My wife, Christa, and I were well into our 30s when our two girls arrived. It takes some effort, though, to remember a time when they were not at the center of our world. They seem to have been implicit in our life together from the outset—which is not to say that we were born parents. The truth is we were academics not especially in touch with our instincts. Birthing anxieties, unfriendly postpartum hormones, sleep deprivation, the plumber’s sensibility that kicks in after the hundredth diaper and the vigilance on steroids that attends the whole business—you mean we’re supposed to immerse this fragile being in a tub full of suds?—all took us pretty much by surprise.
It did not help that our families lived thousands of miles away. We lived in Pacific Palisades, Calif., when the girls were small; my parents were on the East Coast, and Christa’s mother was in Germany. For child care we depended on play groups, babysitting co-ops, whatever backup we could cobble together. In the 1970s, we had not yet heard the maxim “It takes a village to raise a child,” but we would surely have been grateful for a village like Langendernbach, in the Wester-wald, where Christa spent her first 11 years. There people were in general agreement about what raising children entailed and ready to stand in for parents whenever that was called for.
What we needed, in addition to practical advice and support, was an integral community that shared our values and concerns, an American counterpart to that village in the Westerwald—not to be found amid the slackly woven fabric of southern California society. At any rate, we did not happen upon it. It took a move across the continent to find what we were seeking, in the form of a Christian Family Movement group associated with Blessed Sacrament Church in Maryland. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Love for Children
To this point I have dwelt on the difficulties of bringing children into the world—by far the smaller moiety of the experience. Taking an infant into one’s life is like nothing so much as falling in love. One’s boundaries turn rubbery. What could be more perfect than those delicate fingers? Look, miniscule nails! Those are your mother’s ears, aren’t they? To make sure the ears stayed warm Christa crocheted a yellow cap that our firstborn, Catherine, wore home from the hospital.
I think of myself as a fairly stolid sort, but I recall having visions of phantom babies in the night. Sometimes I would awake to find that they had come true; Tinka, as we called her, had joined us for a 4 a.m. feeding. (If I make a lot of our daughters’ early years it is not just because that was a decisive time for them. The memory of those years is a source of emotional sustenance for Christa and me, much as the remembrance of our courtship is.)
Our reaction to babies is akin to—arguably, is—a religious experience. Why else is the nativity narrative so dear to us and Christmas a pivotal feast in the liturgical calendar? At least in good moments, it is possible to see a child, one’s own or somebody else’s, as a gift from another realm, like the infant Christ sliding down a sunbeam in Robert Campin’s “Annunciation” triptych. We seem to be programmed, whether by nature or culture, to respond to new life with fascination, tenderness, a sense of awe. That is true not just with human babies but with the young of other species as well. And why not? The genomic research indicates that we are cousins of everything animate. The sympathetic response we have to babies is crucial; not only do they need all the nurturing and protection they can get, but insecure and weary parents need support as well.
During our years in Pacific Palisades, Christa’s “foster mother” would fly down from Northern California when we seriously needed help, as was the case when our second daughter, Anna, was born. For her first six months Anna seemed unsure that this was the right world for her. Then she evidently concluded there was no going back, and from that point on the photos of her show an alert, happy child. There is one set of pictures from a visit to the Odenwald, a farming district south of Frankfurt, that I particularly cherish: 2-year-old Anna blowing a dandelion puff; Anna in a currant patch popping fruit into her mouth, not at all bothered by its tartness; both girls admiring the hedgehog our hosts had nursed through the winter.
Catherine told her preschool teacher, Mrs. Jahn, that bliss was having a little sister. There were times when her enthusiasm waned. One picture has Anna, all smiles, sitting athwart a scowling Tinka. Another, a couple of years later, shows the two girls on our front stoop, Anna with her index finger outstretched, the future advocate admonishing her big sister, who appears to be paying no attention. On the basis of Catherine’s solicitude for a schoolmate who had scraped a knee, Mrs. Jahn predicted she would become a nurse. Twenty-two years later, when Catherine graduated from the U.C.L.A. School of Medicine, we looked up Mrs. Jahn and included her in the celebration.
Christa and I found bringing up children in the Palisades a daunting task. On his way to school the boy from two doors down would pause when he reached the cover of our eugenia hedge and light a joint. The social climate in southern California was certainly among the factors that prompted our move to Maryland when the girls were 4 and 6. Bethesda was no more that village in the Westerwald we fantasized about than the Palisades, but we did gain some leverage on suburbia by sending our daughters to the German School of Washington. Half our girls’ education took place in schools, here and abroad, in which the language of instruction was German. Fluency in their mother’s mother tongue and familiarity with another culture have given them a measure of critical distance on whatever environment they find themselves in and very possibly made them more their own people than might otherwise have been the case.
The Christian Family Movement
We had been in Maryland for some while before we discovered the Christian Family Movement. In a posting at Blessed Sacrament Parish, Christa noticed that a new C.F.M. group was forming. We knew nothing about the organization, but the name sounded promising. Only Christa and one other woman, a single mother in search of child care, signed up. A disappointment, but speedily redeemed! The members of an existing C.F.M. group took pity and invited us in. I don’t think we have ever encountered a more welcoming set of people. From the first meeting we attended it was clear that this was the community we had been looking for.
C.F.M. is one of those lay Catholic associations that flourished during the 1960s, only to fall on leaner days in succeeding decades. Happily the group at Blessed Sacrament proved hardier than most; it has been in continuous existence since 1967, with a number of members from the early years still active. The C.F.M.ers have established a network that supports families in their concern not only with one another’s well-being but with that of the parish and the larger society as well. Members of the group have taken the lead in developing Blessed Sacrament’s folk Mass, chaired the parish council, served on the boards of Catholic schools, earned degrees in theology, worked with the homeless, helped rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina and engaged in a host of other projects.
The main mission of the group during its first 15 years was a home school of religion that pioneered a curriculum more in keeping with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council than was true of conventional religious education at that time. (Eventually mainline religious instruction caught up and by the 1980s C.F.M.ers felt comfortable sending their children to regular parish C.C.D. classes.) Because of home schooling, a large number of parents and children became involved in one another’s lives and generated what was in effect an extended family. We came on board too late for our daughters to participate in the home school, but the spirit that had animated it persisted. They benefited from the counsel and encouragement we received from C.F.M. friends with a great deal more experience raising teenagers than we had.
Where do matters stand now? Well, for one thing all the couples in the group have stayed married and remained Catholic. It is a sign of the times that not all the children have, although of those who left the church most still practice some form of religion. (Christa and I feel fortunate that our girls continue to be involved in Catholic life.) Through much of its existence, our C.F.M. group has held regular picnic reunions. The most recent of these multigenerational gatherings took place two years ago. At this point the C.F.M. children range in age from their late 20s to mid-50s; there are scores of grandchildren. (The presider at our liturgy was a priest who has a long history with our C.F.M. group and whose name will be familiar to readers of America: Drew Christiansen, S.J.)
For a number of years, professional pursuits took our daughters away from the D.C. area: Catherine to Los Angeles to study medicine, followed by a residency and several years as an attending physician at Children’s Hospital in Boston; Anna to study law in Cambridge and clerk for a federal appeals court judge in Minneapolis. More than anything else it was the family bond that drew them back to Washington. Christa and I continue to offer our daughters advice and support when that seems apropos, but now that we are in our 70s and have health issues, they minister to us more than we do to them. They are attentive not just to the two of us but also to my 94-year-old mother, who has been in and out of the hospital in recent months. It was ever thus, I suppose. The gyre of generations curls back upon itself.