Between the two of us, a celebration

As I was lying in bed tonight, lights out, but not yet committed to sleep, I watched thoughts from the day float by: a phone conversation with my sister who was tired, a magazine article I’m writing that has finally turned a corner, a rekindled desire to win an exercise competition I’ve entered with my friends (are you reading this Rob?).

But I realized that of all the things I might think about as I drift off to sleep, what I most want to think about is Jay.

For days now I have been unable to resist picking him up at every opportunity, hugging him and kissing him and putting him down just to do it all again moments later.  There’s been something about him recently—he’s funnier, more aware, more in control.  He radiates life and light. I am falling in love.

I realized tonight that I have complete conviction that the one thing I most want to do with my life over the next two decades is help Jay grow up (and Wally, too, though I don’t really know him yet so it’s hard to imagine what that will look like).

And then I asked myself why, out of all the ways I could I spend my time is this the way I choose? I considered a few possibilities: a sense of duty; a desire to have a meaningful task to devote myself to; a hope that he’ll mourn me when I die.

But none of those seemed quite right.

Then it hit me. What I most want to help Jay develop is a sense of wonder and love for the life he’s been given.  So that he blinks, and looks around, and blinks and looks around, and says over and again, every day that he’s alive, I cannot believe I am here.

He’s not the only person I want that for, though. Raising Jay is the most optimistic thing I have ever done.  To want life for Jay is to want life for myself, too.  There is, between the two of us, a celebration.

“Love only flows down”

On Friday night Caroline, Jay and I sat on our bed reading bedtime stories.  This is a nightly routine for us.  We put Jay in his pajamas, brush his teeth, and then plop him on the bed between us with a cup of milk and read from a pile of picture books.  This particular night Caroline was reading Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go and Jay was being particularly sweet, pointing out his favorite trucks and kicking his feet excitedly when Caroline turned to the page with all the construction equipment.

I was tired and feeling happy and I lay my head on Jay’s tiny shoulder.  Jay didn’t like this at all.  He pushed against my forehead with his little hand and said “No Daddy, go away.” I sat up, a bit chagrined.  I love Jay more than I’ve ever loved anybody, and that love wants to express itself through affection.  But I realized in that moment that while Jay can lay his head on my shoulder, it’s not my place to lay my head on his.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a conversation I overheard between a mom and her college-aged son.  It struck me, listening to the two of them talk for almost an hour, that there was an imbalance between them: the son gave the impression that he was indulging his mom with his company, while for her part it seemed that there was no one she would rather be spending time with.

My mother-in-law emailed that essay to several of her friends with grown sons.  One wrote back, “I think that love flows down, parent to child, in a way that it just can’t flow the other way.”  I liked that, and I think it captures a little of why it felt unnatural for me to put my head on Jay’s shoulder.  In every other loving relationship such a gesture would have fit: we rest our heads on the shoulders of our spouses, our friends, our siblings, our parents. But children recoil—almost instinctively—when their parents show signs of needing them emotionally.

On Saturday morning I was talking about this with a friend—a man with two grown children of his own—who recommended I read Michel Montaigne’s essay “On the affection of fathers for their children.”  That night I read it on the couch beside an open window with Wally asleep in my lap.

Montaigne, I knew, is considered the “father of the essay,” and as I began to read I was amazed, first of all, at how current the writing seemed.  I paused after a page and looked him up in Wikipedia, expecting to find that he’d written in the late-19th century or something like that—just long enough ago to give him stature, but recently enough that his sensibilities don’t seem radically different than our own.  I was stunned to discover that he died in 1592.  The world has turned over a few times at least between then and now, but not everything has changed, apparently, in how parents feel about their children.

Montaigne writes that after a desire for self-preservation, “the love which the begetter feels for the begotten” is the most powerful law of nature.  Given that the reproductive success of the human race depends on parents loving their children, but not on children loving their parents, Montaigne writes, “it is not so surprising if love is not so great when we go backwards, from children to fathers.”

It takes the fun out of the best things in life to reduce them to biological causes.  Montaigne seemed to realize this, so he offered a more romantic explanation for why love only flows down:

Anyone who does a kindness to another loves him more than he is loved in return; anyone to whom a debt is owed feels greater love than the one by whom the debt is owed; and every creator loves what he has made more than it would love him.