How do you respond to the news that you’re pregnant? Fear? Joy? Sadness? How about, like Mary, choosing to respond with wonder?
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter seven of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Wait—Isn’t Birth Supposed to Hurt?” Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar. Get the whole book in print or ebook formats at the Gracewatch Media store.
One of my “you’re pregnant” moments has to be chalked up to God’s rich sense of humor. I was on an eight-day silent retreat as part of my spiritual direction preparation program, and my question moving into the retreat was, “What does God want of the next phase in my life?” I was considering many things, but I fully did not expect to be pregnant. So when the signs kept adding up while I was on retreat, I finally picked up a pregnancy test from a store in town. I fully intended to take the test, learn I was not pregnant, and rededicate myself to this retreat. The next morning I took it and walked away, still thinking the odds were laughably slim. Then I picked up the test and saw the two parallel lines: pregnancy. I just stood there and gawked, literally speechless (but it was a silent retreat, so that worked!). An hour later, I met with my friendly Jesuit director for a previously scheduled meeting, where the exercises of the day were quickly scuttled for absorbing this news—and emotionally, I was all over the map. I do remember him saying quietly, after I had lapsed into more speechlessness, “You’re carrying a child who may change the whole world”—a statement that reminded me that what was happening was much bigger than my own life.
The next day I asked him if he had ever had anyone announce a pregnancy during a spiritual exercises retreat, and he smiled and said, “Since I usually work with priests and religious sisters, no, you’re definitely the first!”
How did you receive the news “you’re pregnant”?
Most women take a pregnancy test and see the “double line” sign pop up in the tiny results window. Some realize they missed a period and after a few days, come to the likely conclusion.
Others who are expert at Natural Family Planning realize that their temperature has been slightly elevated for days now and is not dipping down, a sign of pregnancy.
But emotionally, how did you receive that amazing, life-altering news? Did you rejoice, like Hannah and Elizabeth? Were you delighted? Relieved? Grateful? Amazed? Or—honesty is key here—shocked? Upset? Frightened? In denial? Even angry? A combination of many of these reactions?
Note that none of those reactions are casual. This is a big event, and your body and soul know it. You are no longer one, but two. Another person has been created by God to live with him in his Kingdom. That’s not in the future—that is now, and as close as your own heartbeat. Imagine: God’s love has broken into the world and is living in the very center of yourself. You’ve only just discovered it, like the hidden treasure in the field.
These emotional reactions, whatever they may be, tell you where you are at. Sometimes emotions are more accurate than the spoken word. Can you imagine saying you are upset about this pregnancy, and yet also being unable to repress a small spurt of joy at the thought? Or saying you are happy, and your stomach is a twisted knot of worry?
There may be valid sources behind every emotional reaction you are experiencing. But let’s look at one way of receiving this news that might help you calibrate your own reaction: how Mary accepted the pregnancy of Jesus.
Fear or wonder: I get to choose?
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26–38)
We do not know much about how Mary gave birth to the infant Son of God, as Scripture is silent on any details beyond a birth in Bethlehem, with no room in the inn. But we do know and cherish this passage, Mary’s acceptance of her unexpected charge, her first and only pregnancy. The angel says she will conceive and bear a son, the Son of the Most High—a stunning message. And Mary simply responds with a clarifying question: How can this be, since I am a virgin?
There is legendary material in the early Church that Mary was consecrated to God in the Temple as a child, and that this marriage to (a likely elderly) Joseph was understood from the beginning as a caretaking relationship. Women did not live alone in this culture; and this sort of arrangement was unusual but not unprecedented. The passage supports this sense of a lifelong consecration through virginity, because the angel says she will (in the future) bear a son, and she responds by saying she is a virgin—how could this be, even in the future, if she is (and through her consecration, will be in the future) a virgin? This is important, because it underlines this point: Mary saw her life as completely dedicated to God. This pregnancy had to “make sense” in light of her dedication to God.
The other remarkable piece that we get from this Scripture is not just that Mary responds, but she responds without fear. There is no fear in this passage: some confusion, some pondering, some clarification. But her response in the end is quick and simple: “[L]et it be with me according to your word.” Fearlessness is not a word often ascribed to Mary, but it fits. Grown men in Scripture have responded with more fear to God’s call than did this young woman. Perhaps Mary was able to respond fearlessly and in peace because she was the eminent example of love for God. And as the evangelist John later says, “[P]erfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Emotionally, the beauty of Mary’s response is that her spirit of fearlessness—or better, call it a spirit of trust—opened the door to wonder. And wonder is one of the best and most fruitful dispositions any of us can take to the new life growing within us. Choose wonder. Take some time to ponder prayerfully the reality of this new little person, growing at an astounding speed, moving, wiggling, developing. Wonder at the fact that there is a new soul under your heart. Wonder that you have been called to be a mother, and in fact, you are now a mother. You have received a call. Circumstances may be desired or terribly difficult, but can you say, “Let it be . . .”? Can you trust God to unfold a path for you to walk?
“Let it be with me according to your word”: On chosenness
The other piece that can be easily lost in absorbing the news that you hold a new life within you is that another announcement came with “you’re pregnant”—that is, you are a mother. Not you will be a mother, but you are a mother. Even if you miscarry in the next hour, you are always and forever a mother.
Motherhood is a vocation. We are used to understanding the priesthood or religious life as a vocation, a calling from God. But through baptism, all people are called to discipleship, as well as to a particular vocation in life. There is a reason the marriage vows ask, “Will you accept children lovingly from God . . . ?” You declared an openness to new life and the fruitfulness that can come from the love between you and your beloved. Every sexual act presumes that openness to the gift of life.
If that language seems a little too heady for you, try this instead: God wants you to be a mother. The meeting of that sperm and that egg was not random. At the very moment you realized you were pregnant, God was busy knitting together the child in your womb to be beautifully, fearfully, and wonderfully made.
All vocations come from the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God chose the prophets of old, calling them by name, and every prophet responded, “Here am I, Lord.” And when we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday, we name the Holy Spirit “the Lord, the Giver of Life.” In a similar way, the Holy Spirit has worked perceptibly in your life, calling you by name to motherhood, accepting your offer of openness to life, and creating a new being for God’s kingdom. You are chosen to carry this child, and to be a mother.
Note how Mary responded: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She responded like a prophet (Here am I), like a disciple (the servant of the Lord), and with acceptance (let it be). She did not resist her chosenness; instead, she trusted God. Do not question your abilities or worthiness. There is time to address what needs healing in your life. But the first step is to trust God.
Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55)
As we know, Mary went quickly to visit her relative, the older and presumed barren Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s child (John the Baptist) leaps in her womb at Mary’s approach, and Elizabeth remarks, “You had faith!” Mary’s response is to turn the attention to God in a song of wonder and praise:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Part of living without fear means trusting God. Mary’s song is a hymn of trust and joy in the power and goodness of God.
After all, why do we praise God? Yes, it is God’s due. But it is also because when we sing in praise we open ourselves to God’s inflowing life and goodness. To praise is to embrace the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God himself helps us to put aside our doubt and fear, and to trust in God’s plan for our lives.
For prayerful reflection
1. Close your eyes and remember the presence of our loving and healing God, fully present in your past and in your present.
Invite the Holy Spirit to enter into the memory of receiving the news of your pregnancy. Remember the circumstances, the details, as much as you can.
How does our loving God respond to your emotions? Where is God in this story?
Can you imagine the Holy Spirit saying your name, revealing to you your pregnancy? Can you say, “Let it be with me according to your word”?
Can you see now, if you didn’t see then, that this discovery is a discovery of chosenness?
2. Read deliberately, slowly, with prayerful pauses, the “Magnificat” song of praise. Which line speaks to you? Repeat it in your mind, letting God speak to you and your life as one called to motherhood. Journal or share this line, and why it seems to be important in your life with God.
If you recently discovered you were pregnant, could you pray this prayer throughout your pregnancy?
If the circumstances of your pregnancy are difficult, could you ask the Holy Spirit to teach you to sing this prayer? Could you ask Mary for help in praying it?
(If it is easier for you to pray with music, there is a wonderful contemporary rendition of the Magnificat available by David Kauffman named “Behold,” available on iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.)
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Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.