Poor, Young, and Pregnant: Christmas Meditations on Maternal Health
by Katey Zeh
Having grown up in a Protestant tradition, I had never really given Mary much thought. If anything, I saw her as a kind of troubling figure for women, embodying passivity, purity, asexuality. But now, as someone who spends her days thinking and praying and theologizing about maternal health, I realize that there is so much more of her that I need to uncover.
How often do we forget that Mary carried God within herself? Our traditional season of Advent lands us right at the end of Mary’s third trimester. I’m left wondering, what did Mary’s life look like between the annunciation and the birth of Christ? What did she think about her swelling body and the life-changing call from God she had answered? The Gospels don’t answer these questions. No nativity play I’ve seen gives it any thought. We do have a history of not caring for the body, especially the female one.
How is it, though, that in one of our most beloved stories, we know so little about one of the main characters? But here’s what we think we know about Mary: that she was young, probably a teenager; she was poor; and she was pregnant at a time in her life that was unanticipated.
In modern terms, we would call her pregnancy high-risk. The Bible doesn’t allude to any complications she had, but just given her age and circumstances, she wasn’t in ideal conditions for a healthy pregnancy or a healthy birth. You’ll remember that she wasn’t at home when she delivered Jesus. She wasn’t in a clean place. The Bible doesn’t mention if she had a midwife or anyone with her—or how long she labored. “Do not be afraid,” the angel had assured her. But given her circumstances, how could Mary not have feared for her child and herself?
A few years ago, I was thinking about this story and suddenly I had this realization that there were two simultaneous Christmas miracles. That’s the fact that despite being poor, young, unexpectedly pregnant, Mary survived. The first Christmas miracle was that Mary lived to care for her child, to watch him grow up, and to support his ministry. How different would the life of Christ been if he’d been born an orphan and never known his mother? I am left wondering, why is it that in the expectation and celebration of the Christ child, we so often have forgotten the mother who bore him?
It’s unfortunate, but nevertheless accurate to say that throughout history and in our biblical tradition, women’s lives and contributions have not been valued in the same way that men’s are. There are stories within our sacred texts of women like Rachel who lost their lives giving birth to new life. “Do not be afraid,” the midwife says to Rachel. “for now you will have another son” (Genesis 34:17).This is one of the hardest scriptures for me to understand. How could a woman could say to another woman, do not worry about losing your life as you know it, leaving behind a husband and young kids? Don’t worry, Rachel, because you will give birth to another male child. It’s pretty clear, though, that Rachel knew what was happening to her, and as she was dying, she did one last thing—she named her son Ben-Oni, which means “Son of my mourning.” But what does Jacob do? He changes his name to Benjamin. What’s significant about this is isn’t what Benjamin means but the fact that in renaming his son, he erases the memory of Rachel’s grief. In both Rachel and Mary’s stories, the child is celebrated and the mother is practically forgotten, made invisible.
These stories aren’t just ancient history. Every two minutes somewhere in the world today a woman dies from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. More than 800 women every day leave behind families, communities, and our world. Nearly all of them live in still-developing countries where they don’t have access to services that could save their lives.
Before I began this work, I knew that women suffered greatly, but I had no concept of the depth of that suffering. And in facing that reality, I have had to unpack my own privilege. I have had access to education and care, and that I like many of you got to pursue graduate studies and now have a career that brings me such joy and a sense of purpose. I got to choose my partner and the time in my life when I wanted to marry. And I have realized that if my husband and I were to have a child, it would be a cause for celebration and joy, not fear—fear that I wouldn’t be able to get to a hospital, or have a qualified health worker attend the birth, or that I would have a complication for which nothing could be done.
Perhaps some of you can relate. Maybe your life journey looks very different from mine. What I know though is that there are many Rachels and Marys among us today, around the globe and in our own neighborhoods and communities. They are the young–teen moms who have no resources, no hope, and receive only condemning looks from strangers. They are marginalized women—migrants, women of color, women living in poverty—who don’t receive the care they need in the hospital and whose babies are more likely to die simply because they don’t have access to care. We would be remiss not to acknowledge the complications and dangers that a pregnancy can cause a woman, no matter where she lives.
And yet, we are a people of hope. We are a people who claim the promise of Jesus Christ, that he came to bring abundant life to all. And we are a people who mourn that women of the past, present, and tragically, the future will not experience that abundant life simply because of the conditions into which they were born.
I also know that we are a people who are called by God to be partners in creating a more just world, a world in which every woman is valued for who she is, not only for her capacity to bear children, and that every pregnancy is a cause for celebration and joy and not fear.
In my work as project director of the United Methodist Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project, I urge religious leaders and faith communities to find opportunities in the season of Advent to lift up this often-neglected aspect of our most beloved Christian story. In so doing, we raise the visibility of the struggles millions of women face each year in simply trying to bring new life into our world.
As we approach the end of this season of Advent, the time of anticipation and expectation of the event that brings us hope to stand on in a world that seems hopeless, may we remember and give voice to the simple, yet astonishing miracle of a healthy mother and a healthy child. May it be so. Amen.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as Project Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey is a contributor to the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, and United Methodist media outlets. Her essay “A Pregnant Silence,” which focuses on the need for sexuality education and family planning information in churches, was published this fall in the anthology Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. She lives in Cary, North Carolina with husband Matt and their dog Lucy.