According to our daughter’s careful deconstruction of the Christmas story via children’s board books, Mary and Joseph were accompanied by a goose, chicken, chick, peacock, mouse, horse, spider, rooster, sheep, lamb, goat, old dog, stray cat, donkey, shepherds, cows, angels, kings, wise Ones, magi (those last three are all distinct and yet totally the same– apparently her thought veers Trinitarian), tiny baby Jesus, bigger baby Jesus and a rat. In our house, the stable scene expands even more—the random toys, tchotchkes and stuffed animals which end up witnessing the incarnation are just as surprising as the original event was itself.
As I stared at the crowds amassed around our holy family, it occurred to me that with our first child, other than the occasional comment on our parenting and her stranger glare reserved demeanor, we were pretty much left alone as parents to sink or float. Family and friends came and met her, doted and then left at the end of the day. The stable cleared out and it was just us.
Our son was more complicated.
From the moment he was born, and the medical interns ushered out so that the neonatologists could start breaking the news of his probable Down syndrome diagnosis to us, we were been surrounded by people. As I nursed him the first time, four nurses came along to discuss whether it was working or not (it was, but I am still unsure if I merited a vote in that group). Our two neonatologists took turns schlepping our questions and anxieties and unfolding complications with the grace and determination of female beach volleyball Olympians.
Once we were discharged from the hospital, we came into the care of our Down syndrome clinic and its five clinicians, therapists and coordinators; our local Early Intervention, with our four therapists accompanying us over three years; our stalwart pediatrician and the two nurses who were our ‘regulars’ for phone questions, sometimes on a daily basis; our specialists (heart, ears, endocrine, eyes); our three daily childcare providers who learned along with us; our therapy group coordinators and their multiple para-educators; our three preschool teachers; our church community, our family, our friends, and every single person who stopped us in the supermarket checkout line to ask about our small, redheaded child with differently shaped eyes.
And a partridge in a pear tree.
The stable is usually painted as a serene place, where there is always ‘room for a little one,’ and each animal has a job or place to sit. It assumes that geniality ruled that sacred night. I wonder, though, if there wasn’t just a bit of sniping, jostling and differing opinions of the events from those creatures (not to mention shepherds and wise ones). After all, placid crowds around a small child seem hopeful, rather than realistic.
Our lives from our son’s birth have been similarly blessed by the company surrounding us, and also challenged. Our home, our parenting, our decisions, even our pregnancy and my age, were all fair game to public inquiry. Therapists sometimes disagreed. Scheduling my ‘household staff’ and medical appointments became a third full-time job. Our daughter often felt left out of the fun and attention. When plateaus in his development happened, it felt personal, as though we weren’t doing enough, engaging enough, parenting enough. And while it was our own family, it was never simply our own bubble. Our lives, with the crowds surrounding us, became transparent; our challenges, public.
I’m truly trying to not create a comparison between my family and that holy one two thousand years ago, because no one has time for light heresy this season. However, I wonder a lot about Mary and Joseph, with their unexpected, transformative child. I wonder if they ever felt lonely while holding nine months of angelically-announced knowledge of who this child might be. I wonder, deep in that night of labor and delivery, if their anticipation of God-among-us was comforted by the very fact that they weren’t the only ones witnessing this miracle, not the only ones carrying the story on their own.
I wonder if Mary had those moments of push and pull between the private world of parenting and the proscribed public nature of her (their) child.
Watching our family stable ebb and flow with additions, subtractions and the occasional swipe of the dog’s tail sending everyone, holy and not, flying off the table, I also wonder, perhaps, if those crowds were a gift.
They came to bring comfort. They came to affirm an unexpected family. They came to witness something wholly different from the small world they inhabited. They saw value in a small child, on the margins. I’m sure they jostled, sniped, pushed one another, because that’s what we do when we want to be part of the story, the promise, the possibility. I imagine they offered a scared couple assurance, deep in the night.
Our stable doesn’t fit neatly anywhere. It’s basically always in chaos. But ultimately it is chaos geared by and with and through love, and we’re learning day by day, regardless of the season, that there is always room for a little one here.
Who is in your stable? Who is part of your village?