Two months ago I couldn’t hand my baby off to anyone. I couldn’t even put him in the car seat without him wailing. He wanted me by his side or holding him near constantly. And I obliged him because I could. For whatever reason, he needed me extraordinarily then, and that was just that. Mama gives baby what baby needs.
Except when she can’t. And so I got sick. I started having to hand him off for breaks to rest. He would look at me with those eyes, that “why mama?” But I had to preserve my health for all of our sakes. I started not being able to hold him and rock him as much. And then, I ended up in the hospital for a week. Joseph would visit daily and he was happy to see me, but I knew something was different. He didn’t mind people holding him and feeding him. He didn’t really mind walking away from me. He had adjusted. He had figured out that his Mama couldn’t give him everything.
And though I joyously welcomed his welcoming others, the reality of the situation just felt so cruel. That is, my baby had been disappointed by me. I went from being totally needed to being totally helpless and my baby knew. And I’m sure a part of his heart hurt for it, just like mine did.
But to dwell on the cruelty of it would do nothing so I sat there wondering what I could do for him. I thought of parents who are wheelchair bound, paralyzed. I’m on the road to recovery- some parents aren’t. What do they do? What makes a parent anyway? Certainly not your physical capacity. Mental capacity? That wouldn’t seem fair either. But what was I to do? How was I to give him everything or anything while in a hospital bed?
And I knew the answer all along. That is, that I can’t give him everything. The problem is that every instinct tells me that I should. Indeed, it seems parenting, well love in general, is a paradox. It’s a strange delicate balance of extreme attachment and extreme detachment. The ability to pour your heart out entirely and then hold yourself together when it runs dry- the ability to be somebody’s lifeline, knowing full well that that’s an impossibility, knowing full well you’ll disappoint, fall short- but making promises as if none of that will ever happen. Right? That’s why we sing lullabies. “Guarding your dreams from all terror and fear,” I sing to my baby at night and always wonder, am I lying? Sure I want to keep him from terror and fear but can I really? I go on singing it though. I go on singing it.
And I go on believing I can give him something as I lay here gaining back my strength. And you know, maybe it’s because I can.
Maybe parenting has less to do with what you give and more to do with whether or not you gave what you had. Maybe parenting, maybe love, matters most insofar as it tries. As it believes. As it hopes. Maybe that’s why we say things that sound like lies- maybe they aren’t lies. Maybe we say “I will always be with you” because we know that love is bigger than inconvenience and separation. Maybe love is loving when you think you can’t. Giving the last drop. Loving when it seems impractical and useless. Loving when it seems like a lie.
Maybe that’s what parenting is. After all, is that not what we remember best of our own parents? Not the many times they cooked good dinners or drove us safely home or knew the answers. But the times of weakness, desperation, confusion, hurt- the times when “it will be okay” sounded hesitant but they said it with everything in them. That is what made us believe, ourselves. When they believed precisely when they didn’t.
Perhaps the best way we can love is by believing in love ourselves- by believing in something bigger than ourselves. By clinging desperately to goodness, to God. In the end, a parent cannot give everything to a child. But a parent can give everything to love and Love, itself, will not disappoint. A parent cannot realistically tell a child “I will never ever physically leave your side.” But a parent can say “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I believe in something bigger than suffering and separation and death- I believe in something that seems unbelievable- something that transcends whatever comes between us and I want you to believe in that too.”
So when I wait for my health to come back and I can’t do everything (as if I ever really could) for Joseph, I close my eyes and I pray. I pray though it doesn’t make sense. I hope though I’m discouraged. I “offer up” my suffering for him, though the concept seems dogmatic and medieval and pointless. Because in the end, that’s what parenting is about. That’s what love is about. It’s about giving when you feel like you have nothing to offer. It’s about hoping when it seems futile. After all, we aren’t asked to teach our children that life is perfect or that we are perfect or that we are their source of everything. We are here to teach them that there IS something perfect, there is a source of everything. We are here to teach them not that we are love, but that we can love and that they can to. If we can give them that- if we can give them a reason to hope, a reason to cling to what is good in a world of uncertainty then they have everything they need.