Perhaps in anticipation of the lengthy debates over leave or remain that would rage a year later, my son took his time deciding to exit the womb, entering the world under the bright lights of an operating theatre a mere four days after my wife had first begun her labour.
That period of four days included three hour-long early morning drives to the hospital, which provided me with some of the first intimations of one of the most unavoidable lessons of fatherhood: the indispensable virtue of Just Getting On With It.
I thought before we had the baby that I was probably doing OK on the humility front, if that is not a contradiction in terms, but it turned out that I still had that deep desire for my good deeds to be recognised and praised. Being the father of a small child is a good antidote to this desire, because so much of what one does as a parent is invisible to everyone except one’s spouse, and even sometimes to them.
How hard it turns out to be just to do the right thing in a thousand tiny ways hour after hour and day after day, without any audience or reward. No wonder St Ignatius included in his famous prayer this request: “Teach us good Lord … to labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will.”
With a child of my son’s age, there is no quid pro quo, no prospect of direct reciprocity or gratitude, or of fond remembrance; only the certain knowledge that there is something to be done and that you are the person who needs to do it. So far, I’ve found fatherhood an incredibly effective way of highlighting and exposing my flaws and self-centredness – even more so than marriage. I don’t think I was a particularly selfish person before becoming a father and husband, but without a small child depending on me, or a wife’s needs and preferences to think about, it was so easy and normal to organise my life around my own priorities.
This, of course, is the opposite of the kind of life that Christians are called to. Again and again in the New Testament we come across direct and dramatic challenges to a life of self-satisfaction, and these have often been on my mind in the past year and a half. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”; “the last shall be first, and the first last”; “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it”. The essence of moral development is to move our focus away from ourselves and our own desires, and towards service to others and to God: what St Paul called the crucifixion of the old self.
In the Church’s tradition, St Joseph has been closely associated with this kind of humility, and even my relatively limited experience has made it clear to me why that should be the case, and led me to reflect a little more on what a strange and difficult experience his must have been.
Thinking about the Holy Family in connection with my own family life has often led me to wonder at the sheer strangeness of the Incarnation. Forgive any accidental heresies committed in this sentence, but it is very striking when dealing with all the oddities and frustrations and messiness of toddler behaviour to think that God Himself, in a particular time and place, was a toddler. I have always been aware in an abstract sense of the depth of mystery involved in the doctrine, but actually sharing your life with a child makes it both more and less comprehensible, if such a thing is possible.
Such thoughts frequently come to mind as a result of what you might call the transcendent experiences of parenthood: those poignantly fleeting episodes of pure happiness and contentment that arise from daily life, from commonplace interactions with my son. They seem to be not quite of this world, to have a significance and meaning that goes beyond what we can explain or express in material terms.
A particular challenge that I always face in these moments is to cherish them for what they are, to trust the moment, as it were, rather than trying to capture them on film or video or in a wry comment on social media.
I sometimes think that the 21st century needs what might be described as a theology of the moment, to renew our ability to “be still and know that I am God”, free from the distractions of instant communication. This is especially important for parents, faced as we are with the constant awareness of time passing, of happy times slipping irretrievably into the past as children grow up and change, and the accompanying impulse to be constantly recording. Technology increasingly enables us to revisit past times, but it is never truly the same.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice”, as Heraclitus said. We must reconcile ourselves to the reality that time’s arrow moves only one way, and remember that the intimations of perfect joy and communion that we glimpse in those moments with our children find their true source and fulfilment in our union with God.
Niall Gooch is a Catholic living in London. He tweets at @niall_gooch
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