Word Magazine October 1983 Page 28-29
SOME REFLECTIONS ON PARENTHOOD
by Matushka Valerie Zahirsky
Before the Baby Comes
For most first-time parents, the months preceding a baby’s birth are a time for learning about everything from infant nutrition to the relative merits of cloth versus disposable diapers. During these months the everyday things that relate to children and babies — TV toy commercials, the local library’s notice of programs for children, conversations with people who are already parents — take on new importance. And always there are books to read, dealing with every aspect of child raising. I remember waiting in a doctor’s office for my final check-up before the baby was due, reading yet another book for parents-to-be. A fellow patient, the smiling mother of two toddlers said, “Your first baby, right? I can always tell the first-timers; they’re the ones with all the books.”
Among the books, one of the best known is Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care. While much of his advice concerns the daily physical routine of it all, he also writes, “Fortunate are the parents with a strong religious faith. They are supported by a sense of conviction and serenity in their activities. Usually they can pass along their faith to at least a majority of their children.”
So there it is, right from Dr. Spock — an acknowledgment of the importance of passing along our faith. Now, we have some guidelines for judging a child’s physical well-being and maturation, but we may well wonder how to do, or whether we are already doing, an adequate job of nourishing our children’s spiritual lives. For what indications can we look? What experiences can we as “spiritual caregivers” expect to have? How will it be during the first few years with our children?
That probably depends a lot on our own religious life. The months before the birth are a good time to evaluate that life, especially for women, because pregnancy tends to make us sort out what’s really important to us. It may lead us to give up some bad habits like smoking, or consciously improve our diet, or simply become more aware of the myriad needs of children for which we hope we can provide. To some women, going to church is very important during this time, even though it may be physically more difficult. For others, fatigue and reduced energy are serious reasons for not going, or at least going less often. Both reactions are indications, I think, of our basic attitude toward churchgoing. Either it is something that we do no matter what else is happening, or it is something we consider expendable under some circumstances. Now is the time to consider such attitudes, think how they will affect the family later on (and they will in some way), and decide whether to keep them or try to alter them.
These months are also a time for reflection on some spiritual truths that can have special meaning for us as parents and which can help us through the early years of our children’s lives. For in embarking on parenthood, we enter a special relationship with God. We have expressed our willingness to care for a helpless infant. And it was as an infant, dependent on the care of human beings, that God Himself chose to enter the world in the person of Jesus Christ. God chose to submit Himself to this human experience, and did so truly, not seemingly. The Bible tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature”; in other words He really was parented, in our modern phrase, by Mary and Joseph. This drives home the value, and the responsibility for us of the role we have. It is a task which has deep meaning in the eyes of God. And the coming of God as a child also makes real to us the meaning of Christ’s saying that to enter the Kingdom we must become like little children. Perhaps while we are planning how we will teach our child-to-be, we should also plan to re-learn from him or her those qualities of trust and unquestioning love about which Christ spoke.
A New Baby
A young woman once likened her first months as a new mother to the experience of a displaced person. She said, “I really felt like one of those poor homeless souls whose lives have been disrupted by some cataclysmic event. My whole life was disrupted, completely and absolutely, by this demanding, tiny person.” Most of us have similar feelings, and we are disturbed by our inability to feel pure joy and delight, as the gooey baby cards tell us we should. No matter how much we tell ourselves that silly things like the sentiments in baby cards don’t matter, this is a very vulnerable time.
The fact is that we are called on, at this time perhaps more intensely than any other, to show the “great love” of which Christ spoke: giving our life for another person. With a new baby we really have to put another person’s needs and wants first, a person who is utterly unable to thank or reward us, let alone return the favor.
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. These are Jesus’ exact words. And I think we are mistaken if we believe that they apply only to some stand-out event such as a heroic act of rescue during a fire, or a scene from a John Wayne war movie. The New Testament talks mostly about our daily lives, including the drudgery and fatigue which are part of them. It is in the small things that we come, day by day, closer to God. Humility, patience and true love are qualities that the saints say are of greatest importance. But they can come through the smallest daily acts of nurturing and caring for a baby. Jesus came and shared our daily life to show us that we have the opportunity to live as He did, and to share in His Kingdom. But a baby especially gives us the chance to learn what it means to live for, to give our life for, the other.
If parenthood is a giving up of ourselves for the child’s sake, it is also a process of giving up the child. One father remembers the moment when this struck him, during his son’s baptism. “There was that instant when the priest laid Teddy in front of the royal doors, and then his mother picked him up. But during that instant of offering him to God, I remember thinking that all my ideas of my boy, my Teddy, were only half right. Yes, he was mine, by God’s grace, but he didn’t belong to me. He wasn’t my creation.”
This is no small realization. Our children, after all, are our responsibility. We have to keep them from danger, teach them right from wrong, show them how things are done. It’s not easy to do this without any (even subconscious) expectation that they will owe us part of themselves, that they are somehow our creation.
Perhaps it was not easy either for Mary the mother of Our Lord. When she and Joseph took Jesus to present Him to God in the temple, the aged Simeon told her that He “is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against” and also told her that a sword would pierce her heart, meaning that she would have great grief. One need only look at her face in any icon to see the expression of peaceful joy mixed with the intuition of great suffering to come.
For it may be that we want our children to be “ours” not only for our sake, but for theirs, because we think we have the wisdom to choose what is best for them. However, if we can teach them their responsibility to God, rather than to us, we will actually be doing the best thing we can. It is hard to let go, to let a baby explore without too many restrictions, for example. But we need to practice, to make the effort of will to believe what we say during Liturgy, “Let us commit ourselves and one another and all our life unto Christ our God.”
As the Baby Grows
There are times of stress, and many more times of joy, in living with tiny children. One situation that can cause both is taking them to church. What can we expect in terms of our spiritual experience?
To one father, taking a baby to church meant finding new meanings in the Gospel readings. “I never realized how many of them are about children, how much Christ really said about children. I listen, I look at my kid, and I think yes, I see what it means.”
May we assume that the presence of children can, in a similar way, be a helpful lesson for the whole congregation? Most of us have experienced at least once the scowl of a parishioner when our baby lets out a squawk. It can be intimidating, and make us wonder whether the scowler knows anything about children — does he think they can be kept quiet all the time? One priest’s wife notes that after she and her husband, long childless, adopted a young baby, the priest was no longer bothered by the occasional outbursts of children in church — maybe because some of them emanated from his own boy!
But short of providing each parishioner with a baby, it does seem that we can resolve to have our young children in church with the blessing of the Orthodox Church’s own tradition. At baptism, these babies were accepted as full communicants, and this means that they have a place in church. They cannot fully participate yet, but they have good reason to be there.
But then the question presents itself: what about the fact that children do make noise? One mother speaks of her dilemma with her 22-month old, active and talkative child. The girl gets noisy in church, but is it better to be strict and risk making her dislike church as a restrictive place, or to be less strict and neglect teaching her respectfulness through silence? It may depend on our own convictions. We need to decide what is most important to us spiritually, and do it. In this case, the mother who obviously wants her child to be quiet and attentive can say that being in church is such a great thing, because we are there with God, that we try to be quiet so we can think about Him. With reasonable expectations and parental example, it will sink in. The fact is that children need and want to be in a place where something is expected of them. It appeals to their dignity because it means adults think they can do it, and it saves them from the terror of too much freedom. Then too, one early saint writing about interior silent prayer recalls going to church with his mother and “speaking in perfect silence to God” as a young child. Silent attention is, by itself, a good spiritual experience to offer children.
The Church baptizes at birth because it has always believed that children are affected very early by what surrounds them. Science is just catching up to that belief, and even Dr. Spock acknowledges it as part of child care. But the Orthodox tradition provides more riches for the spirit, mind and senses than most people know. If we can value them, love them, partake of them, our children will do the same, probably with much more depth and clarity than we could ever have hoped they would. Just one more way that God rewards even our smallest efforts to approach Him, a hundred times over.
(Chapter 10 of a series called “The Cradle Roll”)