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Suffer the Little Children

November 4th, 2021 | 11 min read

By Onsi A. Kamel

It is a hard thing not to love one’s children. It is not hard to resent them, to see them as miscreants or burdens, to think them selfish and base, to find their concupiscence by turns infuriating and repugnant. Neither is it hard to love them — it is the easiest thing in the world to see in one’s children a simplicity, purity, and goodness which draw up love from one’s depths as from a well. To resent or to love them is easy. Not to love them is hard.

It was a truism in my childhood that love is not “a feeling,” but a “decision;” love means willing the good for another. This is true, but it is not the last word. As St. Thomas recognized, before we will the good for a thing, we love it first because we find it pleasing to us: the goodness of a thing, “whether real or imaginary, calls forth our love” (ST. Prima Pars, Q. 20, A. 2). The love which resides within us is pulled out of us, so to speak, ravished by the goodness we recognize in the world around us. Thus, to love one’s children is easy because one naturally knows them to be good; to resent one’s children is easy because one sinfully feels them to be onerous, a cross. Not to love one’s children is supremely difficult, because it is the state of knowing them to be good but feeling them to be bad. This bespeaks a deep disorder in the soul: the passions rebel against the intellect, and the will’s allegiance is constantly shifting from one to the other.

“Suffer the little children to come unto me,” Jesus said, “for of such is the kingdom of God.” Our Lord suffered the children to come to Him — but he did not suffer them. He took them up in His arms, blessed them, and declared them model subjects in his kingdom. But he did not know what it is not to love them. I do. This is the account of how, in a hospital room where everything matched a beat-up, faux-leather glider that was once pistachio green but had long since browned, I learned the meaning and totality of my soul’s disorder, and how hard a thing it is to suffer children.

* * *

I have often wondered if the ubiquitous, hearty, almost manically joyful “Congratulations!” which inevitably accompany an announcement of pregnancy are expressions of genuine joy or attempts to compensate in some small way for the difficulties ahead. When my wife and I found out that we were having a baby at just 22 years old, we discerned the true feelings underlying so many hearty congratulations as clearly as one sees sunlight through the tree canopy in winter. We hadn’t been trying to conceive, but, having an abiding Christian commitment to the ordering of marriage to children, we were not avoiding the possibility either. In keeping with contemporary American mores, our milieu growing up was somewhat inconsistent in its approach to the goodness of children: pro-life, to be sure, but pro-family? Perhaps not.

Our thinking about children shifted decisively in college. We learned to see children as unequivocal goods, and having them as among the highest natural goods in this life, to be pursued and celebrated before most others. In this intellectual conviction, we have never wavered, but I confess that my feelings in those early days of my wife’s pregnancy did not align with my supposed convictions.

It was not supposed to be this way. I was supposed to be elated, and there were moments I was. The day after we found out, the man hired to shovel and salt my parents’ drive brought his young son along, and I could not stop smiling as they salted together. But as I lay awake at night, the blackness of the room seemed to disclose my future: dark and uncertain, hemmed in, cramped. Nature and nature’s God had trapped me. Whereas before my life stretched out before me full of possibilities and waiting for me to shape it, now it was stifling and murky, waiting to reveal itself to me. For the first time, I realized how total my dependence upon the mercy of nature and Providence really was, and I was terrified. God had given me a vocation whose cost I did not know; he had called me to a definite task fraught with dangers on all sides. This test proved me to be neither Samuel nor David, but Jonah. The Blessed Virgin had said, “behold, the handmaid of the Lord;” I begged God to take my cup from me, and unlike our Lord’s, my prayer didn’t include the all-important “nevertheless.”

Perhaps I could have used a manic “Congratulations,” but the jubilation of our officially pro-choice, lapsed Catholic family was little match for the resignation and words of “advice” from our devoutly evangelical family: Let me get some champagne — I suppose we should celebrate. Your life will be harder. Don’t let children distract you from your work. Couldn’t you have waited a few years? Did you have to have this child now? Next time, consider using birth control.

* * *

The Scriptures tend to structure narratives involving children according to a few types: the barren woman desirous of children (Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth), the dead or deathly ill child who is miraculously restored (the Shunnamite widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter), or the adult children who betray their father, bringing grief and generational calamity (Noah’s sons, Lot’s daughters, Absalom). To the extent that there are commonalities running through all of these, one seems to be that children are good, and adult children are bad only when they act impiously. The Scripture’s refrain is clear: children are to be singularly and fervently desired. “Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.”

One kind of narrative conspicuously muted in the Bible but prominent in the whole of human history involves the possibility that children, through no fault of their own, might be occasions of evil to the family. I mean, of course, death by childbirth. In such a case, the child brings the enemy of the family — death — into the heart of the family, simply by being born. The natural bonds of paternal, maternal, and filial affection are destroyed or severely tested, and unbridled enmity often takes their place. The Bible does not say what we all know already: a child can bring evil to us. Certainly, mine seemed to do so when my wife nearly died.

The labor and delivery were themselves quite smooth. My wife delivered naturally, and the nurses were impressed. They said that she not only comported herself with gravity and dignity, but delivered our daughter more quickly than any other first-time mother they had seen. The other young women in Philadelphia, they intimated, were not nearly so strong. We laughed: “The Irish have always been good at birthing.”

My wife recovered normally for the first couple days. She was nursing, walking as well as could reasonably be expected, and getting enough rest. My sister visited, as did my parents and my mother-in-law. One friend brought us pastries, and others organized a walk to the hospital after church. The night before we were set to be discharged, we walked a lap around the hospital with a nurse. The tall, portable machine that measures vitals and keeps IVs running appropriately doubles as a support for patients to hold as they walk. Suddenly, my wife’s monitor began beeping loudly and rapidly — her heart rate spiked and her blood pressure plummeted. By the time we got back to the room, she was shaking uncontrollably and could barely walk. Her body drained of color. Teams of nurses and multiple doctors streamed into the room, hustling, shouting clipped sentences, running tests. My wife spiked a fever, tipping them off to the fact that she had an infection. “Sepsis” was a new word for me.

Before they could pump her full of antibiotics, they had to get fluids into her body to prevent shock and rapid multiorgan failure. Blood work was difficult because her veins kept collapsing, meaning they had to stick her again and again. The vaginal exams (the infection had caused her tear from delivering to open back up) were excruciating, and we later learned she probably developed PTSD from them; the internal, ultrasound exams focused on discovering whether her womb had retained placental tissue that was supposed to be expelled during delivery. When she had an allergic reaction to the antibiotics, I helped her wipe the refuse from her body; when she began passing blood clots and infected placental tissue, I helped her wipe off the blood.

It is customary for babies to sleep in the rooms with their parents rather than in hospital nurseries. In general, this is all to the good: it allows parents and children to bond, mothers to easily breastfeed, and nurses to assist parents as they adjust to caring for new life. But it also makes recovery less restful. Doctors were checking on my wife all hours of the day and night, and our daughter decided on a schedule of alternate intervals: while she slept, the doctors arrived, and when they left with their infuriating “get some rest,” our daughter would awake with an ear-splitting cry.

Most of the time, before she woke up, our daughter would stir, and this rustling or smaller cry alerted me that, if I acted quickly, I could keep her asleep. I would jump out of bed, rush over to her bassinet, pick her up, and begin bouncing her desperately, pleading with her in my mind to sleep just a little while longer, so that my wife, whose face looked at ease only in sleep, might rest. I would look at the clock: I just need to make it another fifteen minutes. Look up. Now fifteen more. Look up as my daughter began to cry. Please. Please. Fifteen more. Please. Please. Don’t wake her up. Dear God. Over time, the heat, sweat, and fatigue produced by my bouncing would become intolerable, and on the first such occasion, I moved over to that horrible green-brown glider to sit and rest without ceasing to rock. In the silence of the room, the metal parts of the glider grinded together, waking my daughter up. I leapt out of the chair and resumed bouncing, cursing both my daughter and God for the first time, but not, I would discover, for the last.

* * *

The medieval Dominican theologian and mystic Albert the Great contended that there is not, properly speaking, any analogy between God and creation. For Albert, “a cause which has nothing in common with what it causes does not share in the predications with what it causes.” In other words, when humans predicate the same word of both a cause and the thing caused, we do so because of some commonality between them; but if they have nothing in common, we cannot predicate the same word of them. Unpacking one such kind of analogy (analogy of proportion), the peerless Cajetan gave this example: “to see by corporeal vision and by intellectual vision are indicated by the common term to see” because understanding “presents something to the mind” just as sight “presents something to the body.” Both kinds of “sight” present something, and it is this common presentation which allows us to predicate the same word of both. Thus, analogies require some common term to unite the two disparate elements, some underlying similarity which holds together the disjunctives. But because God so utterly transcends creation, is so qualitatively other, Albert argued that cannot speak of him according to an analogy of being. So instead of an analogy of being, Albert posited an analogy of imitation: creatures are like their creator insofar as they ever-imperfectly and finitely imitate Him.

It has often been remarked that we imitate God in begetting children by “participating in God’s creation.” This is true, of course, and some, I am sure, find it ennobling; but it was little comfort to me, a father who could not manage to love his own child, who failed to feel that she was good, let alone to glory that I was imitating God by filling the earth and subduing it. I knew only that my daughter struggled to eat and sleep, and my wife and I struggled to care for her — or even to want to.

A few months ago, as I was wrestling with the nature of love and my failures with respect to it, I recalled that St. Thomas’ first discussion of creaturely love in the Summa Theologiae is actually in the context of his question on divine love. Whereas for creatures, love is called forth by the goodness in things, God’s love is such that it produces the goodness in things. In fact, Luther arrived independently at the same insight. “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it” (Luther); “God loves everything that exists. Yet not as we love…the love of God infuses and creates goodness” (Thomas).

Despite the fact that I was unable to love as St. Thomas says creatures ought to, even at my lowest moment it was nevertheless the case that I had begotten and nurtured a child, cooperating in bringing goodness into the world. Even in the midst of my suffering, perhaps I imitated, in some small way, the love of God. As Luther put it in The Estate of Marriage, Christian faith “opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval…I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will?” From love, God creates the good that pleases Him; from love, I begat a child well-pleasing to God; as I now call her to myself on a daily basis, so God calls her to Himself eternally in the face of Jesus Christ; as I clothe and wash her, so God arrays her more gloriously than Solomon and cleanses her from all unrighteousness.

Or perhaps my application of the analogy of imitation is a fiction, something I tell myself to assuage the guilt I will no doubt feel until I depart this world. It is impossible to tell: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” What I do know is this: months after her birth, when my daughter laughed for the first time, her goodness called forth my love from me, and they met. And together, they danced in the light of her laughter.

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Onsi A. Kamel

Onsi A. Kamel is a PhD student in Philosophy and Religion at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in First Things, Ad Fontes, and Mere Orthodoxy.