The Visitation and a Pregnant Pause
We’re going to start this blog post with a familiar scenario: Kerry, lost, in the Word on Fire blog content meeting. I flip through the Ordo, scour the Internet, and sift through the dusty manila files of my taxed brain until some sort of idea or inspiration strikes. As per the norm, especially these days, I was coming up with bupkis. “The Visitation is on May 31,” Father Steve Grunow piped in during our last meeting. “Kerry, you’re pregnant. You should write about it.”
Yes, Father Steve, it’s true. I am pregnant. Eighteen weeks to be exact. But you know better than anyone that’s where my relationship to this holy and blessed (two things never before uttered in my wake) event begins and ends. The Visitation, of course, commemorates the reunion of the Virgin Mary, pregnant with the Christ child, and her aged and “barren” (there’s an old word for you) cousin Elizabeth, pregnant with John the Baptist. Folks much smarter and much better versed in theology than I have taken an educated crack at this event before, drawing comparisons of Mary to the Ark of the Covenant, and John the Baptist’s joyful fetal leaping to David dancing before it; the pregnancies proving God’s infinite power to make mothers of a virgin and her elderly kin; the meeting displaying the magnificent moment of the New Covenant coming face-to-face with the Old.
I’m not going to do any of that. I’d absolutely make a joke out of it. Nobody needs to read my 8th-grade-Confirmation-quiz-answer take. What I do know — and what I would wager a vast number of Catholic heavyweight theologians who have tackled this do not know — is what it’s like to be pregnant. What is it like? Well, you have to sort of be there. The ladies are nodding their heads. The dudes are rolling their eyes.
Yes, gents, as in touch as you may be with the uterine goings-on of your beloved, you don’t know. As many books as you read and terrifying birthing videos you may surrender to, still, you don’t know. I don’t care if you have 18 kids and are an OB/GYN. You will never, ever know. Mary got it. Elizabeth got it. They had to get together in order to, well, “get it” together. This, pregnancy, is an experience that begs to be shared, not only for the joy it imparts on others (in my experience, the world loves a pregnant lady) but also for the solace it brings the mother-to-be, especially first-timers who have questions and fears and anxieties that can only be addressed by someone who has the benefit of experience.
When I was pregnant for the first time, three years ago, I was a reporter for a newspaper that employed mostly older men. That’s not a knock on them; that’s just how it shook out at this particular paper. I often had my prenatal appointments first thing in the morning before heading to work, and by the time I arrived at the newsroom, I was desperate to tell someone the news (baby’s the size of an avocado! Baby’s a girl! Baby’s giving mama indigestion! Etc.), but those at the receiving end, by and large, just wanted to know if I was going to maintain enough bladder control to sit through a municipal planning board meeting without incident. My mom and sister and female friends were always on call, but they were just that, on call. They were here (suburban Chicago) and I was there (rural New Hampshire). I needed a visitation.
In July of 2010, good friends of ours visited us in northern New England from Phoenix, and the wife of the duo was also pregnant with her first (11 weeks further along than I at the time, and for the record, she’s pregnant with her second now as well … ahead of me by 11 weeks again). Neither she nor I were miracle virgins or elderly, and we certainly weren’t carrying children that would change the course of human history (our kids are pretty spectacular, but…), yet the camaraderie of another “sister-in-wombs” for a long weekend was a comfort beyond measure. I love my husband — he is a mensch — but he has a threshold, albeit high, for preggo talk that I often exceed. My visiting pregnant friend, however, was game for all the baby talk our house and the surrounding farmland had oxygen to supply. Name ideas? Bandied. Registries? Combed. Aches and pains? Detailed. The boys drank beers and talked baseball while the girls ate cupcakes and talked jogging strollers. They played Frisbee golf and we drove to Woodstock, Vt., and ogled onesies at gift shops. They ate their steaks juicy and rare, and we huddled over the Weber and watched ours shrivel into bovine hockey pucks, per doctor’s orders. She and I were raging clichés, but weneeded that cathartic time. We needed to share the miraculous experience — and well-done meat — with one another.
And this, I suppose, is why a theology rube such as myself has taken such a shine to the Visitation. With all its hefty religious imagery and implication, it’s profoundly human and relatable. Birth is a miracle in which humanity gets to regularly participate, but for some more than others (if I was a mocking sort, I might insert a Nelson Muntz-esque “Hah-hah!” directed toward all the men out there), and that miracle demands to be both celebrated and heavily dissected conversationally. Yes, there’s great pain, there’s hassle, there’s sacrifice; some among us may call that childbirth pain punishment for the sin of Eve. I am not one of those, and despite the far-from-effortless procreation process, it’s an experience I wouldn’t, for anything, give up. Mind-bending contraction misery included.
We all know — or are among the — women who struggle with infertility, and from what I understand, there’s an intense ache left where a baby, in theory, ought to be. It’s extremely personal and misunderstood, but there’s something about the presence of Elizabeth and her childlessness that acknowledges this experience for many women — it’s a problem that existed even in the dusty hinterlands of the Biblical world. She gets pregnancy, but she getsthe lack thereof, too. She knows that pain. And Mary knows what it is to go unnoticed, to be marginalized, to be young and scared. She was a teenage girl who made a tough decision and went through it, with some exceptions, alone. We all know girls faced with that sort of challenge, too.
But I simply love the imagery of this ancient (decaf) coffee klatch, where two women who didn’t have many opportunities to dish and swap pregnancy stories got to do just that on this day. Did they have aversions to leafy green vegetables, too? Discuss car, er, camel seats? Perhaps Elizabeth recommendd a brand of prenatal vitamins that wouldn’t make Mary nauseated? I revel in the possibilities of these conversations. Whatever discussed, they got their questions answered, their fears assuaged, their nerves calmed. They enjoyed the incomparable luxury of female kinship and connection. These two in particular may have been rewriting history, but at its most basic level, they were getting to play their small part in the great equalizing (female) human experience of childbirth. The Visitation may have been the most normal part of their pregnancies.
John the Baptist may have leapt for joy at the New Covenant, but I like to think he was celebrating his mother’s happiness at her little afternoon off, too.