One morning when I was learning to write computer code, I was given a problem and told to write an algorithm to solve it. I dutifully cobbled together 30 convoluted lines of code and was approaching a workable solution. One of the instructors read over my shoulder, highlighted every line, pressed delete, and walked away without a word. I felt dazed, then panicked… and then relieved. I was freed to consider the problem anew, and solved it in three lines.
For me, the kind of learning that comes with parenthood is often like this: both deconstructive and freeing. Parenthood steals away my attempts to earn or control love, and leaves instead the freedom to receive something far more wonderful.
When we were expecting our first child, my wife and I decided that I would stay home to care for him full-time. At the time of the decision, I was an effective teacher at a demanding school, on a dedicated team with first-rate leadership. At school, I felt proud, respected, worthy. I mourned the loss of this life, and yet felt an exquisite freedom for the next challenge.
The challenge was to develop a loving attentiveness with and for an infant. The lessons started in earnest. We spent a week in a curtained-off room in the NICU learning his cues. Those days pushed us to the limit as we learned to love and attend to this new little one.
There’s a brilliant German word to describe the capacity we were developing. Fingerspitzengefühl means, literally, the feeling at the tips of the fingers. It’s like we were developing our fine motor skills and sensitivity. Attending to and caring for a young child is a master class in the soul’s Fingerspitzengefühl.
The experience pushed me to develop a new capacity for beauty. With wonder we observed his breath, hiccups, hilarious random movements as his nerves myelinated, his face when he slept. Before his birth, I was notoriously stir crazy, needing periodic walks to get out and look at some trees, the lake, or the horizon. With a newborn in our lives, I suddenly found the ability to spend all day indoors. My son had become like the sky.
The beauty continued to unfold. As my son learned to walk, we often toddled around the children’s area at the planetarium by our apartment. One day, faint sounds of a children’s choir carried into our area. My son lifted his face toward the sound and ambled off toward its source. We found the choir and sat together to listen. He was rapt, turning only to make sure that I was listening, too. Attending to a child attending to beauty is a deeply remarkable thing.
These joys certainly coexist with ongoing deconstructive lessons. As a man publically caring for children, I am fairly isolated and often treated as less competent than I am. The attrition of daily tasks leaves me occasionally depleted such that I do not have the time, perspective, or energy to make sense of — let alone enjoy — the present moment.
Because of this fatigue, the lessons that parenting offers are certainly not automatic. I have needed solitude to understand how I need help, and then the vulnerability to ask for it. Accepting the fact that I’m in need tunes me again to the joy of this life.
My first son can now talk and we are learning to communicate verbally. He now has a younger brother, and we are learning to work as a daytime team of three. Both transitions represent deconstructive lessons in their own right. But he has developed the habit of randomly turning to me and saying, “Papa, do you know that I love you?” This love is offered with no regard to whether I deserve it, and this grueling life carves out a space in me so that I might receive it.