It happens every eight seconds, they say, but it’s no less weird and wonderful. I’ve never seen a baby be born, but my big sister has— twelve of them, actually. She earned her birth assistant’s certificate because she’d grown up the oldest sister, the babysitter, the Meg March of the family. As a kid, she turned her bedroom into a doll nursery and said she wanted twelve of her own children when she grew up.
The first birth Leanna coached as a doula was everything she’d expected (and she had read What to Expect When You’re Expecting as a nine-year-old). She loved the good urgency that surged through the room, and the ways she could soothe and massage the mother, whispering things like: “You’re almost there.” But mostly, she loved the sound of the born baby, and the way he flailed until he was thrust against his mama. Leanna remembers that she cried.
Being pregnant herself, though, was something entirely new. Suddenly, she didn’t remember about hormone levels or which foods she could and couldn’t eat (almond milk? apples with the skin still on?). The difference was that this wasn’t someone else’s baby across the delivery room. She wasn’t coaching another mother bearing another child. Leanna was the mother, and this baby was her own to bear.
Her husband was at work when she took the test, a digital one. She was pregnant, no doubt. She screamed and jumped up, but the second she came down, a whisper crept right into the bathroom and up from the vinyl floor:
You could lose this baby.
She couldn’t say where it had come from. After all, she didn’t know many moms who’d lost children, but she found herself Googling the chances of miscarriage anyway. For the next ten days, the thought hung in the air of her little house, until one Tuesday morning in February when she used Google again to ask why she was bleeding so much.
This can’t be good.
The doctor confirmed that it wasn’t, and twenty-four hours later, she was on her way to the practitioner’s building, cramping and bleeding. That’s when she and Drew called the family to say, I think we’re losing the baby.
Leanna bled for a week. The church ladies cooked her meals, brought her flowers, sent emails and cards. It was a weird sort of grief— a grieving of what should have been, of a person we would never meet. It was like waking from a dream just before you know something good is about to happen. You wake, and the blank walls stare back, and you realize you’ll never see how it ends.
Leanna miscarried on Ash Wednesday, and up to that point, I’d been trying to decide what I could fast for the Lenten season. Well, God chose for me— for all of us. We would go without a baby, and it would be longer and harder than forty days. Lent is meant to carve out a sense of barrenness in us, and that winter, Leanna felt the vast barrenness of an empty womb. On Wednesday, she was a mother; on Thursday morning, she wasn’t.
At least, that’s how it felt.
But there was a truth that sang into my sister’s miscarriage, and it was a truth that Hannah and Mary had discovered in their own hearts and wombs. They sang:
“He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”
~ Luke 1:53
The night before she lost the baby, Leanna was alone on the kitchen floor, weeping onto the hardwood, pleading a prayer like Hannah’s:
“O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 1:11).
In the weeks after the miscarriage, Leanna’s belly went soft and flat and all she wanted was something to fill it again. A baby could do that, and nothing else.
At least, that’s how it seemed.
But before the green of springtime, there is first a necessary winter. Just as God filled the Holy of Holies with his glory, God does holy work in hollow spaces. Unless we’re empty, we can’t be filled; or, in Jesus’s words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Before God gave Hannah the boy she longed for, Hannah first gave that boy to God; and before God filled Mary’s virgin womb with Jesus, Mary first emptied herself for him.
“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:28).
“Let it be to me” is just the kind of heart soil God loves to sow in. Mary didn’t just give her virgin body up to the Lord to be filled and stretched and driven to labor; she gave him her heart, too.
I never want to be pregnant again, Leanna had thought after her loss. I never want to fill my womb again. I don’t want twelve kids.
At least, that’s what she said.
As winter softened into spring, Leanna’s empty womb became the space for a seed God would plant— a seed that would grow up into her empty heart and bloom into a garden. A baby could fill her womb, yes, but it could never fill her heart the way God could— he who fills the hungry with good things, who sends the rich away empty; who helped his servant Israel through women like Hannah and Mary, in remembrance of his mercy, as he promised their fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever (see Luke 1:53-55). Jesus came through the wombs of mothers and grandmothers who were once virgin or barren, proving that nothing will be impossible with God (Luke 1:37). God finds favor in the barren one, plants a seed, and fills her womb with all the glory of a son— his Son.
“The Lord raises up the poor from the ash heap… Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry have ceased to hunger” (1 Samuel 2:8, 5).
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!”
~ Isaiah 54:1
Leanna told me this story at her kitchen table, pausing now and then to check on Barrett John, whom we call Bear. She has other names for him, like Chubby Lovey, but Bear fits best and sounds less ridiculous. While we talked and cried, he ran his toy truck up the sunroom wall. He waddled over and climbed in Leanna’s lap and kissed her face. Leanna’s pregnancy with him was hard, and her labor was arduous. She spent weeks in the recliner before and after, but she was careful about her complaints. The Lord had taken away, and now the Lord had given, and this child wasn’t someone else’s across the delivery room. It was hers to bear, and she would bear the seed of her son with all the joy that blooms after the winter.
“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for the joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you…
Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
~ John 16:21-22, 24