Surprised by Motherhood

Advent, the season of expectation, is upon us. It is a time to yearn for that which is to come.

A couple of thousand years ago, Mary was waiting to become a mother. The world was waiting for the fulfillment of a promise. God’s promise.

This year more than any before it, I feel a deep resonance with Advent. My yearning for that which is to come, for the fulfillment of a promise, for the gift of motherhood (the deep desire of my heart), and for the grace of unconditional love is nearly overwhelming. But in the best of ways. Like the aroma of mulled cider wafting from the kitchen on a cold winter morning.

In October, my husband and I celebrated 12 years of marriage. For about 11.9 years of our wedded union, I’ve wanted to be a mother. But we were not blessed with biological children. As I headed into my late 30s, I began to believe that ship had sailed.

Two years ago in October, while traveling in Africa, we met a little boy in Malawi named Vasco. He was an AIDS orphan with a heart defect. He was dying a slow death. We tried to get him medical help in Malawi but there was none to be had for his kind of problem—a large ventricular septal defect; i.e. a big hole in his heart. So I did the only thing I knew how to do: I told his story.

I wrote about Vasco’s plight in the newspaper where I’ve been a columnist for the better part of a decade. The column ran on a Friday. By Saturday morning, three hospitals in Chicago offered to treat Vasco for free if we could get him to the states. I’ll spare you the roller-coaster details of the intervening 18 months, but on June 11, surgeons at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois, repaired the hole in Vasco’s heart with a Gore-Tex patch, fixed a few other leaks, and restored his broken heart to working order.

On June 11, something else happened. Something wholly unexpected.

I became a mother. Vasco had begun calling me “Amai,” the word for “Mom” in his native Chichewa a few weeks earlier. In the hospital he switched to calling me “Mom,” in English, on his own. But it wasn’t until my husband and I were sitting on opposite sides of Vasco’s bed in the intensive care unit after the surgery that it clicked. We knew. He was our son. We were his parents.

It’s the clearest I’ve ever heard God’s voice—at once indescribably joyful and absolutely terrifying.

It wasn’t our plan. Our only intention was to help him get well and send him home to live a long, normal life. We didn’t think it was possible to adopt from Malawi. But doors opened. Bridges appeared. The way was made clear.

Each time I tell this story and mention that it wasn’t our “plan” to adopt Vasco, I think of that scene in the film Evan Almighty where God (Morgan Freeman) starts giggling uncontrollably when Evan (Steve Carell) mentions his “plan.”

“Your plan,” God laughs. “Your plan!” Yeah, so God has a great sense of humor. Did I mention that we were traveling in Malawi because I’d won a raffle for a two-week all-expenses-paid trip to Africa? True story. So much for my plan. God’s plan is way more compelling.

This Advent we’re waiting for the adoption process to be completed. I’m waiting to become a mother (legally, at least). Vasco is waiting to open his first Christmas presents, sip his first mulled cider, and celebrate the birth of the Savior—a child born into straw poverty in the Third World, much like he was—with his new family.

Like Mary, after whom I was given my middle name, I’ve been surprised by motherhood. Overjoyed by a kind of love I’d never before experienced. And startled by amazing grace.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of three books: The God Factor, Sin Boldly, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, published this autumn.

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