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What if St. Joseph Felt Like a Failure On Christmas Day?

alec vanderboom

Here is my problem with the Christmas story. I grew up hearing the story over and over again as a kid in church, long before I'd had any experience giving birth myself. Therefore, I've gotten immune to the shocking facts of this event. Now that I've given birth to a preemie, however, my thoughts this Advent are filled with the real, human aspects of the Incarnation.

My son was born exactly seven days before a planned early c-section at 36 weeks gestation. I knew my pregnancy was high-risk.  I still had terrifying scramble to get out the door quickly that Saturday morning. We ended up lost trying to get to an unfamiliar, closer hospital.  A 911 operator and the paramedics had to help us.

After coming home from the hospital with a healthy baby and a healthy body, I felt foolish. I told myself I hadn't planned enough for this emergency birth. We should have had more numbers of neighbors stored in our cellphone. I shouldn't have lost our main cellphone during the shock of starting labor early. We should have had MapQuest print-outs of three back-up hospitals on route to our main delivery site.

The hard part about calming my emotions post-birth has been accepting that I did have a plan for the birth of my son. My doctors had a plan. Things just didn't go according to plan. There were a couple of moments of extreme panic while my husband and some paramedics got me to a new doctor who made a new plan---your kid is coming out here within the hour, Mama!

The new plan worked. The baby was fine. I was fine. It was actually easier to recover from childbirth at a smaller, quieter hospital close to home. I could feel God's thumb prints all over my son's birthday, including an unfamiliar feeling of tranquility before my emergency surgery.

At 35 weeks, I'd asked my regular OB for a prescription for Valium at my regular OB check-up appointment. My doctor of five pregnancies rocked back on his heels and said "You don't know how bad this could be for the baby."

I told him "You don't understand how much my fears have escalated since being on bed rest. I've lost every healthy way of coping with my anxiety about this surgery. I can't exercise. I can't take walks in nature. I can't go out for dinner with my friends. I can't go to my church to pray. It's not good for the baby to have medication in the womb, of course. But what happens if I'm too scared to get into the car and drive to the hospital the day of the baby's scheduled c-section?"

My OB gave me a prescription for 3 Valium tablets. My husband told me that he was glad that I asked for the anti-anxiety medication. I looked at the type-written prescription and felt like a failure. "I'm a wuss," I said out loud. "I've done this surgery 5 times before. It's always worked out perfectly. Why am I so afraid now?"

Ironically, just asking for a prescription for Valium calmed me down. I didn't even need to fulfill it. That night I went home and started googling "just how bad is Valium for an unborn baby?" I stumbled upon a website with information from all these Mormon women who suffered from anxiety after multiple c-sections. The Mormons were interested in avoiding all drugs while "not letting something external like the amount of scar tissue dictate the size of their future families!" I felt at home on this website. It was the first time I heard someone else say "the more times you do a c-section the scarier it is." The secular websites I found talking about anxiety and c-sections said "Get the good anti-anxiety drugs--fast!"

Once I had an anti-anxiety medication prescription in my hands, I felt like I had a back-up plan. After that step, I felt more safe to explore non-medicinal options to decrease my anxiety. In the morning, my OB called me at home. "I really don't want you taking that medication before surgery," he told me.

I surprised my doctor by agreeing with him. I told him "The anesthesiologist on call is going to have enough worries with me without stressing that I took a drug not administered by him. I'm also personally stressed out about how my baby is going to do on his APAR score without adding Valium to the mix. I'm going to try my best to not ask for anti-anxiety meds until the baby is delivered. After his birth, I'm giving myself permission to ask for the strong stuff. That's my goal. I think I can do it. I'm only going to fulfill your prescription the morning before surgery if I truly can't get into my car because of bad pre-surgery panic attacks."

Eight days later, instead of imagining a bad situation, I was living it. Once I was in the hospital, I surprised myself by thinking "I don't need the Valium!" I didn't need it. I could cope with the situation in front of myself without fear.

Last night, my husband and I had a big talk about St. Joseph and his feelings on the first Christmas Day. My husband told me "St. Joseph got to protect and provide for his wife and his newborn son. Yet he didn't get to protect and provide for them in the way he wanted too!" 

I don't know what St. Joseph and Mary, the Mother of God had planned for the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet they were holy people. They were parents. They had some kind of plan for the birth of Jesus that didn't involve getting caught by surprise on a road in an unfamiliar town. Maybe St. Joseph had reserved affordable rooms on the far side of Bethleham. Maybe, Mary thought she had weeks longer before giving birth and could make it back safely to Nazareth. St. Joseph was a carpenter. Most likely back in Nazareth, there was a beautiful wooden crib St. Joseph built in preparation for Jesus' birth.

As normal human parents, St. Joseph and Mary, the Mother of God, probably made a solid preparations before the birth of Jesus Christ. Yet God's plan for Jesus' birth was different. Labor started at an unexpected time. Being without sin, I hope that Mary the Mother of God received extra special graces of Faith, Love and Hope during that moment. We know that her Virgin Birth was something unique. Sometimes its hard to feel close to Our Lady. Yet on Christmas Eve, she started to give birth while smelling like mud and dust and donkey fur.

St. Joseph was one of us. He's just a normal human being. He had to scramble to find his pregnant wife and an unborn child shelter and privacy at their moment of greatest vulnerability. I don't mean to be disrespectful, but it's kind of comforting for me to imagine St. Joseph feeling like a bit of a failure as a Father on Christmas Day. Finding a cave filled with sheep, probably didn't rate as a four star success worthy of Our Lord and Our Lady.

I'm not sure why it was so critical for Jesus Christ to be born in a stable on Christmas Day. Maybe it was symbolic. Maybe it was crucial for Mother and Baby to have privacy during the birth. We know there was a large target on Mary's back during her birth from Scripture. God's ways are not our ways.

Christmas celebrates the miracle of the Incarnation! God came to earth to be a human being! God didn't even pick to be born to St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother at their "best" moment. He could have come after they were married, and stable, and had a cute new house in Nazarath all set up. If Mary's pregnancy had to come before her marriage to St. Joseph, at least God could have timed the birth so it didn't happen on the road in Bethlehem while all the inns were filled.

Childbirth is messy and inconvenient and often a surprise. It's shocking to consider that God's son shared in all that imperfect humanness. This Advent is going to be extra messy and uncertain for me. I encouraged to think that even without the comforting routine of sugar cookie baking, Christmas card mailing and gift buying--my uncertain, make-shift housing arrangements --with a new baby--actually put me in closer touch with the authentic Holy Family experience.