In the middle of February, when I was 26 weeks pregnant with our daughter, my husband Eric and I wrangled our 17-month-old fireball of a son onto a plane bound for Reykjavik, embarking on a 6-month residency in the capital of a tiny, unbelievably beautiful country in the North Atlantic. We had spent time in Iceland before — Eric lived there for nearly a whole year during graduate school — and we were excited for the opportunity to return for an extended period. Perhaps February seems an odd time to head to a place with the word “ice” in its name, but it was a special experience to watch and feel the days lengthen from February into June and start to wane again as we prepared to depart at the end of July.
Our little family is no stranger to international travel, having spent the majority of the previous year in England and Holland, but this was going to be different. Our baby girl was due to be born about 3 months into our stay. I was scared, but not for the reasons you might think. The prospect of giving birth in another country didn’t really alarm me. I knew they had very high healthcare standards and most people there speak English, so I figured it wouldn’t be that much different from when I had my son in Missouri. What scared me was doing it — the whole pregnancy, newborn, turn-my-world-upside-down thing — without my community.
Our church in St. Louis is a community that takes very good care of each other, to the extent that we have a reputation for doing so among people who have never even come to visit on a Sunday. The preceding autumn, during the early stages of my pregnancy and through the challenges of living with a 1-year-old, I felt like I had finally learned how to lean on this community, to ask for help when I needed it and accept it when it was offered. I had been forced to surrender my own prideful sense of self-sufficiency and sink tired and discouraged into the arms of my congregation. I rested and began to thrive in new ways, but now I would have to leave them. Eric and I, and many of our friends, prayed and hoped for a similar community in Reykjavik, where we would find ministers of His compassion and care.
It was not long after we landed that I became keenly aware of my own needs, which seemed myriad and great, physical and emotional and practical. As my pregnancy progressed, my body ached and grew weary very quickly, yet my responsibilities for my son and our household in this new place required a lot of physical activity. I was coming from a place where my sanity, and that of our son, was maintained by interacting with other families with small children on a daily basis, but in Iceland I knew no one. It was cold, windy, snowy, and dark. I don’t believe I have ever been so vulnerable and helpless, at least not since I was a child and ignorant of my neediness; one beautiful and painful aspect of adulthood is being conscious of just how childlike I am. I needed mothering as I encountered the literal growing pains of motherhood, and I needed practical help with the day-to-day tasks of caring for my family in a foreign place.
It would make for a great, heartwarming story if I told you that all of our prayers were answered. This would have felt nice, but it would not have challenged us. And our stay in Iceland was a story of challenge.
Facebook (yes, really — Facebook) was instrumental in finding my way around Reykjavik, both practically and socially. I discovered several groups for international parents and expats living in Iceland, and I posted on one wall introducing myself and my son and asking about the experience of giving birth in Iceland. I received overwhelmingly encouraging and informative responses. In addition to all of the comments, I received a private message from a woman I’ll call Annie, who would prove the difference in my family and I surviving Iceland and enjoying our life there.
Annie introduced herself in that message and explained that she was there from England, her husband posted at the British Consulate, and that she had two daughters, one of whom was just about my son’s age. She immediately offered information, tips, and even a ride to one of the English-speaking playgroups that was not easily accessible by bus. In the following months, she would take us shopping, lend us everything from an ironing board and muffin tins to an infant car seat and newborn onesies plus toys and books for my son when the few we brought with us became boring. Her attitude was always one of effortless generosity, and as far as I could tell, she was motivated by a deep sense of empathy, having moved to Iceland two years before in much the same position as me, pregnant and chasing a toddler.
Annie had stated in one of her early messages to me, in reference to a popular playgroup that was hosted by the large Lutheran church in the center of town, that she was not particularly religious. I initially thought this meant she would not be a part of my community in the same way that close friends who share my faith are. But as Annie and I began to see one another almost every day, often in the context of her doing something to help me, I quickly stopped looking for anything else. She was my community and I found myself happily, willingly sinking into dependence upon her — regardless of our different beliefs. God was loving me and my children through her.
Annie insisted that should anything unexpected happen, should labor begin before our overseas family arrived to help, I should call her no matter what time of day and she would come to look after our son. I was reluctant to impose, but with no other options, I filed her offer away as our backup plan. So two months later, when I found myself in a rapidly progressing labor two and a half weeks early, Annie responded without hesitation to our panicked phone call at 6:00 am and arrived within minutes to take our son home for a day of playing with her daughter.
As the time neared for us to leave Iceland, I was seized with a desperate desire to do something for Annie, to somehow repay her for all she had done for me and my son and our new baby girl. This desperation made me face the truth of the depth of my dependence, because I would probably never have the chance to return all of those favors or to care for her in her own vulnerability and fear and physical need as she cared for me. The parable of the Good Samaritan sprang to mind as I reflected on this. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has become a cliché that refers to someone who is especially charitable or helpful, but this is too simplistic. It leaves out the fact that the Samaritans differed from the Jews in their beliefs and geographical location, yet the Good Samaritan was actually a neighbor to the poor traveler because he cared for him when he was in need. My condition when we arrived in Iceland resembled that of the man left by the side of the road. I wasn’t a victim of violence, but I was in a state of need, and Annie was much like the good Samaritan — someone I didn’t expect, someone outside of my narrow vision of whom God would provide to care for me, and yet a kind soul who saw my need and met it quietly and effectively. In that story, the man had nothing to offer, nor the chance to thank his rescuer.
Without realizing it, I had put limits on whom God could use and what community should look like. I was even tempted at times to wonder when God would answer our prayers for community in Iceland. But my neediness made me ripe for reformation, and my dependence on Annie freed me to broaden my understanding of the love of the Father.
Emily Bryan is a wife, mother, maker, and reluctant home economist living in St. Louis, Missouri. Her primary occupation is caring for her family — husband Eric, toddler Everett, and baby Bryndís — and their little home, wherever they find themselves. She finds spending time outside every day is essential to her family's survival, and it is especially nice to bundle up in hand knits on the cooler days. She enjoys a shameful amount of clever television, will bake you a cake if she knows you're coming over, and sporadically writes about all of this and more at alltherestofit.wordpress.com.