Loneliness, misery, and joy: The uncanny experience of being pregnant at Christmas

What do Charlotte Brontë, the Virgin Mary, and being pregnant at Christmas time have in common? Read Natasha Moore's article in ABC Religion & Ethics to find out.

It’s Christmas, and I’m pregnant, and also Christian, so naturally I am thinking of Mary.

We aren’t told all that much about Mary, really, though the scenes in which she learns of her impending motherhood and the events which follow are extraordinarily vivid. She’s maybe 14 or 15, this girl. Her life is on the expected track; she’s engaged to be married, she has a very reasonable chance of raising a family and leading more or less the same life as her mother presumably had before her, and her mother before her.

And then an angel appeareth unto her and is all “you’re highly favoured” and “your baby will be the LITERAL SON OF GOD” and suddenly Mary’s life is not going to be like everyone else’s, not at all. And this Galilean teenager – apart from clarifying that the fact she’s a virgin isn’t going to present something of an obstacle to the plan – seems to simply take this development in stride. “I’m in,” she essentially responds to Gabriel. Let’s see God do his thing.

What Mary immediately does after that is more understandable: she hastens off to spend three months with her relative Elizabeth (possibly her aunt, or a cousin). I guess it makes sense, even under normal circumstances, to want to spend that rocky first trimester in a supportive environment, and Mary’s circumstances are far from normal. And she has every reason to expect Elizabeth of all people to understand. The angel had explained that Elizabeth too is expecting a miracle baby; she’s six months along with the child who will be John the Baptist.

Just shy of my 40th birthday, I’m much more of an Elizabeth here, who we’re told is pregnant “in her old age”. (They’ve stopped using the term “geriatric pregnancy”, apparently; I am of “advanced maternal age”. The King James Bible describes Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah as “well stricken in years”, which is certainly how my back feels right now.)

The tragedy of Charlotte Brontë

Until the approach of Christmas, my thoughts had turned more often to another pregnant lady I know only from the pages of beloved books. Charlotte Brontë fell pregnant around Christmas 1854, at the advanced maternal age of 38. Hers had been a tragic life in so many respects; blighted by loss and loneliness, financially and emotionally precarious, enduring the sordid dramas of her brother’s alcoholism, the thwarting of many of her own plans and desires, constant ill health and (frankly) bad weather.

Haworth Parsonage, in the romantically-named but rather bleak West Riding of Yorkshire, turned out to be a literary hothouse where, from childhood, Charlotte and Emily and Anne Brontë sharpened one another’s creative talents, and eventually birthed novels that would take far-off London by storm and be cherished by generations of thwarted young women in particular. Their heroines differ by temperament, moral sensibility, and fate, but all are marked by the social isolation that threw the Brontë women constantly back on their own (pooled) inner resources.

Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, Agnes Grey and Helen Graham, Catherine Earnshaw, and even Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone – some wealthy and some poor, many (but not all) orphans, some (but not all) finally reaching the “safe” harbour of a happy marriage and family – are all strangely set apart from those around them. Their sufferings, or their passion, or their poverty make them different, and those who do attain happy endings must snatch them from the jaws of tragedy.

All this makes me wonder what Charlotte might have written later – after her marriage, and the birth of her baby, after joining, in a way, the stream of “regular” humanity who procreate and bicker and grow old and pudgy and fret about their kids’ education and participate in local gossip. Would she have become more of a George Eliot, with both a keener and a kinder eye for the intricacies of a life lived within social bounds? Or would she have doubled down on her romantic, friendless heroines and their yearnings for love and adventure?

Emily and Anne had died within months of each other, in December 1848 and May 1849 respectively, succumbing to the tuberculosis that killed their eldest sisters Maria and Elizabeth as children. In the wake of their deaths, Charlotte gave happy endings to her two most sociable heroines, Shirley and Caroline from Shirley (published later in 1849). It’s thought that the two characters were based on Emily and Anne respectively, and that though Charlotte intended for Caroline to die of tuberculosis, after watching Anne – her last sibling – undergo the same fate, she could not subject her fictional counterpart to it as well. Caroline recovers and marries her love.

Charlotte, having refused a number of marriage proposals (including a first offer from the man she did end up marrying), went to the altar with her father’s Irish curate Arthur Bell Nicholls in June 1854, five years after Anne’s death. I wonder again and again how she felt taking this step, alone among all her siblings, with none of them in attendance; a vote for life after so much death, a definitive break with that sequestered, doomed, charmed family circle. Her life split cleanly in two halves, a future opening to her not, perhaps, of wide vistas and intrepid doings (as dreamed of by her Jane Eyre), but of the ordinary ups and downs of raising a family of her own with a man she (by all accounts) respected and loved.

It was not to be. A few months of domestic happiness, the beginnings of a pregnancy – but by Easter 1855 Charlotte too had been laid to rest in the family vault in the Church of St Michael and All Angels at Haworth. Her death certificate records the cause of her death as phthisis – meaning, consumption, or tuberculosis; she had joined her sisters after all. But accounts of her final weeks suggest that she probably died from hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) – severe morning sickness – followed, perhaps, by refeeding syndrome (when someone rapidly begins to eat again following a period of undernutrition).

That is, she became severely dehydrated and malnourished, too nauseated to eat. (“A wren would have starved on what she ate during those last six weeks”, reported one witness, perhaps her maid Martha.) Then, presumably in her second trimester, she began to beg for food and eat eagerly; but it was too late. Without proper treatment, she and her unborn child died on 31 March 1855.

Separateness, singleness, pregnancy

Since marrying at 38 and getting pregnant at 39, I’ve dwelt often on Charlotte’s story – maybe a little morbidly, during those weeks of nausea and exhaustion and migraines after the positive pregnancy test. Of the 70% of pregnant women the British Medical Journal says are affected by morning sickness, it’s mild for 40%, moderate for 46%, and severe for 14%. (Hyperemesis gravidarum is a separate thing affecting 1.5% of pregnancies.) In retrospect, I can imagine mine might be classified as mild, though certainly at the time I would have savagely rejected any suggestion below moderate. It sucked, but even at the worst I was under no melodramatic illusions about the similarity of my “sufferings” to Brontë’s (or the women today who endure HG).

But I did wonder about her experience of shedding her old life and embarking on a new, more “conventional” path – one not without risks, especially in her day, as the event proved. At 37, I was chronically single and pretty happy to be so; I’d just bought what I thought of as my spinster apartment, where I expected to enter more or less seamlessly into middle age, one bedroom for me, one for my books.

I had long felt separate from the “most people” track of marriage and babies; in solidarity with plenty of other single female friends doing plenty interesting things, but cleanly exempt from witching hour and extracurricular scheduling conflicts and worrying about kids’ screen time and carrying the mental load. Which meant, too, excluded from the magic bubble of the nuclear family that everyone seems to retreat into over Christmas and New Year’s; cobbling together a fulfilling life in a world that often feels built for couples and families.

Two years later I am wondrously, implausibly happy to be married to this man; but I’m still hair-trigger-ready to arc up at any suggestion that marriage is a necessary or even preferable state. Still resentful of the implication that by hopping on the couple-wedding-parenthood train I’m somehow at last becoming a fully-fledged member of society. I accept both that this remains the “norm” – though an ever-slimmer majority of people are married or partnered, perhaps 60% – and that it is itself a fraught, noble, and sometimes isolating venture. But in an age marked by loneliness and disconnection, the reality that people mostly plug into community via their children disturbs me.

The loneliness of Mary, the singularity of Jesus

To return to Mary complicates my categories. It was her pregnancy – such a common human experience; so absolutely unprecedented in this case – that “derailed” her on-track life. Or, depending on your viewpoint, set her on track to become who she was. To some extent the incarnation – the enfleshment of God himself, via her womb – is something that happened to Mary, but the grace and vision with which she accepts this path is far from passive. She has every chance of being rejected by her community and by her betrothed – if not stoned to death for presumed adultery – but accepts the strange news as what Gabriel and Elizabeth call it, favour and blessing.

“The Mighty One has done great things for me”, she declares. But not only for her: through her, marked off suddenly from everyone she knows, all humanity is to be blessed. The loneliness of Mary makes her a channel for God’s plans to reconcile neighbour to neighbour and creation to creator.

Her boy, Jesus, confounds my categories too, as he has a way of doing. This is the Jesus who never marries or has children (whatever Dan Brown may once have told you) yet in Christian thinking leads the most full-orbed, representative human life ever lived. Through deprivation, rejection, and acute suffering, his very existence is an act of radical solidarity with humankind.

After Jesus’ birth, when Mary and Joseph take him to the temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord” (the custom prescribed by God’s law for the Israelite community), an elderly man of God and an elderly woman of God rejoice over him, speaking of the salvation and redemption he will bring for all. But the old man, Simeon, also has a personal word for Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” It’s a sombre warning, generally thought to refer to the heartbreak Mary would experience many years later standing at the foot of the cross as her beloved son died in agony. (I wonder if Elizabeth lived long enough – precisely how “stricken in years” was she? – to hear of the death of her own God-gifted son, imprisoned and then one night beheaded by a despot as a kind of sick party trick. You almost hope she didn’t. For that matter, spare a thought for Charlotte Brontë’s father Patrick, who outlived her – the longest-lived of all his six children – by more than six years.)

Being a parent, everyone says, is a mixture of agony and joy. You don’t have to have your body colonized by a tiny tyrant, bring them into a world of terrifying cruelty and outrageous happiness, worry for them every day and perhaps, in the end, live to see them die before you in order to appreciate the fragility of life. But that’ll certainly do it.

As Christmas rolls round again and I ponder the life I am surprised to find myself living, and the life that’s unfurling inside me, I’m comforted by both the courage and the travails of the women who’ve trod this path before, uncertain of what lay ahead. I make the words of Mary my own: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”

Natasha Moore is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of The Pleasures of Pessimism and For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined.

A version of this article first appeared on ABC Religion & Ethics.

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