The year my oldest daughter turned 3, I decided to introduce the Christmas story to her. I gathered as many books as I could find, and during the months of November and December, we read the story of Jesus’ birth together.
I was nervous about this endeavor. I wanted Hadley to know Jesus, but I didn’t know if I was prepared to answer the questions she might ask: Why do Mary and Joseph have to leave Nazareth? Why is Joseph upset that Mary is pregnant? What is an angel, and how/why did he suddenly appear? (We have enough problems with sleep as it is; I’m not sure I want Hadley thinking Gabriel could make an appearance at any time.) Why did Jesus come in the first place? What is sin?
Reading through the stories I’ve picked out, it seems that Jesus strikes Hadley as a really great baby, but I’m not sure she thinks he’s any greater than her 1-year-old sister.
“What does Jesus do?” she asks me.
“Well, he’s a baby right now, but everyone is so happy he’s here,” I say, wincing at my pathetic answer.
“Can he jump? Does he ride a tricycle?” Hadley wonders.
“Yes, eventually he will jump and do all the things you can do. But right now he’s a baby, and we’re celebrating his birth in these stories.”
“Can we read the stories where Jesus jumps?”
I imagine Jesus and all the angels in heaven smacking their foreheads at my effort to teach this most important story.
Then we get to King Herod.
Herod, it turns out, is the person Hadley has the most questions about: “Why is Herod mad?” “Why is he jealous?” “Why isn’t Herod smiling in the pictures?”
This disturbs me for two reasons. One, of all the characters in the story, Herod is the one who most captures Hadley’s interest. Two, of all the characters in the story, Herod is the one about whom I find I can answer the most questions.
“He’s angry because he doesn’t want to share,” I tell her. And, “He’s afraid that other people will take away something he thinks belongs to him.”
Frowning, Hadley studies the picture of Herod, then blows out some air.
“It is hard to share,” she says.
“Sometimes I don’t want to do it,” she adds.
“I know,” I say, putting my hand on her head. I’m sad with Hadley. I’m sad because neither of us wants to identify with Herod, but we both know what it feels like to be angry and afraid, and we both know what it feels like to be jealous.
I think about the first few months after we brought Hadley’s younger sister, Harper, home from the hospital. Hadley was happy to see her and regarded her affectionately. But when Harper needed me and I had to stop what I was doing with Hadley to take care of Harper, things got difficult.
I remember one morning when Hadley woke up before Harper. She and I sat on the bedroom floor playing with puzzles together. I’d poured myself a cup of coffee and Hadley some juice, then put on a CD that she liked while we played. I sipped my coffee while watching her little hands flip a puzzle piece around and around to fit the spot she was working on.
Before too long, Harper woke up.
“Harper’s up, I better go get her,” I said, beginning to stand.
Hadley grabbed my leg and said, “No. Stay, Mommy.”
My heart broke. I didn’t want to disappoint her. And what’s more, I didn’t want to leave her either. I wanted to stay and do puzzles and listen to the quiet voices of Peter, Paul, and Mary.
“It’s OK. I’ll be right back,” I said, trying to sound positive. But I’d be back with a baby—nursing her, changing her diaper, bouncing her up and down to keep her from crying. I couldn’t go back to playing puzzles. It wouldn’t be the same.
I sat down with Harper in the rocker in Hadley’s room and began to nurse. Hadley sat on the floor, cross-legged, with her head resting in her hands. And I started to cry.
Maybe jealousy comes from not understanding what’s going on. I knew that soon Harper would be following Hadley around and that the more they both grew, the more things they’d be able to do together. But Hadley didn’t understand that. Hadley didn’t understand that my husband and I had wanted to give her a sibling because we love her so much.
All Hadley knew at that moment was that her mom couldn’t play with her the way she used to or as much as she used to.
Maybe fear and frustration come from being unsure of what the future holds, or from refusing to accept the changes that are occurring even if they’re for the better.
My sweet little Harper was introducing herself to all of us, and we giggled at her wide-eyed expressions, her long legs that she liked to keep scrunched up, and her sporadic movements as she learned how to use her limbs. But that morning I mourned the loss of my time with Hadley, and I felt overwhelmed by the task of caring for an infant and a 2-year-old.
I don’t want to identify with Herod, and I don’t think Hadley does either. However, her questions give me a chance to reflect on someone I’d previously regarded as an inconvenient “blip” in this amazing story.
It had never occurred to me how easy it is to identify with Herod—and how much that makes Jesus’ birth essential.
Sitting on the couch together, my hand rubbing her back as we contemplate the difficulty of sharing, I hope I show Hadley a slice of God’s love for her—God’s assurance that we can wrestle with our worst insecurities, bad habits, and fears and know that he still loves us. No matter what.
Hadley is now going on 4 and Harper on 2, and a lot has changed. One recent morning the three of us sat on the floor doing puzzles together. I had my coffee and the girls had their juice. Harper was taking out all the puzzle pieces and handing them to Hadley to put back in.
“Dank do,” Harper says as she hands Hadley a piece.
Hadley giggles and looks at me. “She’s not supposed to say ‘Thank you’ when she gives me a piece, Mama!”
I giggle too and shrug my shoulders. “I guess she thinks that’s what you’re supposed to say.”
The radio is on, and Landon Pigg is singing “Falling in Love at a Coffeeshop.” I lean in and watch my girls work, their eyes filled with concentration. I listen to their steady breathing. I study their hands. “I think that possibly, maybe I’m falling for you. Yes, there’s a chance that I’ve fallen quite hard over you. I’ve seen the paths that your eyes wander down. I wanna come too. . . .”
The Christmas story, like the rest of life, can be confusing. However, the one thing I am aware of as I read it over and over is that Jesus understands our fear, our jealousy, and our anger better than any of us. Jesus understands Hadley’s difficulty with sharing. Jesus understands my feelings of inadequacy about caring for two young children. Jesus understands the struggles Hadley and I had when things changed.
But Jesus has come, and he is here now. And as I watch the paths that my children’s eyes wander down, I know he will be with all of us. What’s more, I know he wants to come too.