Friday, December 17, 2010

Thoughts on Becoming a Parent

This week I suddenly found myself the father to a beautiful and wonderful baby girl. Even though her arrival was not exactly a surprise, in a sense it was the greatest surprise of my life. The moment she came kicking and screaming into the world, announcing her arrival loud and clear with her brand new (and already powerful) set of lungs, my wife and I looked at each other with what seemed a mixture of relief, joy, and utter amazement. What had been for 9 months a more or less abstract idea had suddenly appeared in the flesh, a living, breathing human being that we were responsible for bringing into the world. How could such things be?

When I was a younger man I felt ambivalent about the idea of having children. I think this was partly explainable by the feeling--not that I thought of it this way at the time--that my own life was a story whose outline and plot I was still trying to figure out, and that therefore I wasn't ready to launch a whole new story for someone else. In other words, why give impetus to a new human life when I was still working out the purpose and meaning of my own existence?

But now I can see that such hangups are completely beside the point. If a human life is a story--and I believe that a life is the very model of a story, the thing that stories imitate--then none of those stories are complete, or even remotely figured out, until you reach the end. Which means, of course, when you die. Every person who becomes a parent does so in the middle of things (in medias res, as in the ancient epics), while busily trying to sort out their own lives. In fact, the very act of parenthood, for those who choose it, is a monumentally important aspect of their own lives, and is one of the main factors that helps to make their lives--and their selves--what and who they are.

As a non-parent, I often heard it said that parenthood changes you, that it is impossible to comprehend the love a mother and father feel for their child without having experienced it yourself. As a new parent, I now know this from experience. Looking back, I feel that my love for my daughter grew in parallel with her growth in my wife's womb, starting as just a mustard seed upon news of her coming. Seeing the ultrasound image and learning that our child was a girl made her--and our love--one degree more real. Giving her a name made her even more real, an identifiable and unique human being. Yet she remained an enigma, an invisible and still ultimately abstract idea.

My daughter was born five days after her predicted due date, and in the final days before her birth I felt a bittersweet longing, an anxious eagerness to meet her. Upon finally--yet so suddenly--seeing her live and in person, our love for her also emerged, fully formed, as sudden and surprising as she herself.

How can I describe the love of a parent for his or her child? Like any love, it will have its ups and downs, its waves and troughs. But, as with any love, these fluctuations are only on the surface of a vast underlying sea. It has started out for me, as it undoubtedly does for most new parents, on a crest of euphoria. Strange as it may sound, the closest thing I can compare it to is the experience of being in love. Actually, it truly is being in love, just a different kind of love than is usually meant by that expression. Everything seems more meaningful, more valuable than it did before. The world glows in a radiant light that somehow had not been quite so visible until now. My daughter is to me the rarest and most precious of all earthly treasures, even though I hardly know her--even though it may seem to an outside observer that there is hardly anyone there to know. But to me she is (alongside my wife) the most interesting and important person in the world.

Where does this deep, vast sea of love come from? It is as mysterious as life itself. In fact, I would say that love, in its wide variety of forms, is the very meaning of life itself. This conviction I actually arrived at some 20 years ago, when, as a budding philosopher, I wondered what the ultimate meaning and purpose of existence was. Following the trail as far as I could, I could not get past one idea: love. This may sound strange to those of a philosophical or, certainly, a scientific cast of mind. To understand intellectually what love is--to explain it or define it--is pretty much beyond human capability. But to my mind, love, understood in the broadest possible context, was what gave ultimate meaning to everything. When you think about it, everything else we consider important--money, power, fame, success--are ultimately meaningless and empty without love. The Apostle Paul was right when he said that without love, "I am nothing." Having reached this point, I realized that love could not be justified or explained in terms of anything else. It was its own marvelous and miraculous answer: this, I decided, must be what it's all about.

My daughter, new as she is to life, has confirmed this for me like never before. What is important has its importance only in relation to what the modern philosophers call subjective consciousness and what the ancient ones called the soul. To give a definition that does not really define much of anything, one might say that love is the valuation of one consciousness or soul for another as an end in itself, rather than a means to a further end. I want to give my daughter everything that is good, whether she ever returns the favor or not. I have no doubt that as she grows up and matures, she will bring me much pride and joy and returned love, but those are not the reasons I wish to give to her. She is an end in herself--her good, her benefit, is where the buck stops. Everything I do in relation to her is ultimately measured in those terms.

Yes, I am still in the process of writing my own life story, its direction clearer than it was before, yet still a work in progress. And now I have participated in giving life to a whole new person with a whole new story. This is the way of all flesh. Plants, animals, and human beings all give rise to further generations--this thing called reproduction is nothing more nor less than life affirming itself as good. Life, too, is a mystery. Scientists can explain the physical processes of life but no one can really explain what life is. But somehow we know that, like love, life is its own answer. As someone somewhere once said, "That is all ye know, and all ye need to know."

I look forward to teaching my daughter many great and wonderful things about life and the world we live in and about herself. But I look forward even more to all the great and wonderful things that she will teach me about life and the world we live in and about myself--things that, in her own remarkable way, she has already begun to teach.

1 comment:

  1. So, may the journey continue and the stories continue to be written. Bravo! A great reflection.