Chapter 5: Agape, Eros, and Crying Babies
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been good at sleeping. Usually within a few seconds of trying, I can reach full snore. I’m so good at it that the presence of a bed isn’t even necessary for me to pass out. When I was younger, I would be excited to have friends sleep over at my house. These nights always started out well, but inevitably I’d be sound asleep on the living room floor early enough in the evening that my friends would be stuck watching some boring news show with my parents. To this day I fall asleep just about every time I sit down in a movie theater. It doesn’t matter how exciting the movie is or how early in the day it is. Shortly after getting married, Courtney and I went to see one of the Hunger Games films in an IMAX theater. It was the most expensive nap I’ve ever taken, and Courtney was embarrassed because in my sleep I had ended up resting my head against some poor kid sitting next to me.
As an extremely talented sleeper, I wasn’t much help at first when Ellie would wake up during the night. Fortunately my wife was always more than willing to notify me of opportunities to help care for our children in the middle of the night. This was a steep learning curve as we adjusted to having our first baby. Ellie was born with jaundice and we needed to make sure she was awake and eating every 2-3 hours for the first few weeks. Of course I was still mostly asleep as I stumbled around the bedroom looking for a diaper and forgetting why I was awake in the first place. Fortunately Courtney was also willing to repeatedly remind me where the diapers and the baby were located in the room.
Over time we became more efficient, Ellie was able to sleep a bit longer, and we adjusted to the new definition of a good night’s rest. The addition of Francis and then Isaac definitely require more work, but for Courtney and I, the biggest game-changer was going from zero kids and uninterrupted sleep to having a child who needed us to be constantly available. The first few months with each baby have felt like we’re in survival mode, but at the same time there is this real sense of accomplishment each time we successfully care for their needs. When the kids are babies, it’s nice because their biggest struggles can usually be solved by feeding or changing them. I’m told that teenagers’ problems are a little bit harder to manage, but we’ve still got plenty of time before we have to deal with that adventure.
On any given night, at least one of the kids will usually wake us up. Sometimes one of them will yell for one of us and then pass out again, and sometimes they wake up disoriented and need help getting back to sleep. Despite the inconvenience of the timing in the middle of the night, soothing the kids and helping them fall back asleep often provides a good story for the next day. Kids are weird, and they obsess about weird things. For Ellie, that means that she’ll occasionally wake up crying because she’s convinced that one of her stuffed animals (which fell off the bed) has come to life and run away with no plan of returning. Francis will frequently wake up with questions about his Lego collection or hypothetical death match scenarios between ninjas, knights, sharks, and lions. Isaac just wakes up at 2 A.M. ready for the day and offended by our attempts to convince him to return to bed.
When they’re newborns, it seems like we’re constantly trying to get our children back to sleep. We (initially it was just Courtney but now I’ve been trained as well) wake up once we hear them cry and quickly attend to their needs. We learned quickly that the reality of life with a newborn isn’t nearly as romantic as it’s portrayed by every parent whose kids are no longer newborns. Soon after Ellie was born, we had several friends with adult children tell us how magical their kids were as babies. We felt like maybe we had ended up with a different model of baby than our friends, because we were barely surviving and constantly exhausted. Courtney and I would complain to each other about the sleep deprivation and imagine how great it would be when the baby started sleeping longer. Eventually the kid would start sleeping through the night, and for a week or two, life was amazing and I had so much more energy thanks to the additional sleep.
Soon after we rediscovered what it feels like to sleep for a whole night, the strangest thing happened. I missed the kids crying out for us and looked forward to soothing them again. When they finally do wake up in the morning now, we run to them like they’re friends we haven’t seen in a long time. I’d like to chalk up these rare restful nights to God’s goodness but it’s more likely that just the night before we were sternly warning one of the kids (I want to keep this anonymous to respect my children’s privacy, so we’ll just call the guilty party “Francisco”) of the consequences he’d face if he kept yelling or kept getting out of bed to tell us something.
The wide world of whining and the science of childhood cry classifications were foreign to me before Ellie was born. I had certainly been around unhappy kids before, but I was always a set of earbuds or a closed door away from audial serenity. When a niece or nephew that I was holding would start crying, I could simply hand them back to their parents. Before Ellie, I had no idea what to do with a crying kid and no desire to learn. Everything changed when it was my own baby crying. I’d stay up for hours walking Ellie around, trying out dozens of positions, holds, and lullabies to calm her. Despite my previous aversion to crying babies, it surprised me how much I desired to hold my daughter when she was upset. I knew that my newfound concern was simply a product of becoming a father and not due to any natural disposition or virtue of mine.
Eventually with each child, we’ve learned to distinguish between the meaning of their different cries. For example, there’s usually a difference between the cry of a kid still half asleep versus the kid that just fell out of bed. Obviously the falling out of bed variety is usually accompanied by a loud thud confirming the cause of the crying, but you do learn to recognize the ways that the baby’s cries communicate different things. Now with multiple children to choose from, we can usually identify which kid is crying even if we can barely hear them through the walls. My insensitive ears have become attuned to hear my kids cry and I have an idea of what they need based on the noise they’re making. Courtney’s hearing is incredible; I’m fairly certain she uses sonar to determine the exact scenario that led to the crying as well as the relative guilt or innocence of each child involved.
When Courtney and I are with other families, it’s amazing how we can notice the difference between cries coming from our kids and those coming from other children. We’ve heard our children cry enough to recognize the unique tone and pitch of each kid’s cries. Upon hearing the cry, all parents present will pause and tense up for a second, preparing to run to their child in need. Fairly quickly we’ll realize whether the crier belongs to our family or not. It’s a momentary relief to realize that it’s not your kid in pain, but in those cases the odds are high that one of our children caused the injury. Thanks to their refined consciences and their desire for each other’s holiness, Ellie and Francis are always willing to tell us when the other person has done something wrong.
While Ellie and Francis are quick to explain what they’re upset about, Isaac simply cries until we fix the problem. Even as Isaac becomes more verbal, he still communicates largely through gestures and cries. Babies don’t waste time explaining themselves. Their needs are usually fairly predictable, and besides, infants don’t know how to talk. Isaac’s inability to communicate the story behind why he’s upset never hinders us from running to hold him. I know that he doesn’t need an explanation or a five-step plan toward inner peace, he first needs to be held and reminded that I’m with him and that I love him. He usually also needs a diaper change, but that’s secondary.
Courtney and I don’t run to our crying children primarily because of our obligation as parents, we do it because we love them and it wounds our hearts to see them hurting. Often when I reach out to God in times of need, I attempt to communicate with Him as if He is unaware of the details of my life. I try to explain my situation to Him and then usually try to come up with my own solutions to my problems. I pridefully resist simply calling out for Him, convinced that He’d be annoyed with my weakness. I look for answers to my questions rather than holding onto the Father who first desires to hold me and affirm His love for me.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote beautifully about the interplay of eros and agape within God’s love for us in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is love). Though we easily recognize the self-donating love of agape in God’s lowering Himself to love us, the prophets also speak boldly of God’s driven and passionate love for us (DCE, 9). God the Father doesn’t just love us because He feels bad for us, He somehow desires us and pursues our hearts because we are lovely to Him. Though I like to think of myself as a grown man relating to God, my fears of His disapproval of my neediness are childish. At every stage in life, it’s a natural God-given human desire to be known, seen, and loved. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God holds us in His mind and His heart more than a pregnant mother remains aware of the child within her womb (Isaiah 49:5). No matter the reason for their crying or the amount of times they’ve cried before, as a father I can’t help but run to my little ones when they’re hurting. No matter how grown up we feel or how complicated our problems seem to us, we have a Father who knows us intimately and rushes to hold us if we are just willing to cry out to Him in our need.
Throughout Scripture we are given glimpses into the Father’s heart for His children. The story of the Exodus famously involves plagues, miracles, and an angel of death. But the motivating factor behind all of the wild scenes from the story is God’s passionate love for His chosen people. When God first speaks to Moses, He introduces Himself and reminds Moses of the covenants and promises He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Before any part of the plan is announced, the Lord tells Moses that He has seen the people suffering and heard their cries (Exodus 3:6-7). The plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea, and the signs and wonders God works are simply His response to the cries of His children. God isn’t deaf to our cries or distant from our prayers, He is constantly drawing closer to us and working on our behalf.
In Mark’s Gospel, right before Jesus feeds five thousand with a few loaves and fish, we are given a short but powerful glimpse into His sacred heart. When Jesus sees the crowd of people gathering from all over to be near Him, we are told that “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). The same God who set the universe in motion, the Unmoved Mover who is eternally powerful and lacks nothing, has a heart that is moved by love for His children. It is not enough for the Father to love us from afar or to respond in writing to our questions, He sent His only Son to live among us and to enter into the depths of our suffering. Humanity waited thousands of years for the fulfillment of the Father’s promises, and all creation held its breath awaiting God’s response as the eternal Son of God became one of us. The silence that night in Bethlehem was broken by the Father’s response to a world desperately in need of salvation.
Before the Sermon on the Mount, before the Our Father or any parables, the first thing that the world heard from God was a cry that sounded just like ours. In taking on our flesh, Jesus fully entered into our humanity and embraced our hurts and our suffering. Our cries have not gone unheard; we have a Father who is propelled by love to rescue us from all that ails us, especially the self-inflicted wounds of sin.