The hardest thing I have ever known is to become a parent. Fifteen years ago I became a high schooler; that was pretty hard. Then came college, which was harder; but then, after a while, if I’m honest with you, it got easy. After graduation, becoming a teacher was hard, too, but eventually it was manageable. Then Alli and I married, and I turned into a husband: Wow—now that’s still very, very hard. But Parent, being the parent, being the dad, being so powerlessly in love with this vulnerable, crying, helpless, beautiful, loud need wrapped in personhood…I mean, it’s just the hardest thing I have ever imagined, and the hardest thing I have ever done.
I sit back to reflect on it for a moment, in order to come up with the words, with the images, to prove to you by way of metaphor that I’m telling the truth, to show you, to make you aware in a way that is just right, in a way that would explain it perfectly, clearly, even for those of you who aren’t parents yet. I reflect on just how hard it is. I think of the nights, of the loneliness of night when no one is around but the three of us, darkness everywhere and a hungry baby. I want to make you understand. But my arms dangle, and they hang—limply—at my sides. They become numb. I am tired. My shoulders hurt. I find I can’t even type the words to describe it. And anyway I am wordless for it, unable to describe anything this hard, and so typing wouldn’t do any good anyhow. And yet, here they are: the words have appeared. Somehow the words are brought to the page.
Maybe that is how I feel.
Sure, of course, I love him. His smells are everywhere in the house. On my hands. On my shirt. In the living room. In the kitchen near his baby’s bottles and baby’s bath and baby’s towel. They are there when I do the dishes, and when the laundry is folded by the couch. I have never been more aware of my gratitude, or more conscious of my love, or closer to the belief that my love is a thing in my chest, something I could take out and show to him if he asked to see it, its weight and size, its rounded edges, the hardness and softness of it at the same time, its willingness to sacrifice or change shape at his will, for his safety, for his pleasure.
Or maybe I believe that my love is my chest itself, and its heaving is proof enough.
Several days ago he gave out his first social smile—to me. He looked me in the eye as I sat down next to Alli on the couch, who was holding him. I had put my finger in his hand—a cheap trick to make myself feel loved, really, since it’s a reflex for him to grab onto me—and he turned his head to see me. He looked, and he looked, and then he gave a sign of recognition. Something in his face changed as if to say, You. And, in a moment, he smiled. He held it for about seven seconds. He was smiling at me, right at my face. This was not gas, or poop. This was us. You could not talk about the energy and warmth I felt throughout my body when it happened, since really it is unspeakable. I love my son. You know that, and I know that, and there is no question about the matter.
Still, my son suffers. He has colic, or something like it, and we know this because every night he cries and he cries and he cries. This—watching him cry without end—this is pain I have never felt, every night.
It is pain I have never seen before either, because even in marriage, in this relationship we call our most intimate, even here with my wife, both of us have had the decency to hide some of our pain from the other.
But this one, this Jonah, he cries and he cries, and he continues to cry, and sometimes there is no consoling him.
I walk around with him, and I hold him to me, but he pushes away. So I bounce him, up and down, up and down, but he waves his arms and he kicks his legs. Then, because the walking around hasn’t worked, I sit down with him, but he writhes, and he wiggles, back and forth, arching his back, kicking his legs some more. I stand up again, and I hold him up and out, so he’s facing the world. Maybe something out there will calm him, yes—but his eyes fill with terror, and he holds his arms out as though he wants to feel more secure.
So I turn him around to face my chest, but he presses his face into my shirt, shaking his head back and forth, rubbing his face against me, pushing his face deeper and deeper into my chest, and I feel the heat from his face, that hot breath leaving his mouth, the sobs, the air that leaves his body like desperation, and all the time the voice, the pain, those high-pitched notes that carry through the rooms of our house, through my head and down my back, into my stomach and legs, Dad, help me, I hurt, I hurt, I need help, please help me. He hides nothing. He grieves everything. He has been born into this world with a mountain of pain, and he is honest enough to let it show. And I can’t do anything, Jonah. I can’t do anything at all. What can I do? I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried it all.
Now metaphors are not good ways, I know, to establish something as a fact. Just because this something is like that other thing does not mean that either is true, I am aware. So please do not misunderstand me.
Still, I am about to make a metaphor, but by no means do I believe that the likeness between the two makes one of them any truer. However, if the facts of the matter are true, and if the likeness is right, then metaphors are very good teachers, are they not?
The work of metaphors, then, is to clarify the truth, not to establish it. I understand this—let that be known.
A few nights ago, Jonah was crying. Alli, who wakes up with him early every morning, was pooped by now, and rightfully so, for she is this family’s anchor, its strength. She gives too much, which is what mothers by nature do. Mothers might be the most powerful force in nature, and Alli is no exception. By now, though, she had worked beyond her ability, and so I had sent her off to sleep.
It was now just we two, Jonah and Dad, and the dark, and the sounds he was making long into the night.
I held him in my arms.
I bounced him.
I moved him to face the world.
I moved him to face my chest.
He was hiding nothing. He was grieving everything. He had a mountain of pain to carry, and he was being honest with me, letting it show.
And I couldn’t do anything.
So I began to whisper very softly into his ear, Jonah, I’m here with you. This is me, it’s your dad. I’m here. I’m right here. Jonah, do you hear me? Jonah, I’m here.
We walked around and around the kitchen, because at night it’s the darkest room of the house, and darkness brings sleep—it says so in all the baby books. Here we were, in the darkness of night, around and around and around the kitchen, around and around for a long time, and he’s crying like always, and I’m whispering to him, I know, son. I know. It’s so hard. It’s so so hard. But here I am. Here I am with you.
Did I think he could understand me? And if he could understand me, could he hear me over his cries? I suppose part of me hoped he would. I held him close to me, and still he kept crying.
And for a moment, I will tell you, because this is the truth I believe in, and this, you might have guessed, is the metaphor I was working up to: I understood the reason for Christ. I understood that I would give anything to help my son, that I would give up all my possessions, all my relationships, and even give up my own existence, if only Jonah could be made to have what he needed. I would do anything to climb down through my years of knowing and experience, and I would join him in his babyness, and I would take it all onto me, because I want him to experience relief.
When he suffers, I suffer. But I would suffer all the more if only his suffering would stop.
This understanding came in a moment, and then, in a moment again, it was gone.
I know: Not everyone who will read this believes in the same truth claims that I do, and so I do not want to offend. Please, if you want to, consider it a nice metaphor, a silly way for me to cling to hope in the midst of hopelessness, a foolishness, a game, or a way for me to deceive myself into believing that existence makes sense; in short—call it a pretty form of denial.
But, again, if the truth of the world is that Jesus somehow offers us relief, that in the midst of all this suffering, in the midst of all these cries—there is hope, that somehow by this offering we are able to connect, and to receive grace, to reconcile one to another and to God in heaven, and finally to live without alienation, and if there is in fact a God who wants to use this universe to demonstrate his love for creation, then this parenthood, this being the dad, this hardest best thing—has made itself to me a picture of God’s love which illuminates truth beyond my wildest imaginations. And for a moment I see the love, I understand the love, and I feel the love—all the love in the universe which surrounds me, and surrounds you, and surrounds us all. And my heart grows big with thanks.