Photos by Rebecca Tredway
The Christmas season is a difficult time to be a barren woman. Honestly, it’s kind of always difficult to be a barren woman, but Christmas is especially tough. It is so intrinsically a time centered around family that for those not challenged by loss or loneliness or pain, you might not even realize what a hard time this could be. Christmas is especially difficult for the barren woman because what other holiday is so pregnancy-centric? Mother’s Day is a close second, but at Christmastime we spend a full month of Sundays in church getting together to sing songs about pregnancy and childbirth. It starts even before Christmas at Thanksgiving where we corporately thank God for his good gifts in our lives. For the woman grieving a very obvious missing gift in her life, this is a tough time. We struggle to say with Job, “The Lord gives and The Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of The Lord”, but it does not come without great emotional cost.
At Christmas we put displays on our mantle of a peaceful, reverent couple gazing into the face of their precious newborn baby. We listen to sermons about what we can learn from a woman of faith who graciously accepted an unplanned pregnancy. We sit around a tree decorated with ornaments depicting three kings who traveled great distances to honor a baby with gifts and then we give gifts to the children in our lives.
It is a hard time to have an empty womb and empty arms.
I felt this pain intensely for nearly a decade. Before the adoption of our first child, I remember my husband off-handedly asking me what I wanted for Christmas one year. I said, “a baby” and broke down and cried. Each Christmas from the time I learned of our infertility until the time our adoption was completed, I could think of no other gift that mattered. It became easy to feel that God wasn’t hearing my prayers and to withdraw into my protective shell rather than to feel the disappointment year after year when a baby didn’t appear under that Christmas tree. While we could save up and buy other good gifts for each other, this was something only God could do and it brought me intense pain when He chose not to.
Adoption was a vehicle for great healing in my life. We were intentional not to treat the adoption of our children as an emotional band-aid for the pain of infertility, but found by becoming parents much of our sadness at not being able to biologically reproduce had disappeared. There is SUCH joy in holding your child for the first time and in hearing a little person call you “mama” that seems to magically erase years of pent-up disappointment and frustration. With each new addition to our family, that infertility pain seemed farther away until the day my arms were full with three kids ages four, two, and one and we were faced with a choice- a new doctor thought he could fix our problem, but it would require an investment of time and money, two resources that don’t seem so plentiful when you’re raising three toddlers. His testing revealed without dramatic intervention there would be no child born from my body.
We were not unfamiliar with this side of infertility. A previous round of treatment several years earlier had blessed us with a brief pregnancy that tragically ended just seven weeks later. In the intervening years we had experienced one spontaneous pregnancy that had a similarly sad conclusion. We had known the pain of pregnancy and the joy of adoption. The choice seemed simple enough from that perspective and we closed the door on further treatments and the hope we would ever create a biological child. And you know what? We weren’t that devastated about it.
That’s when we learned sometimes God has a sense of humor.
Just a few months later, in April of 2011 a pregnancy test revealed that God doesn’t always need a doctor to work through. An ultrasound revealed this baby- unlike his two siblings before him- had found his way to a safe home in my body where he could grow for the next nine months. A midwife appointment revealed a due date- December 19th.
For nine months I held my breath. Having experienced loss twice before, I couldn’t bring myself to fully embrace the joy that normally comes with pregnancy. I had found God faithful during the deepest of sadness and I was waiting to experience that again. I wanted to enjoy this good gift from God’s hand, but my previous experience told me to take my joy in the Giver of the gifts and to hold the precious days of pregnancy very loosely.
It was easy not to focus on the pregnancy with three little ones clamoring for my attention. There weren’t many quiet moments spent contemplating this life I was growing. My days were spent trying to figure out how to pick up Matchbox cars with my toes, since I couldn’t bend down any more, or how to tie a shoe you can’t actually see, or how to make food for others when you don’t feel like eating anything yourself. I sometimes imagined what it must be like to be a first-time mom experiencing the full joy of pregnancy without tempering it with fear or business or distraction.
And in the middle of it all, I kept expecting an early delivery. My hospital bag was packed and everything was ready for Baby by the time I was 35 weeks pregnant. I wanted to be prepared and was hoping against hope this baby would have some space between his birthday and Christmas.
And yet again we were surprised by God’s sense of humor and perfect timing.
Late at night on December 23rd we started timing contractions and in the wee hours of Christmas Eve we made our trek not to Bethlehem, but to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. St. Elizabeth- the barren woman gifted with a son who would prepare the way of the Lord. I felt a kindredness with her husband, Zachariah. A man who couldn’t quite bring himself to believe God would give him the gift of a child after years of waiting. A man who it sounds like may have forgotten he’d even asked for one in the first place. It’s part of the Christmas story that now feels very personal and familiar to me.
Labor was not what I had prepared for. The beautiful dreams I had of a natural childbirth where I would feel empowered and deliver my child with strength and courage turned into a nightmare of unending hours of back labor. A baby who was stubbornly “sunny-side up”. I promise, it’s not nearly as adorable as it sounds. A woman who for ten years had thought if she could just get pregnant, she would handle labor with dignity and beauty, instead learned that when God wants to humble you, He rarely goes halfway. The major lesson I had learned during my barren years came back with a vengeance- I am not in control.
With my husband and my best friend by my side, I may have forgotten this was even about a baby. I felt all I could do was survive. As the situation got more desperate, new and even more humbling options were tried all in an attempt to prevent our worst case scenario- the dreaded c-section. In my mind, it was a symbol of failure and not something I had ever considered. I skipped the c-section chapters in the pregnancy and childbirth books. I’d hired a midwife. I’d trained for a natural labor. I was going to bring this life into the world.
Wait- me? This child whose very existence was an explainable miracle, but now I was going to be in control of his delivery? I should have known better.
Shortly after five pm on Christmas Eve Joel entered the world, battered and bruised from a complicated delivery, but screaming like every healthy baby should. I don’t know if I’ve ever cried harder in all my life. The joy I had pushed down because I was afraid of disappointment now washed over me and I couldn’t stop the tears. The c-section scar would fade with time, but the lessons God taught me through the ten years leading up to this moment and through those intense hours will be permanent.
I learned that God hears our prayers and answers them in better ways than we can even imagine. He heard my cry for a child and answered with three beautiful children through the miracle of adoption that I would have missed if He had just given me the pregnancy I asked for first. He granted my heart’s cry to experience pregnancy and childbirth even long after I decided to stop asking because in my lack of faith I thought He had forgotten my prayers. He showed me He is the author of life through His decisions to take the lives of my first two children, but to spare my life through three complicated pregnancies and to ultimately grant me the joy of hearing my son’s first cries. I learned that God IS GOOD and is working things together FOR GOOD regardless of what looks like goodness to my human heart at any point in time. And I learned God is glorified in my weakness. I was so blessed by Christian friends who rallied around me during my c-section recovery. That was so very needed in ways it might not have been if I had been able to have the natural delivery I planned for. What I had interpreted as failure was what God had meant as a blessing so I would be open to help and would have any judgement taken out of my heart about women who didn’t deliver “naturally”.
So Christmas this year will be very special for The Bradley Family as we celebrate not only the birth of our Savior, but also the first birthday of Joel- our unexpected Christmas gift.