In recognition of Joseph's emotional labor

Detail from "Nativity" by Brian Kershisnik.
D Christian Harrison/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

I have been a working mother of two small children for a couple Christmas seasons now, and I'm noticing a trend: I make a disgruntled Santa Claus.

Much has been studied and written about the imbalance in emotional labor and mental load between heterosexual couples, with women taking on the majority of the work that keeps a household's life humming. Much has also been studied and written about how this imbalance is heightened during the holiday season, when the responsibility for realizing a family's ideal "Christmas magic"—which is, at its heart, the "work of caring"—generally falls to the mother.

I won't rehash it all here (hence the links if you'd like to read more), but I will say that even in my contemporary, self-aware, trying-to-be-egalitarian household, we are sitting in a slowly heating pot of societal waters, unaware of how entrenched our gender roles are until someone—and by someone, I mean me—boils over. It all feels insidious and unfair and intractable and exhausting ... and I'm not even trying to send holiday cards.

This year, I'm hanging my Advent contemplation squarely on the peg of this ongoing frustration. Amid my frantic hours and limited quiet time, I'm attempting to look these uncomfortable feelings in the eye and see what they can teach me. And as I've sat with the grouchiness and simmering resentment, I have encountered an unlikely companion: St. Joseph.

In all my Advent seasons, I've not thought too deeply about Joseph's role in the Nativity narrative, focusing instead of my connections to Mary as a pregnant person and mother. But this year, Joseph keeps jumping out to me, even more so after I read this article, "Rethinking the Christmas Story" by Rachel Pieh Jones, that expanded my understanding of Joseph and Mary's cultural context.

I consider how Joseph was juggling multiple and distinct responsibilities as a citizen, breadwinner, partner, and soon-to-be parent. Though the Bible doesn't go into specifics, Joseph did seem in charge of planning the journey, which meant he had to account for deadlines and travel time, arrange transport, pay for goods and services, and lead on logistics throughout the trip. Bethlehem was his "own town," so it was his family they visited, his family's hospitality they enjoyed, his family's dynamics they navigated. Through it all he cared for a heavily pregnant woman he was not yet married to—two states of being that likely brought trepidation for both physical and legal reasons. And when Jesus did arrive, Joseph was present as a father and guardian, and I imagine him weeping when he finally held the baby, releasing all the stress and fear and awe and joy that carried him and his family to this life-changing moment.

I won't drift here into comparing drastically different cultural norms to suggest that Joseph and Mary should have split the chores 50/50 or that Joseph should have set stronger boundaries. I'm simply saying that by picturing these moments both mundane and profound, I see I've taken Joseph for granted when really he embodied his "supporting" role by being the bedrock for the foundation, the cross-beam for the ceiling, the buttress for the cathedral.

The Nativity story unfolded as it did thanks to his commitment and effort, and likely in spite of his humanity. I have to think he wasn't patient and loving with every act or interaction. Surely he and Mary had spats, lost sleep, wondered what they'd signed up for and why they were doing this at all. (Not that I'm drawing on personal experience here. Not at all.) Still, he kept trying. Kept planning. Kept moving forward with courage, love, and hopefully the occasional nap.

This year, Joseph is leading me to Bethlehem, because finally I have seen him.

Prayer #384: Husband of Mary

Joseph, I imagine you were able to take one look at a machine or a structure and unfold the blueprint in your mind's eye, a carpenter's skill honed over years of practice, the transferable knowledge of a maker that made you a most capable doer.

Were there times when thankless/unthanked tasks soured your helpful nature and left you grumbling at your work bench, veering away from genuine generosity and perilously close to martyrdom? (Or is that just me?) I thank you anyway, Joseph, for not only your outcomes but your attempts, for they show you loved enough to try.

To all the Josephs of the world, this is my hymn of praise to you—you of the unwritten lyrics, you who are overbooked yet overlooked, you centers who are rarely centered. Gloria in excelsis deo for all you do and all you are.