Last week, I picked up a used CD copy of John Coltrane’s 1962 album Coltrane, his third album for the Impulse! label and his first album with his classic quartet lineup with Elvin Bishop, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner. I didn’t recognize any of the pieces on the album, but knew that this was a fertile time for Coltrane’s playing and that his work with this line-up in the early sixties is, in my opinion, his best. When I got home I took my little girl upstairs with me to the computer, where I rip new CDs to my hard drive so I can put music on my iPod.
I sat my little girl in my lap while I transferred the CD to the computer. She was squirmy and fidgeted in my lap, twisting her body to the side and requiring me to wrap my arm tighter around her so she didn’t roll off my lap into the floor. To make sure that the CD ripped without problems, I played the last track of the CD, a bonus cut called “Up ‘Gainst the Wall.”
Immediately, my baby stopped squirming. She looked up into the air with an intrigued expression on her face as the first notes of Coltrane’s soprano sax began to feverishly fill the room. Then she did two pretty amazing things. The first thing she did was smile. Not one of her wide delighted smiles that she gets when I tickle her or play peek-a-boo, but the soft interested smile she gets when she hears her name called from across the room. The second thing she did nearly blew me away, but I swear to you, dear reader, that it is the truth: she tapped her foot. Not exactly to the rhythm; she still has a good bit to learn about counting out time. But she kicked one heel up and down against my knee with an energy that seemed purposeful and composed.
We didn’t get to finish the track, because Mama called us down for dinner. But for a few minutes I watched my little girl discover the mystery and beauty of jazz. I was aware that I hadn’t really played her any jazz before (unless you count Norah Jones, which I don’t). But I did not expect such an immediate and obvious response. I wasn’t even really listening to the music myself, I just wanted to make sure the CD had transferred without any sound loss. But to see her captivated so suddenly by this music tickled me both as a father and as a music lover. I can’t wait to play Blue Train for her.
Jazz is a unique form of music. If combines the rigorous musicianship of classical music with the courageous endeavor to explore and improvise. It is lyrical without requiring vocals, poetic in expression, and often demands something from the listener. It’s a testament to Coltrane’s power as a musician that his playing could immediately demand the attention of a five-month-old.
It’s also a testament to my daughter’s budding taste in fine music. I had to learn to appreciate jazz, and I took that task on as an adult. That my little girl has such a major head start is a thrilling discovery. Perhaps my playing the Grateful Dead for her in the first few weeks of her life has helped her develop an ear for exploration. Or maybe the fact that we played all kinds of music for her while she was in the womb has opened her up to the possibilities of a diverse range of styles and genres. Or maybe she’s just born with an ear for jazz. Whatever it is, I’m pretty excited to have given birth to such a hip baby.
That’s right – I said the disservice. I touched on this a little in my last post: how parents think their children are the greatest at anything. No parent brags on their child’s averageness. No, it’s “My child is in the top percentile of whatever.” Whether your child rolls over before another child or says a word before another or grows teeth or smiles or talks back or whatever, parents brag on their kids. Before becoming a parent, it always struck me as silly. I mean, if your kid is really so smart, how come the only person I’m hearing this from is you? If your kid is so amazing, why hasn’t the newspaper run a story about him? Why even feel the need to tell me? If he’s so amazing, wouldn’t I notice that on my own?
Well, now I’m a parent with a child of my own. And you know what? I don’t feel that much differently. I’m amazed at what my little girl is doing, but I’m not the slightest bit fooled into thinking she’s somehow special compared to other kids. Does it impress me that she can track my voice from across the room and isn’t fooled when she looks at a reflection of me in the mirror? Sure. But she can’t walk and she can’t feed or clean herself. These facts could be used to argue that the neighbor’s cat is smarter than my baby.
Of course, my little girl is only five months old. It’s normal for a five-month old to be unable to do these things. If she were five years old and couldn’t walk or feed herself, well, we’d be worried. But developmentally, my daughter is exactly where she’s supposed to be. She’s normal. Or, put another way, average. Yes, she impresses me every day, but it’s not because she’s different than other children. It’s because I’m amazed to watch the process of human development occur before my very eyes. (Okay, I will allow myself to claim my daughter’s uniqueness in one aspect: she is unbearably cute. Way cuter than other kids, including yours.)
In our culture, every child is so special. “You can do anything you want!” we tell our kids. “You are so special and unique and if you put your mind to it, you can do whatever you imagine!” This is great to hear – I heard this message in many forms myself. But it’s also not true.
I’ve been recently reading the book of Ecclesiastes. Lovely stuff. “The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this is also vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten…” (Eccl. 2:14-16b, NRSV). As if that wasn’t cheerful enough for you, the writer goes on: “I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity” (Eccl. 2:18-19).
Vanity. This isn’t the best translation of the Hebrew word hebel, although that’s how King James had it translated. Sixteenth century English probably understood the concept of vanity a little closer to the Hebrew. This word in the Hebrew is literally translated as “vapor.” As in, “This also is vapor.” Meaning, insubstantial and impossible to grasp, or absurd. The NIV translates it as “meaningless.” But I like recapturing the word “vanity” using our current definition: according to Webster’s, “excessive pride.”
It is vain of us to think that what we do has cosmic significance. It is excessively prideful for us to get caught up in our toil and our wisdom so as to think that we are special. As the teacher in Ecclesiastes says, the same fate befalls the wise and the foolish: we all die. And when we die, everything we may have accomplished gets handed over to someone else, who will eventually squander it. And long after we’re dead, no one will remember us.
There’s a sobering thought. Part of what has wrinkled my brain as a parent is the thought that my child has become my new legacy. That when I die, I will be leaving behind this other person. She will carry on my memory and even after I’ve gone, people will see me in her. But even if that’s really true, my beautiful daughter will also die one day. And whatever she accomplishes, just like whatever I accomplish, will disappear. Neither I nor my child are going to change the world.
And you know what? That’s fine. That’s perfectly okay. The words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: “I know that there is nothing better than for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this so that all should stand in awe before him” (Eccl. 3:12-14). I don’t know about you, but hearing that I’m not going to be able to change the world – or raise a child who will change the world – really takes the pressure off. Who cares what percentile of whatever bullshit classification my daughter falls into? I love her. She’s the light of my world and I wish I could spend every moment with her. I’m happy with her, and she’s happy at home with me and her mother, and that is what is truly special. This is the gift God has given human beings: that in our finitude we are free to enjoy one another. We don’t have to get hung up on our achievements or wealth or accomplishments, because what good is that? That’s vanity; empty, vaporous, meaningless vanity. What is real is that I enjoy being a parent to this wonderful person who has touched my life.
That, of course, is the rub. My daughter is special to me. Sorry, but my kid means more to me than your kid. That’s ultimately what we mean when we get into pissing matches with other parents about how great our kids are. And I think that’s a fine way to feel. Biologically, it makes for good evolutionary process; if my child weren’t that important to me, I wouldn’t care for her and the species would die out. But what is missing is the recognition that it works the other way: my child’s specialness is mostly limited to me and her mother (and her grandparents, those amazing creatures who have passed over the specialness they once felt for their children now that they have a grandchild).
So does this mean I’m not going to praise my child? May it not be so! I mean, for the love, I praise her when she takes a crap. But I’m going to try not to get caught up in the vanity of thinking that my child is somehow better or smarter or more gifted or more special than other kids. In the scheme of things, we’re all pretty insignificant. We stand in awe before God, who in the strange mystery of his love, finds us special enough to care about us and want good things for us. But let’s not get too big for our breeches. Or feed our kids so much undeserved praise that they get too big for their jumpers.
I love my beautiful little girl so much. She is unquestionably special to me. But I can really let out a sigh of relief that I don’t need to feel pressured into raising a kid who is the smartest, sharpest, most… well, anything. All I have to do is love her, teach her about God’s amazing love, show her how to give that love to others, and enjoy her. In two-hundred years, if no one remembers me or my little girl, so what? In the days I have left I will stand in awe of the gift God has given me in this beautiful child and enjoy the work of being her father.
My daughter is nineteen weeks old, and we already have artwork she did at school posted on our refrigerator. I could not be prouder.
All parents believe their child is the greatest at everything: the smartest, the fastest, the most developed of their age. Honestly, have you ever heard parents brag about how average their child is? “Yes, well, my little girl is completely within normal range of her class. She is reading/walking/talking/growing within the top fifty percent of her peers. She’s at exactly the point that the doctors/teachers/counselors say she should be.” So I’m aware I’m fitting into this file when I brag and say that my five-month-old painted fire. I don’t want to be that parent who claims their child is the greatest child ever born. At least, not beyond reason.
Okay, but seriously, folks. My beautiful little girl is pretty average in terms of development – a fact in which I’m thrilled. Every milestone that she hits at the appropriate time and stage is something I’m terrifically proud of. I’m pleased that my baby is normal. At this stage, average is good. Because anything outside of average – below or above – is something to be concerned about. She’s not walking or talking or eating or developing behind or ahead of schedule. I praise God for this fact every day.
But then she brings home some artwork and my mind is blown. Take a look at it. Oh my word, my baby did this! She painted a firetruck (mostly)! And that fire? That is some seriously scary shit right there. We’re talking Backdraft-quality flames here, a rolling blaze that will instantly consume any building with its insatiable hunger for oxygen and fuel. Here’s how you know what a dangerous fire that is: the firetruck had to rush so fast to the scene that most of its red has fallen off.
So I’m no idiot; I know that although it was my little girl’s fingers upon which the paint was applied, it was a daycare worker who held and guided the hand, if solely to keep her from shoving those dainty little fingers in the place they spend most of their time (her mouth). I realize that there was very little artistic or creative thought behind her painting. But the daycare worker informed us that while most of the infants cried and screamed their displeasure with having paint applied to their fingers, our little girl smiled and enjoyed the whole enterprise. Does this mean she’s a budding painter? I don’t know, maybe. Truthfully, she smiles and enjoys pretty much everything she does. But it’s one more thing to be proud of.
Ultimately, though, what is so amazing to me is not that my beautiful girl fingerpainted or even that she enjoyed fingerpainting. What I love about these little artworks is that my baby made something besides poo. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson described the mid-life adult phase of development as being about generativity versus stagnation. After adults have learned to experience and express intimacy, they then seek to describe the meaning of their existence through the accomplishments they can measure, particularly as they learn to pass this on to the next generation so as to ensure a sense of contribution to the human race. I’m aware that my pride in my little girl’s generativity is located mostly in my own developmental phase. (According to Erikson, my little girl is primarily concerned right now about whether or not she can trust me and her mother.) But I can’t help but be in awe of the possibilities of what my daughter can and will create in her lifetime. I could describe this little artwork as an expression of my daughter’s generativity, but it’s really about my generativity. I am thrilled to think that I might be contributing to the gradual ascension of the human race by giving birth to and raising this beautiful little girl who is already (with a lot of help) learning to explore the world around her in exciting new ways.
You see, if you look closely at the fire, you can discern the grooves of my little girl’s fingerprints. My beautiful daughter’s fingerprints are in that painting. The mark of her touch is on that paper. And it’s only the beginning. Where else will she leave her mark? What will she do in her life that will express the richness of her existence? She’s still got a whole lot of development ahead of her in Erikson’s scheme before she gets to generativity: trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity and intimacy. But I celebrate my own generativity in my beautiful little girl. When she smiles, my fingerprint is there somewhere. When she giggles, when she kicks, when she delights herself with the sudden realization that she can roll herself over – somewhere in there is my own fingerprint. But the strange thing is that I’m more proud of her than I am of me. I guess that’s a true mark of adult development in generativity versus stagnation: that I can look outside of myself and rejoice in the mysterious process of creation and procreation. I’m thrilled by the gift of seeing my child develop into her own person, and I treasure the unfathomable blessing of getting to participate in her life.
I mean, I just love that fire. Because, wow, I just my love my little girl.
This time of year in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee is the time of the small town festival. Apples, pumpkins, dogwoods, or whatever harvest crop – a small town will build a weekend festival out of it and bring in tents and booths of crafts vendors, fair food, and lots of local musicians and performers. My wife’s hometown has an Apple Festival, and my wife sets up a booth to sell her handmade jewelry. This past weekend was the Apple Festival, and from sunup to sundown on Friday and Saturday we manned her booth, selling necklaces and bracelets and earrings to the throngs of passersby. Our little girl stayed at my wife’s grandmother’s house, three blocks away, being regularly doted on by her grandmother, great-grandmother, and an ever-changing assortment of uncles and aunts.
Come dinner time on Saturday night, the owner of a local restaurant stopped by our booth to inform us that they were serving dinner exclusively to vendors and invited us to come by. My wife and I left the booth in the able hands of my parents and snuck across the street and behind the line of tents to a café that also doubles as an antique furniture store (That’s right – it’s a café and an antique furniture store. If you like the table you eat on, you can buy it.) Because it was nearing the end of the festival and because it was only open to vendors, it was quiet. The bustle of the street and the noise of the fair couldn’t penetrate the large open showroom, and my wife and I enjoyed a quiet moment together over a grilled cheese on rye and a slice of homemade pineapple cake.
If you count this lovely scene as a “date night” – and I do, even though it only lasted forty-five minutes – then that makes three date nights my wife and I have enjoyed together since the birth of our beautiful baby. The first one was a month after her birth: her parents kept our little girl while we went to our favorite Indian restaurant and then saw Toy Story 3. The second was two weeks ago for my wife’s birthday; my parents kept our little girl while we went to a fancy restaurant here in town. I’m not counting the wedding we attended or my wife’s company banquet because we had to interact with other people. I am counting our quiet, peaceful interlude in the furniture café simply because my wife and I were able to enjoy the time just the two of us.
Used to be we had date night every weekend. Sometimes twice a weekend. But when our ninth wedding anniversary came six weeks ago, the best we could muster was to simply remember saying “Happy anniversary” to one another. The date night has become nearly extinct in our lives, unless you broaden your definitions to include a brief moment of quiet over a grilled cheese outside of a fall festival.
Every life change comes with loss. Every single one: marriage, a new job, buying a house. All come with some kind of loss. Becoming a parent is different than the previous examples only if you measure them by the magnitude of what is lost. And every time someone experiences loss, well, they grieve. Or, at least, they should grieve, because that is the appropriate emotional response to loss. But I think that in our culture we rarely do grieve the losses that come with these significant life changes, particularly when these life changes have been deliberately (and often painstakingly) chosen.
For instance, when was the last time you went to a wedding and the couple openly mourned the loss of their single lives? Perhaps a wedding isn’t the proper setting for such a thing (we didn’t do it in our wedding), but I wonder why not. As the scriptures say, “a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife.” Leave being the operative word. I suppose weddings do often have an acknowledgement of a family of origin, but there isn’t a lot of attention paid to what is being lost in leaving that behind. I wonder if the divorce rate might be incrementally lowered if we could find some kind of funeral ritual for the single life, allowing married couples to name and bury the aspects of their lives apart that they will miss the most.
The importance of this grief process seems heightened in the case of becoming a parent, not only because you lose so much, but also because this is the one major life change that can happen unexpectedly (at least in terms of positive gains). Becoming a parent is an amazing, joyful, delightful and wonderful experience. But the losses are tremendous. Never again will it just be me and my wife. Even on those rare occasions when we do get away, our minds never stray far from our beautiful baby girl. I’m just shooting from the hip with this figure, but I’ll bet that 70% of the conversations we had on our three date nights somehow related to our being parents. No more do we have the luxury of just getting lost in each other’s company. Our lives are completely focused on our baby girl.
And the realms of life that this extends to! Of course, there’s money – wow, the kind of financial impact a child has on a family, it’s truly unbelievable. You think you’d believe it if you heard it, but you don’t until you feel it. Then there’s time. Life worked pretty well for us until my wife went back to work. And then suddenly there wasn’t a person at home full time who could clean and arrange around our baby’s schedule. And even when we have time, we have so much less energy. I’ve bragged on my little girl’s sleeping habits, and I can honestly say I’m getting about the same amount of sleep as I got before she was born. But now I need twice as much sleep as I used to. We haven’t watched a movie together since, well, Toy Story 3, and that was only made possible by babysitting grandparents. And I won’t even mention sex.
C.S. Lewis once described grief as being like cancelling the mail. You don’t lose everything all at once; it slowly decreases in a trickle over time, and every day or two you discover something else you no longer have. I suppose Saturday night, nestled together in the quaint furniture café, I discovered that we’d lost the date night. Sure, we get them occasionally, and as our baby gets older and more easily babysat, we will likely experience them again. But the freedom of complete immersion in one another is now gone, pretty much forever. Even if we can carve out the time and discover the energy to immerse ourselves in one another, there will always be this creature between us. A beautiful, amazing, astonishing creature of angelic magnificence, yes. But between us nonetheless.
I write this not in complaint or regret, but rather in an attempt to openly and appropriately mourn. Any idiot who has ever been to counseling can tell you that working through one’s grief is essential to moving into the transition brought by loss. I think there are a lot of unhappy parents in this world who can never express the root of their unhappiness because they have never worked through their grief. I noticed during our pregnancy how often other parents would respond to us with some cynical or pessimistic comment about how our lives were about to become a lot harder. I guessed that this came from some hidden well of bitterness, but now that I’m on the other side, I’m sure of it. It’s as if there are parents who are angry that no one ever told them parenthood would rob them of so many things, and now the only outlet they can find is to grumble at expectant parents-to-be who walk around with foolish grins of hopeful expectation on their faces, unaware of the burdens ahead of them.
Well, guess what – I’m still full of hopeful expectation. And I think I can continue to be so ridiculously in love with fatherhood and my beautiful little girl because I can say out loud that there are things I miss about my life before parenthood. I could compose an encomium to the date night, to the loveliness of just sitting in the presence of my beloved spouse and bathing in the intimacy of her company. I miss that. I grieve the freedoms we have relinquished – the Saturday afternoons spent languishing on the couch playing video games or watching football; the snap decisions to dress up and go out on the town; the spontaneity of sex and kissing; the quiet moments of belonging together, just the two of us. I miss these things. And I stand before you, composed but a little heartbroken, as I bury them in the ground.
So now I get a whole new world of experiences. Saturday afternoons spent watching my baby girl smile. The delight of having strangers coo and ogle our little girl dressed up like a ladybug. The spontaneity of choosing which funny sound will accompany the next kiss on my little daughter cheek. The quiet moments of belonging together, all three of us. And that little noise she makes when she’s trying to talk? Sort of like a happy growl, when she furrows her brow and grins? I’d give up date nights forever if I could get her to do that for me and my wife anytime we asked her to.
My life before parenthood is gone. I will miss it, but I am happy that it has gone on to a better place.