Well fast forward a year or so and now I had a real, live baby who I was responsible for. The economy entered a recession and I had some fleeting moments of guilt as I looked into his innocent brown eyes and wondered what his future would be like. Was it selfish to bring this child into a world of war? Would we ever be able to afford to send him to college? Would he find a job? Would he be successful? Would he be happy? What were we thinking? But some nights were hard and many days were hard too and then I decided this wasn’t purely selfishness. A lot of self-LESS-ness goes into caring for a baby and so then I was left with – why do this then?
The first year was hard for me and not because of the usual suspects. We were lucky to have a baby who slept six to eight hour stretches from the beginning. He rarely cried and nursed like a champ. To date he’s had two ear infections and nothing stronger than a little cold. He’s only vomited once, so far, in this 3.5 years of life. So it wasn’t that usual stuff that was hard for me. It was the fact that my husband and I were devoting our entire days to this small thing that gave us nothing in return. Certainly when he started smiling at us, it helped, but I craved some return of emotion. Certainly I loved him and hugged him and kissed him and snuggled him, but longed for the day when he hugged me back.
Well I am now the parent of a three and a half year old and, in terms of returning love, the toddler years are the best. Now he will walk around the house singing, “Momma I love you, I love my momma” and he repeated tells me I’m his best friend and just last week he called me his sweetheart. He demands a long and tedious hug and kiss routine before either my husband or I are allowed to even step outside and he wants nothing more than our constant attention all. the. time. It is only now, that he is able to share his thoughts so clearly, that I am starting to understand the why of having kids. The other night at bed my son said, “I love all the mommies and all the daddies.” We’ve been talking about homes that only have one or the other because one of his daycare buddies has divorced parents and this has caused some confusion amongst the three-year-olds. So I said, “Well some people have a mom and a dad, and some have only a mom or only a dad, and some have two moms, or two dads…” And he smiled and said, “oh yeah! I love that!” So I sat back and thought that I could craft a thoughtful facebook post about that, but then I decided I had more to say than a few sentences.
Watching a child grow is truly a lesson in love, and I don’t mean a lesson in how much you love them (though that will blow your mind), but a lesson in how love works. Toddlers greet everything new person, place, and thing with excitement, interest, and love. With the exception of green beans and bounce houses, my son’s first response to most things is happiness. And I am lucky enough to get to watch and process with my own knowledge of the world. Watching a toddler grow is a true demonstration that hate, judgement, and criticism must be taught or learned. Watching a toddler get excited about an art project that involves a toilet paper tube and some yarn reminds us of the simple things. The fact that your child will play in the box the toy came in longer than with the actual toy reminds us that stuff is just stuff. And in a pile of new Christmas or birthday toys, your child will still always relish a hug and kiss from you – how many of us can say we’d feel the same?
Adult life makes so many demands on us and we see unfairness and tragedy. It makes us cautious, guarded, jaded, sarcastic, but the pleasure of having children around is the presence of a reminder of what really matters. And what really matters isn’t dishes or deadlines, it’s hugs, tents, tickling, and art projects. I have to admit, I’m generally reminded of these things only in my guiltiest moments. When I snap at my son because I’m trying to get dinner on the table and he looks so sad that I refused to sit down and color with him. It is in those twinges of guilt that I am able to remember that eating dinner 10 minutes late will not kill anyone and that someday on my deathbed I’m not going to look back fondly at how promptly I served dinner, but on those moments with my son.
So, I’m back to the notion of selfishness. To say that having a child is great because it reminds me daily of what’s important in life is fairly selfish, but the fact that this daily reminder forces me to go out into the world and act with more peace and patience in my heart is not. I teach high school kids and, while they definitely can have their challenging moments, I now see them all as someone else’s baby. Suddenly they aren’t just students to me, they are kids. They are somebody’s kids and I make decisions based on what I would want for my child. In fact I even wrote the phrase, “Is this good enough for Dylan?” on a notecard and keep it at my desk. In those moments when I feel like throwing out a worksheet or some silent reading I think about what I would want a teacher to do when my child was sitting in that desk in front of her. When I see a child running from their mother in a crowded room, I have no problem stopping to help wrangle because all kids are somebody’s kids now. I give sympathetic smiles to the parents of screaming children at grocery stores and resturants, rather than judgement and looks of disgust because I have been there. I don’t care if that child seems too old for a pacifier or that that dad is feeding his daughter a cookie at 8:00 am because we are all trying to survive the best we can.
The first night home from the hospital I remember sitting on the couch holding my son, watching him sleep, and wondering how anyone could turn their back on their own child or do anything to harm such a perfect little thing. I held this little human who had never experienced disappointment, fear, distrust, guilt, or humiliation. He had yet to fall and scrape his knee or bonk his head. And I couldn’t think of a thing he could do that would change my feelings. He might be gay, he might be straight, he might be transexual, he might have a flair for the dramatic, he might be incredibly stubborn, he might inherit his mother’s temper, he might be laid back, someday he will probably make a bad choice, he might be smarter than me, he could have a learning disability, he could develop a physical disability, he could play football and, despite all of these things, I would love him so much it would hurt my heart sometimes (but hopefully no football, haha). And then I go to school and see the bizarre things teenagers do and say or I watch the news and listen to hate speech and lies and I hear that the economy is struggling and I just keep coming back to the notion of love and peace and how powerfully important these concepts are. Because now my job is to ready the world for my son. My job is to actively do something to make things better because I have a vested interest and if we are all acting this way, then the selfishness of loving our own children is far outweighed by the positivity we can offer as a collective.
So if raising a child helps me remember that life is about more than stuff and deadlines and that our place in this world is to help each other rather than to judge, then I’d say having children is not selfish at all, but the best way I can imagine to help us learn how to love one another and treat each other with respect. And this is coming from someone who is not terribly gooey with emotion. The toddler and I have battled through tantrums, power struggles, injuries and messes. I don’t walk around in this zen-like aura everyday. I’m a normal person who makes judgements and mistakes and lots and lots of sarcastic comments, but I think my favorite thing so far about raising a child is that every night at bedtime I get 15-20 minutes of snuggle and talk time with a person who has profoundly more insight I think than I do and everyday I get a fresh start. Simply having him around forces me to care about my actions and that alone makes the whole thing worthwhile.