An anecdote to start with: Sitting at the dinner table about four years ago, my then-3-year-old eldest son expostulating about what he’ll do when he grows up. He’ll build a tractor factory, he says, and inside the factory he’ll hang a massive sign, reading: “Daddy-time, all the time!”
The psychologists would tell me that his love language is “quality time.” But I shouldn’t need a psychologist to tell me that: is there a single little boy alive for whom it isn’t?
He’s now seven years old. This summer he decided that he and I go on “weekly” bike rides and hikes on Sunday. In reality, we’ve only managed it three times, but don’t tell him that – it’s “weekly” to him, and so it will remain. But God strike me if ever I forget the electric joy of this wiry boy, hot and sweaty after the bike ride, marching beside me on the cool, shady forest trails, proud fit to bust for being out alone with his dad on a “real adventure,” as he repeatedly called it. He must have stopped dead in his tracks two dozen times to look about him at the trees and the bracken, and to listen to the stillness, exclaiming, “Isn’t it lovely dad? It’s just so lovely!”
It’s enough to break a man’s heart.
It is said of the Virgin Mary that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” It’s a passage of Scripture most often applied analogically to the quiet delight experienced by mothers, whose physical closeness to their children is often accompanied by heightened powers of observation, and feeling: but fathers, too, I assure you, “treasure up all these things,” in our own way.
There have been so many of “these things” these past seven years, since our first was born: Waking in the morning to hear our third-born – our poet soul – sweetly singing church hymns, or reciting snippets of nursery rhymes or Shakespeare (the fruit of my wife’s ambitious home-schooling efforts); listening in as our two eldest children scheme together for hours about the 100-acre farm they’ll own one day (my daughter will be responsible for the cats, of course); our fourth-born wandering the house in his diaper with four Nerf guns cradled in his arm, pausing only to shakily hold two between his knees before gleefully shooting me with the other two; coming home from work to be thoroughly smothered with hugs and kisses; the chorus of voices on the front porch waving and shouting “bye!” at the top of their lungs whenever I go anywhere at all (even if just to pick up milk from the grocery store 30 seconds down the road).
In the past few years at bedtime I have had the pleasure of reading The Wind in the Willows (the real thing, no silly Disney abridgements in this house), six of the seven Narnia books (the first was too scary), The Swiss Family Robinson, several of the great George MacDonald children’s novels, and have just begun to read The Hobbit, not to mention a thousand nursery rhymes: rich and delightfully innocent literature which I might never have had the opportunity to read – or read again – had I not had children. The other Friday night I had my first “jam session” with my son – I on the ukulele, he on the piano. Shooting off model rockets in the field across the way. Pillow fights with all the kids in the morning, peals of laughter…
In my present reflective mood, the recollections of joy pile on thick and fast.
About a month ago my wife gave birth to a boy – Maximilian Joseph – our fifth child in seven and a half years. By the standards of the world, we are now officially crazy. Four might be a mistake, five looks suspiciously deliberate. My wife has been getting the pitying looks, and the inevitable unintentionally impolite truisms (“You sure have your hands full!”) from store cashiers long since. I haven’t yet let her go out with all five at once (we must protect the delicate psyches of the cashiers of the world, after all).
By all accounts, we should be nervous wrecks. And sometimes, we are. Bedtime especially (For those non-parents out there: Everything you’ve heard about bedtime, however heinous, is most likely true. The problem with bedtime, it turns out, is that it happens at bedtime, which might sound like a tautology, but in the midst of the fog of war one’s brain occasionally fixates on absurdities, like what if bedtime came first thing in the morning, after that first cup of coffee, and the children well-rested? – in which case, it’d be a breeze.)
But I think I can speak for my wife too when I say that, a lot of the time, we’re simply having too much fun to even notice how tired and busy we are.
I could be wrong, but sometimes it seems to me that there’s too much talk about how difficult being a parent is, and too little talk about the sheer, unbelievable, indescribable, truly mystical adventurous fun of the whole thing. To the point that we risk becoming conditioned to expect parenting to be merely difficult, and to interpret those inevitable times where it is difficult, and we’re not having any fun, as being just how it is.
But it isn’t. Or, at least, it won’t be, if we don’t let it.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” Hamlet quipped to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – a stupid remark when applied to moral questions, but full of wisdom when applied to our personal response to the circumstances of our life. It is in the latter sense that Hamlet meant it: Denmark to him was a prison, but only, he admits, because he thinks of it as one. At times, parenthood can feel like a prison. We have brought these children into existence, there is absolutely no return policy, and there is no Mary Poppins to magically show up to put them to bed, or teach them about moral theology or taxes, while we sip a glass of red wine downstairs binging on Netflix.
But that’s alright. Because if parenthood is a prison, it’s a prison the size of the universe – for every child, every human being, is a universe unto themselves. And if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, it may be that’s because we’re not looking at things with clear eyes, like those stupid dwarves in The Last Battle, the final of the Narnia series, who are sitting smack in the middle of the grass and sunshine of Aslan’s country, surrounded by trees bearing the most delectible fruits imaginable, but whose skepticism is so absolute that they remain certain that they’re in a dark, stinking stable.
Of course, we are not yet in Aslan’s country. Which is to say, at times parenting can be a real slog, particularly if we, or our children, are burdened by physical or mental illness, financial difficulties, psychological wounds, marital strife, or any of the myriad troubles that afflict our broken, sinful race in this vale of tears. But, caveats aside, there are also joys associated with parenthood that, if we keep our eyes and hearts open to them, will leave us speechless in awe on a daily basis.