My husband Will and I are trying something new. He is a mental health counselor, and some of you have watched his pop culture/psychoanalysis videos on his YouTube channel Willarious. Today we’re collaborating on a blog (mine) and a video (his) on the shared theme of “Mental Health and the Holidays.” My blog is a spiritual reflection, while his video takes a clinical, psychological approach. Check out his video at the end of this blog, and follow him on FB at Willarious!
This is my second Christmas in a row celebrating a “first Christmas” with a baby. And so it’s maybe unsurprising that this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mary, the mommy of Jesus. My greatest pet peeve with Christmas music is the song, “Mary, Did You Know.” In my (probably not so humble) opinion, this song is profoundly unbiblical. For one thing, Gabriel gave her some pretty good clues about Jesus’ identity. But also, according to the Gospel of Luke, Mary is a prophetess, speaking profound words of truth over Jesus’ life in a beautiful song of praise traditionally known as the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55).
One of Mary’s titles, used especially in the Greek Orthodox tradition, is theotokos, literally, “God-bearer.” I realize this title has some theological connotations that don’t align completely with Protestant theology, but for the moment, I’d just like to use the term to consider the Mary as the mother who carried Jesus in her womb and birthed him into the world. Knowing what I know now about how darn hard motherhood is, I’ve pondered how much harder it must have been for Mary; the “favor” that Gabriel declared over her may have sometimes felt more like a curse.
How could she handle the anxiety? The anxiety that before her baby boy was two years old, he would be an asylum-seeker, pursued by a genocidal ruler? That he would be run out of his own hometown, despised and rejected? That he would know the heartache of intimate friends’ denial and betrayal? That he would be sadistically stripped and tortured? How did Mary carry the anxiety of the knowledge that her son would go all the way to the cross?
In my first year of motherhood, I became much better acquainted with anxiety. I suspect anxiety has always been there to an extent, lurking beneath the surface and even working in my favor most of the time, spurring me to achieve just a little more. But as a new mother, things started to spiral. As much as I wanted to be home with my first baby girl, I felt like I was losing the intellectual, creative parts of myself. Yet I trapped myself with the terror of leaving Debbie with anyone, even her daddy. This fear peaked when I began a new job 90 minutes out of town and had to leave Debbie for 10 hour days once a week.
I wasn’t afraid of anything happening to her, per se. I feared witnessing and experiencing the big feelings that she and I have in common—big happiness, big grief, big frustration. I dreaded both of us crying when I walked out the door, fat tears dripping down her apple-plump cheeks, chunky arms stretched out to hold me even as I was already 10 minutes late. I was afraid that, by not being home all the time like my mom was for me, I was failing, being a selfish mother for following my dreams in addition to motherhood. Pretty soon, any kind of separation from my baby triggered my anxiety—even if it was just the 10 to 11 hour stretch of sleep she’d started consistently sleeping at night in her own room. Anxiety was tearing my heart apart.
Those experiences of anxiety have led me to wonder at Mary’s strength. Mary was theotokosfirst because she bore Jesus in her womb. But as a mother, I also know she was still bearing him when he was hanging on the cross. While the pain my children will experience can’t equal those of the “man of all sorrows,” when they’re in trouble, I sometimes feel the emotional equivalent of the physical pain I felt during labor. But I aspire to emulate Mary, to stand by the crosses in my children’s lives, knowing that my inability to take their struggles away doesn’t negate my love.
Now, with an almost 2-year-old and a new baby as well, I think I’m making progress. It’s been a long journey with anxiety for me, and I would never prescribe exclusively spiritual answers to biochemical, psychological problems like anxiety. I’ve sought support from many sources. However, as trite as it sounds, the biggest factor in confronting my anxiety has been a seemingly naïve trust in God. I’m searching for the courage of Mary, who says, “Let it be with me as you have said” (Lk. 1:38) to the news that she’s the mommy of the Lamb who was slain.
Each and every night, I pray, surrendering my children to the power and love of the God who created them. I ask for the serenity to accept that even good parenting cannot preserve my children from the raw emotions and real dangers of this world. I’m slowly becoming able to believe that when my children walk through dark valleys, the grace of God will touch them and hold them.
This Christmas, like Mary, I’m still bearing the babies I already birthed. And I also pray, “Let it be with us as you have said”…no matter what.
Now, check out this video from Will: