As a maternal health advocate, I cherish the season of Advent as an opportunity to connect a beloved Christian story to the lives of women today who struggle to bring new life into the world under horrific circumstances. Every year I write something about Mary’s pregnancy and birth. In many ways she is no different from the “Marys” around the world who are young, poor, and unexpectedly pregnant, and who go on to give birth in unclean environments. I often pose the question to communities of faith, wasn’t the Christmas miracle equally that Mary survived the birth? How different would Jesus’s life have been if he’d never known his mother?
I continue asking these questions, but after my daughter was born last October, I have found my Advent reflections shifting to mirror my own parenting experiences. I began to think beyond Mary’s birth and into her early months of motherhood. One morning last December, after a particularly awful night’s sleep, I came downstairs to hear “Away in a Manger” playing on the radio. When it got to the line “But little Lord Jesus/No crying he makes,” I rolled my eyes dramatically and pictured Mary doing the same as she bounced a screaming baby Jesus in her arms.
Thankfully those days are mostly behind me now. This year at Advent I’ve been watching my baby quickly grow into a toddler, and my thoughts about Mary have shifted again. I’ve begun to wonder what it would have been like if Jesus had gone to daycare.
I’m not the first person to pose this question. On Christmas Day 1976 journalist Nicholas von Hoffman wrote a piece in the Chicago Tribune about this very idea. He asserted, “If Jesus had been sent to a day-care center…[he] might not have become the symbol and ideal of love” because babies of parents who go back to work “grow up with considerable difficulty expressing love or loyalty.” He went on to say, “Feminist groups might be wiser urging women who don’t want to take care of their children just not to have them.”
While this piece is nearly 40 years old, many of von Hoffman’s problematic assumptions linger. Parents, especially mothers, who return to work after the birth or adoption of a child are criticized for not devoting all of their hours to nurturing their children. Mothers who want to stay home but cannot afford a significant leave of absence from work are deemed irresponsible for not having saved up enough vacation days or sick leave to do so. In the U.S. the cult of personal responsibility reigns supreme in all aspects of life, including the realm of parenting. Never mind that only 13% of U.S. workers have access to any paid family leave in the first place.
Last month I read Amber Scorah’s heartbreaking piece in the New York Times about how her three-month-old son Karl died the day she had to return to work. Although she had asked for additional unpaid leave after exhausting the twelve-weeks paid time off she was provided—a generous policy compared to what most employers offer, she acknowledges—her employer denied her request. Like many working parents, Amber and her partner found daycare for her son. On his first day there (and her first day back at work) she returned at lunchtime to nurse her son, but she never got the chance. Karl had died.
Scorah asks in her piece, “Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care —- or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat — to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?” She has started a website ForKarl.com, a grassroots organizing effort to advocate for a national paid family leave policy in the United States.
You can imagine the responses to her story. Many commenters express their condolences, but there are those who manage to place the blame on Amber herself as if her grief were not enough for her to bear. They said it was her choice to put her son in daycare. She should’ve checked to make sure the daycare was licensed. Actually, she and her partner should’ve found different jobs that paid better in the first place, so that they didn’t have to use daycare at all. Then maybe her baby would still be alive.
The underlying assumption in all of this “good” parenting is a mother’s solo act. It’s the same in von Hoffman’s piece. But this Advent as I think of Mary and Joseph as new parents, I see the nativity scenes in my home and all around me with new eyes. I see the magi and shepherds as something like ancient childcare providers! Together they form a circle of support around this new family, offering their gifts of presence and community. Mary and Joseph were not alone in their parenting journey; they had help along the way. And Jesus was better for it.
Katey Zeh, M.Div is a strategist, writer, and educator who inspires intentional communities to create a more just, compassionate world through building connection, sacred truth telling, and striving for the common good. She has written for outlets including Huffington Post, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches, Response magazine, the Good Mother Project, the Journal for Feminist Studies in Religion, and the United Methodist News Service. Find her on Twitter at @ktzeh or on her website www.kateyzeh.com.