I have a daughter. Like every parent, I could tell you endless stories about her. How she started climbing before she could walk. How she has always loved to play hide and seek, although until recently, she was the worst hider ever, a non-stop stream of giggles leading seekers straight to her. How today, having just turned 6, she builds elaborate block structures that make me dream of her future as a visionary architect. I could back up these claims with photographic evidence until your eyes glazed over and you prayed silently for mercy.
Like every child, my daughter is a gift. She was born 13 years into my marriage, when my husband and I were in our 40s, had resigned ourselves to the fact that we were not going to conceive a child and had decided not to adopt. But at first, her life was a hard gift to accept. That is because she is my husband’s daughter with another woman.
Like every child, my daughter is a gift. But at first, her life was a hard gift to accept.
I knew nothing of their brief affair until my husband told me a woman I had never met was expecting his child. As I struggled to absorb his words and their impact on our life together, I asked some basic questions: Was the affair over? Did he want to stay married? Did the baby’s mother have a supportive family and community and health insurance? When he had answered yes to everything, it was time for me to discern what to do next.
The clear first step was to pray. My appeal to God that evening was primal: “Help.” I knew I wanted to stay married. I knew I wanted to love the baby who would arrive in six months. And I knew, with more certainty than I had ever experienced, that I could not do those things without divine assistance.
As I prayed, help arrived in the form of a fraction anthem that popped into my head and ran through it virtually all night: “Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us…. Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us…. Jesus, redeemer of the world, grant us your peace.” I had sung those words in hundreds of Eucharists and they had never failed to move me. But that sleepless, tormented night, they struck an even deeper chord in my soul.
I knew I was one of the sinners so beloved by the Lamb of God that he had lived, submitted to an excruciating death and risen again for our sakes. Like my remorseful husband, like the baby’s mother, like every person past the age of reason, I had through malice, negligence or weakness done things to harm my relationships with God and other people. And I believed the forgiveness God offers all penitents, and the grace of God’s presence, make it possible for new life and love to grow out of the destruction human beings wreak. My sense of solidarity with other sinners, and my trust in divine grace, guided me to renew my marriage and to seek some kind of relationship with the baby’s mother, whose complicated feelings about her future I could only imagine. And it motivated me to protect and care for the baby who, unlike the adults in her life, had done no wrong. I knew Jesus Christ had loved and welcomed children and continues to call and empower his disciples to do the same. That night, I responded to the fraction anthem by praying—and starting to trust—that by God’s mercy, with God’s help, I could love my husband’s daughter as my own.
My family history deepened my resolve that this child should not suffer for adults’ mistakes. My own mother had left her first husband after a short, unhappy marriage, when she was pregnant with me, her only child. He was never heard from again, and I never met him. When I was 5, my mother married a man who claimed me as his own. From their example, I knew adults could choose to form a family under less than ideal circumstances. And from my parents’ struggles with anxiety and the depression that eventually led to my mother’s suicide, I knew that despite their good intentions, adults’ troubles could unfairly burden their children.
My husband and I had material advantages over my parents: We were older than my mother was when she precipitously ended her first marriage, and we enjoyed better health and a level of middle-class economic security my family had never reached. Just as vital were our emotional and spiritual resources: our love and respect for each other, shaken but intact; family and a wide community of friends; and my faith, for which my agnostic husband and I both gained a new appreciation in this crisis.
Until then, I had thought of Christian faith largely as a set of practices: liturgy, prayer, Bible study and the sharing of my time, energy and resources with anyone in need. I had not conceived of these practices as a training program preparing me for the most formidable challenge of my adult life. But they had indeed trained me, both to rely on God and to seek to live in ways that reflected God’s compassionate, creative love.
So I moved forward doing both. As my husband and I waited for the baby’s arrival, we worked to change the patterns, for which we were both responsible, and release the grudges, which we both held, that had allowed us to drift apart and endangered our marriage. Like other expectant parents, we rewrote our budget and revised our wills. We wrote letters to our family and friends and to my parish, informing them of the child on her way, and were overwhelmed by their love and support. My ministry offered challenging and amusing moments: the bittersweet joy of blessing a young, pregnant couple; the wide-eyed gaze of my congregation as I preached on the prodigal son, forgiveness and reconciliation. I prayed every day for the baby, which was easy, and her mother, which was harder—and more necessary. Presiding at the Eucharist brought me back weekly to the reality at the heart of our faith: that as the bread and wine are blessed, transformed, broken and then shared among Christ’s people, the grace of the sacrament allows our broken lives also to be transformed and our gifts to be shared in the name of love.
Such sharing can be painful; that is why we need to train for it. The afternoon I learned of our daughter’s birth, I wept more bitterly than I had since my mother’s death 15 years earlier. Then I thanked God for the baby’s safe arrival, asked for continued strength and that evening toasted her new life with my husband and friends.
Our daughter was a few weeks old when my husband first met her, and 3 months old when I first held her. My husband took the lead in caring for the baby when she was with us, feeding her, changing her diapers, bathing and comforting her. It was his job as her father and the surest way to forge the parent-child bond we both believe is her birthright. But I made sure she bonded with me, too, by feeding, holding and reading to her. And like every parent I know, as I did the work of love, I fell in love.
Six years later, our family life looks very different from anything we could have imagined. Our daughter lives with her mother in a city hundreds of miles from us. The time we spend with her is precious—a few days a month, a couple of weeks in summer—but far from the daily contact we long for, while her mother experiences all the intensity, positive and negative, of single parenthood. The relationship among us three adults is a work in progress, but we share one overarching desire: to help our daughter grow up feeling loved and loving others.
I have made sure our daughter knows God loves her and everyone.
Which she does. When I tell her, “You’re my sweet girl,” and she replies with a smile, “You’re mine!”; when she offers her tiny hand as we walk to the playground or pool; when she leaps into her father’s arms and wraps herself around him, it is clear this child knows she is treasured.
And not just by Mommy, Daddy and Rhonda. I have made sure our daughter knows God loves her and everyone. When she stays with my husband and me, an icon of Jesus welcoming the children hangs over her bed. She loves to look at it, and she knows she is among that crowd of beloved little people. When I trace a cross on her forehead before bed and whenever we say good-bye, she knows it is the sign of Jesus, God’s son, who healed and fed people and taught us how to live together. She knows that after he was killed, he was also raised up to show us love is the most powerful thing there is. When she is older, maybe she will realize her life shows that too.