s body was placed on my chest, all startled and slimy and mine.

A few days after my son’s birth, Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary. They said he’d never win the nomination, so I didn’t worry too much. Our lives were utterly consumed with swaddling, nursing, burping, and maintaining the journal we meticulously updated with details of our baby’s diaper contents to report to the pediatrician because we were completely, unabashedly those parents.

The days and nights that followed were, as everyone always says, a blur. One can never prepare for the physical and emotional demands of caring for a newborn for the first time, and I was lucky to have a relatively smooth delivery and postpartum experience.   The great thing about motherhood is that it demands the best of you, and then some. It demands more from than you ever knew you had, and it’s empowering to rise to that occasion, to learn something new about yourself.

Eventually, days became days again, and nights, for the most part, nights. (We still get the occasional 3 a.m. wake-up call.) The more mobile our little guy gets, the more we see of his personality—athletic, intrepid, clever, and curious, with a sophisticated sense of humor and a penchant for bluegrass.

I knew I would love this little boy, of course, but I had no idea I would like him this much.

Somewhere between our baby’s first laugh and his first clumsy crawl, Trump won the nomination. Just a few days before our baby’s first steps, Trump won the presidency.

November, 2016.

What a world my boy toddled into.
We like to refer to the “dumpster fire” of 2016. Memes abound (my favorite: “have you tried turning 2016 off and on again?”).  From what seemed like a surge in celebrity deaths, to an especially divisive, racist and misogynistic election, to what is beginning to look like a global shift toward authoritarianism and xenophobia, we have good reasons to be sad, good reasons to be deeply concerned.

And yet, rolling around on the floor with my baby yesterday, his nose pressed against mine as he squealed with laughter, I was reminded once again that 2016 was, by far, the best year of my life.

Oh, it was the hardest year on my marriage, for sure, and on my body, my faith, and my ongoing battle against cynicism, but there is no doubt in my mind that 2016 will always be remembered as his year, the one that brought the world his first yawn, his first giggle, his first fall, his first Christmas, his first word.

2016 didn’t belong to Donald Trump, after all. That’s not something he can buy with his money or win with his pomposity.

We find ourselves in these strange juxtapositions from time to time, between the stories of our lives and the stories of the world around us. Sometimes they align with a sort of poetic symmetry—the gentle rain at the funeral on September 11, the divorce papers arriving the day you get the cancer diagnosis. Other times, the contrast is jolting—the baby cooing in your arms as news of another mass shooting scrolls across the TV, the wedding on Inauguration Day, 2017.

For me, the dissonance of this strange year is compounded by the fact that motherhood turned my bleeding heart into a hemorrhage.  It’s as though I’ve become porous, my skin absorbing the pain of others, particularly other mamas and babies. (Speaking of which, why did all the good shows this year involve children in peril? I’m looking at you, “Stranger Things”!) Every night, as I nurse my boy in that cozy armchair in his nursery, I think of the Syrian mama nursing her baby in a raft adrift in the Mediterranean Sea. I think of the shell-shocked boy from Aleppo. I think of how every Latino kid taunted by classmates, every soldier sent to war, every autistic kid who will lose his therapy when ACA is repealed, every black man shot by police is somebody else’s baby boy, somebody else’s most important person in the world.  I still, almost every day, think of Sandy Hook.

“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin,” writes Frederick Buechner. “It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

Motherhood invited me into other people’s skin in a way I’ve never experienced before. So my joy is big and real and consuming, but also incomplete. I am overwhelmed by the conviction that every mother should be able to feed her baby like this, in safety and contentedness, and I am haunted by the reality that this is still far from the case.

In 2016, I became more aware than ever of the darkness around us, and more invested than ever in lighting the path.

In 2016, the world bared its teeth and my baby giggled back.

Blessedly, in the aftermath of the election, I had the occasion to revisit Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastic Genesis Trilogy, as I’ve been asked to write the foreword for a new edition. (If you want to know how I reacted to the honor of that request, watch Joe Biden win the Medal of Freedom for a visual approximation.)

One thing that struck me while re-reading the series was how forthcoming L’Engle is about her own fears around raising children during the Cold War.

“Planting onions that spring was an act of faith in the future,” she writes of one particularly worrisome season in And It Was Good.  “for I was very fearful for our planet.”

“If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love,” she continues, “and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no. All creativity is dangerous…To write a story or paint a picture is to risk failure. To love someone is to risk that you may not be loved in return, or that the love will die. But love is worth that risk, and so is birth, its fulfillment.”

She refers, of course, to her famous Advent poem which begins:

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

And concludes:

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

This was a strange year to have a baby.

Perhaps, for you, it was a strange year to lose your father, to be ordained, to become a citizen.
But if the incarnation has anything to say about it, we don’t get to wait around for ideal circumstances to begin creating, birthing, nurturing, planting,  protesting, and working together to heal the world.

So my prayer for you today, and in the days, weeks, and months ahead, is this: No matter what it means to you, take the risk of birth. Don’t be afraid.

Finish the book. Pursue the relationship. Begin the ministry. Push the boundaries. Join the march. Write the screenplay. Do the dishes. Plant the onions. Carry the child. Roll around on the floor with your giggling toddler as if the world was even fractionally worthy of his presence.

I’m so glad I did.

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