Many of us sleep poorly these days. But to my surprise, it is not the tanked economy or my decimated retirement account keeping me up, nor my various worries about climate change, loose nukes or extractive agriculture. The reason for my difficult nights is far more tangible and close to home: our fitful-sleeper, toddler son Elijah.
Although I must admit that my wife Cyndi has done far more nocturnal soothing than I have, one recent night I rocked Eli until his sobs became snuffles, and his snuffles became snores. His little frame went slack and heavy against me, as I gazed out the darkened bedroom windows at the moonlight-bathed fields of our farm and the bright constellations in the black sky above. In that golden, peaceful moment of gratitude, I so loved this little sleeping miracle, my son, flesh of my flesh, and I felt the profound bond between us. Gently I put him back in his crib.
When Eli woke us up for the third time that night, however, my blessed sense of paternal connection began to wane. In a fog of exhaustion, I lay in bed and tried to calm him with soothing assurances and by sending him what little remained of my loving energy. But his crying gained momentum, and soon he was screaming in an angry tantrum, demanding to be picked up and held. At this, my parental good will disappeared, and in its place I felt the unwelcome surge of my own anger and resentment.
I believe that love is a universal, hard-wired instinct, one of the divine ground rules of the universe. In moments of deep connection with our children, the love I feel between us does seem to resonate with something far larger: a love that, as St. Paul described it, “binds everything together in perfect harmony.” At other times, though, I am astonished at how quickly and easily my love for them turns to frustration and anger, which also (and unfortunately) feels just as instinctual. I can feel guilty and ashamed of these feelings or ascribe them to fallen human nature and the shortcomings of my own character. But none of this lessens their power as I respond to my crying son.
My anger tends to flare when my own wishes and expectations crash against reality and reality stubbornly refuses to yield. The vocation of good parenting entails countless numbers of these collisions, these small daily crucifixions, in which parents must die to their own agenda for the sake of their children’s needs, with a self-emptying, agape form of love. In my experience, however, the ego rarely yields without a fight. Given this struggle, how can one respond selflessly to others and to recalcitrant reality in general, day after day and night after sleepless night, with equanimity and without resentment?
One cannot—or at least I cannot. As trivial and fleeting as I know they are in the big picture, our nighttime wrangles with Eli have nonetheless brought me up against the very real limits of my capacity to love, my all-too-finite supply of patience and kindness. That night, it became clear to me that I cannot love Eli on my own power alone.
Often it is only at the end of our rope that revelation becomes possible. In bringing us to the boundaries of our own love, parenting opens the door to a love that has no limits: a steadfast and everlasting love in whom we live and move and have our being. As I held my shrieking son once more, I realized that I was likewise held, with unfathomable gentleness, by the one who alone can soothe my own angry and screaming ego, loosen its hold on me and work through the cracked earthen vessel of my imperfect love. In this embrace, Eli and I somehow made it through that dark night.
Until I became a parent, whenever I read in the Gospel how Jesus welcomed the little children into his arms and claimed that no one would enter the kingdom of God except by becoming like a child, I always imagined the children gathered around him to be angelic, innocent and pure. Real children, though, are both sweetness and struggle, and real parenting—like prayer—is a school of conversion that requires daily practice and constantly lays bare the grappling of egos and the limits of human love. Perhaps to enter the kingdom of God is simply to recognize that on some level, each of us is like a child, sometimes sweet and sometimes screaming, but held at every moment in God’s infinitely patient, perfect and abiding love.