Each evening Jessica Robinson’s husband, Stephen, places a few drops of this holy water, which rests on his nightstand, upon his wife’s belly and recites a prayer from the Book of Numbers. The ritual “has made a big difference for us during this pandemic,” said Robinson. (Courtesy Jessica Robinson)
Each evening Jessica Robinson’s husband, Stephen, places a few drops of this holy water, which rests on his nightstand, upon his wife’s belly and recites a prayer from the Book of Numbers. The ritual “has made a big difference for us during this pandemic,” said Robinson. (Courtesy Jessica Robinson)
MILWAUKIE — Filled with severe morning sickness and coinciding with a global pandemic, Jessica Robinson’s first pregnancy has not unfolded like she’d hoped. Instead, the past nine months have given the 28-year-old unexpected, if sometimes brutal, gifts.

Because she’s practiced vigilant social distancing, there was no in-person baby shower, no get-togethers with girlfriends to chat about all things newborn, no fawning over her burgeoning belly by a slew of adoring relatives.

“But there’s been a great deal of quiet time alone,” said Robinson about a week before baby Peter James’ due date, Sept. 11. “And it’s given me a chance to be more present to this experience and to the life-giving potential of silence that’s often absent in our lives.”

Lessons from the cross

Robinson, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish here, acknowledged “the first season of pregnancy was overwhelming and disappointing.”

The nausea and vomiting often associated with the first trimester dragged on for more than half the pregnancy, until around 22 weeks. Her morning sickness was so extreme she needed to leave her job.

“I thought I’d feel a certain way when pregnant, and when it was wretched because of morning sickness, I was like, ‘OK, God, this is something I’ve wanted my whole life and this sucks.’”

Long an advocate for the unborn, Robinson said she felt like “a bad pro-lifer.”

“I felt I should be this poster girl for being pregnant, but I really felt so awful.”

Then, during adoration at her parish, her suffering changed.

“I was on the fourth sorrowful mystery, Jesus carries the cross, and there was this awareness that the cross is not punishment for us; it is an opportunity for us, a chance for it to be a sacrifice,” said Robinson. “The morning sickness was still hard, but it was realizing this could be something beautiful and spiritually transformative.”

Robinson’s faith has been a guide throughout her life. She grew up Catholic in the Portland area, attended La Salle Prep in Milwaukie and Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She met her husband, Stephen, while praying vespers at St. Birgitta Parish in Northwest Portland.

Robinson admitted with a laugh that she and Stephen talked of baby names during their courtship. They both were drawn to the name Peter.

St. Peter, the first pope, “is kinda a big deal,” said Robinson with a grin. “But he’s so human. He denied Christ three times but was forgiven three times.”

She recalled the story of Peter walking out onto the water and, while sinking, crying out to Jesus to save him. “He had this radical trust in the Lord,” Robinson said. “He shows that humanity is not an obstacle to God.”

The power of being present

When coronavirus-related shutdowns occurred in March, Robinson’s daily life did not drastically change, as she was no longer working and was spending most time at home. The pandemic did cause heightened anxiety and a spate of cancelations that included her in-person childbirth class. Many of her prenatal visits became virtual. For a first-time mom, not having regular checkups in person was nerve-wracking.

Robinson has been supported throughout by the people in her small “bubble” or “pod,” which includes a few family members and a couple friends.

Yet like countless people during the pandemic, she’s had an overall dearth of social interaction. Many of her Portland friends are busy navigating the coronavirus with young kids, and most friends from college are youth ministers, health care professionals or teachers, “so they all have lots on their plate right now,” said Robinson.

“I’ve felt isolated. There’s been a lot of quiet, which can result in boredom or anxiety or an opportunity to get a lot done and do self-care.

“Sometimes you have nothing going on and it’s almost scary. In our society, especially with all the technology and social media, you can spend all day on Facebook. Some days I’ve done that; it’s not life-giving and leaves me more anxious.”

If she puts aside her phone and sits on the porch with a cup of tea, that is far more nourishing.

Robinson knows this free time and the lovely stretches of silence will evaporate when a cooing, crying baby enters her world, but she feels what she’s learned during her pandemic pregnancy will inform her motherhood.

“Even when life is overwhelming, the present isn’t going anywhere,” said Robinson. “It’s our choice to be present in it or not. Having that realization and awareness that there’s a power in just being, I think that will be helpful as a parent — if I can remember it.”

The mundane is part of parenthood and the life of the homemaker, she said. There are always dishes to clean, laundry to fold, diapers to change.

“I know it can feel like a drag, and there might be the temptation for it to cause constant stress,” said Robinson. “But I think with God’s help and the prompting of the Holy Spirit, there is enough power so I can go, ‘I don’t have to think that way. I can think about that differently.’”

Along with the pandemic, there have been the deaths of Black individuals, the protests, the vicious rhetoric of an election year and “all the pain and anxiety of the nation,” Robinson added. “I’ve learned it’s really important not to worry and to take things as they come.”

Sustained by prayer

There will be more coronavirus-era hurdles to navigate after she brings her baby home from Providence Portland Medical Center, where she plans to deliver with the support of midwives and her sister-in-law, who is a doula. She anticipates difficult conversations with friends, fellow parishioners and relatives, “all intimately important to us.”

“I would love for things to go back to normal so that I could introduce everyone to Peter James and they could hold him,” she said. “I know it’s going to be tricky during the pandemic, because I need to know who is socializing with whom.”

It feels unnatural to say no to someone who wants to meet her son. “But it’s just because there is this person or persons that we need to protect,” she said. It is not just about the baby but her immediate family, who has made sacrifices to keep the circle of contact small.

Focused on his upcoming birth Robinson said she is most eager to see Peter James’ face. “It might be a ridiculous comparison, but there’s so much wonderment right now when I think about this life compared to the next, where — God willing — we will see God face to face. We don’t know how beautiful that will be, just like I don’t know what the baby’s face will look like.”

Holding the small human she’s been coming to know over the past three trimesters in her womb “is a teeny-tiny metaphor for our experience of getting to know God in this life and then when we finally get to see him for the first time,” Robinson said.

These past few months Robinson and her husband have made prayer a priority. Each morning they read from the Magnificat. At the end of the day they pray a decade of the rosary.

Stephen has holy water on his nightstand, and before bed, he places a few drops on his wife’s head and increasingly round stomach while reciting a blessing from the Book of Numbers.

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.”

The evening ritual of prayer and anointing “has made a big difference for us during this pandemic,” said Robinson. “It’s been powerful.”