The Lessons of Elijah Daniel
Sometimes, a baby can teach an old dog some new things.
“It’s a good thing babies don’t give you a lot of time to think. You fall in love with them and when you realize how much they love you back, life is very simple.” —Anita Diamant
“A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” —Carl Sandburg
It’s been a wild couple of weeks.
The last week of May, I published my twin Substack pieces, “Against Crippled Religion” and “An Epidemic of Brokenness,” about my lifelong experiences and difficulties relating to my Catholic faith. (The following week, I added the addendum “Let’s Clear the Air” at my other site, 1P5.) Not remotely expecting these to go viral was perhaps naïve on my part. It’s sometimes quite difficult to make any sense of how much reach I do or do not have, or which pieces will blow up. After a while, audiences tend to look like numbers on a screen, and they can become abstractions in your mind.
So I looked it up, and the number of people who have read “Against Crippled Religion” alone would fill Yankee Stadium to capacity.
Yeah. Still feels like an abstraction. That’s a lot of people.
The response, as I previously indicated, was overwhelmingly supportive. I’m still replying to emails from these posts, and I’m sorry if I’ve not yet gotten to yours. But there were a fair share of negative reactions, too.
I know, from personality testing, that I am highly neurotic — neuroticism being defined as “a measure of general sensitivity to negative emotions such as pain, sadness, irritable or defensive anger, fear and anxiety.”
So even though the ratio of supportive to negative comments was probably more than 10 to 1, guess which ones have been really sticking with me?
And then, there was the general phenomenon of becoming a widely-discussed topic of conversation. I’m used to my ideas being discussed; after all, I’m a professional writer, and that’s what my work is intended to do. But it’s a very different thing indeed to have yourself, your life, and people’s perceptions of you — personally — become the topic of conversation. There were articles, blog posts, social media threads, and at least three podcasts. In some cases, it was sympathetic or empathetic; in others, it was hostile and judgmental. When you have people arguing over whether you’ve lived your faith in an adequately satisfactory manner, or whether your account of things was honest, or how they judge the quality of your interior life, or whether you deserve the bad things you’ve experienced, it gets pretty uncomfortable. It all gives you the very unpleasant feeling of being under a microscope. Again, I was naïve. I should have expected all of this, but I was surprised at the extent of it.
It was hard enough to say what I said, knowing that it would jeopardize my livelihood as a Catholic Commentator, and revealing things that were deeply personal. But I also knew that I needed to do it for the sake of my own integrity and mental health. The tension between my doubts and struggles and my job had grown unbearable. Suffice it to say, it was one of the most stressful weeks I can remember.
But fortunately for me, I didn’t have time to languish in the state of mind, because I had a new baby to worry about. Which, as it turns out, was probably the best thing I could have asked for.
I need to back up a moment here and just say: this child was quite a surprise. My wife and I are entering our mid-forties, and we believed we had gone past this phase of our lives. Mia, our youngest until last week, is 5-and-a-half years old, and is our essentially perfect child: bright, beautiful, helpful, observant, sweet, kind, and almost always cheerful. All of our kids are great kids, but Mia broke the mold and stole our hearts, and we thought it was a hell of a note to go out on.
In addition to finishing our fertile years with our little unicorn-loving, lion-haired magnum opus, we had endured a lot of familial stress since our last visit to labor and delivery. An oldest daughter who had become a single mother at 19; my wife’s elderly and extremely difficult father becoming our sole responsibility as caretakers; a job that kept me mired in the deeply troubling topics that comprise the ecclesiastical crisis; a couple of cross country moves in the middle of all of it, and growing marital strife to boot. When our marriage difficulties, which had been escalating for years, finally came to a head in the summer of 2020, it was a make-or-break moment. Something happened — my wife tells me it was a genuine miracle — and my sudden, unexpectedly overwhelming remorse was met with her sudden, unexpected, overwhelmingly loving forgiveness.
It was a moment in time that changed everything.
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We found ourselves, after years of frequent fighting (and an atmosphere of general cold-war hostility), feeling as though we were 23 again and falling in love. We two, who had lived largely separate lives within the same home, were suddenly and inexplicably inseparable. It was a honeymoon phase that somehow leapfrogged the confusing fertility signs of perimenopause and handed us our first positive pregnancy test in six years.
And we were not excited. At all.
We weren’t excited about the idea of caring for a newborn again, when everyone in the house could now at least get their own breakfasts and wipe their own butts. We weren’t excited about the idea of being in our 60s at the little one’s high school graduation, or at the idea that all the things we wanted to do together, the places we wanted to go together, just the two of us, would be further delayed as child-rearing responsibilities got a five-year extension. We wanted to indulge our newly-rediscovered enjoyment of each other with as much one-on-one time as we could get; for the first time, our children were old enough that we didn’t have to be there 24/7, and we had built-in babysitting.
There were a number of reasons, some reasonable, some selfish, why we were not happy about the pregnancy. It doesn’t matter what or why, really. Your feelings don’t much care what you think about them. They just tell you you’re unhappy about a thing. And then they also tell you that because this thing is in fact a person, you should feel guilty about feeling unhappy.
And so we did.
My poor wife, who is usually as stoic of a woman as they come, found herself in tears every time we’d talk about the pregnancy in the early months. I started calling the baby “Grogu” after the baby Yoda character in The Mandalorian, which we were watching at the time, just to get her to laugh instead. (She has a real fondness for that adorable little gremlin.)
It really is a weird thing that you do to yourself as a parent when you’ve felt sadness or regret at the realization that you’re having a baby. You know how much you love your other kids, and you know intellectually that you’ll love the new one too, but you also think about how your life would be easier or better or different if this weren’t happening. You tell yourself, “I’m going to love him!” but you’re not sure. You doubt. And then you feel like a horrible parent for doubting. You can’t connect to the unborn baby in the way that maybe you did with your other kids, and that sets you to worrying that maybe you won’t be able to connect with him when he’s finally in your arms. You want to be a good dad or mom, but the fact that you’re having this internal monologue at all means you’re probably not, and then you feel terrible for little Grogu because he deserves a better parent than you. After all, he didn’t ask to be born to such jerks. It’s not his fault!
But then you’re at the hospital and you don’t have any more time to think. It’s just go time. Your wife is in a hospital bed wearing a gown. She’s got an IV. There’s a pictosin drip going, nurses traipsing in and out, the sound of a heart monitor pinging away in the corner, and it’s happening.
It was almost as though someone pressed the “fast forward” button of life. Although in one sense it seemed that the pregnancy dragged on interminably, in another, it appeared to rocket to its conclusion. As we packed our bags to go the hospital for a scheduled induction on June 1st, it felt to me both that Jamie had been pregnant for as long as I could remember, and as though we’d only seen that positive test a few weeks prior.
At 2:48 PM, on June 1st, 2021, my 8th child and 5th son is born. And all of these thoughts and feelings colliding around had to make room for a new observation:
He is so ugly. How am I going to love a child who is this ugly?
Now, this is my 7th biological child, and I’ve been there for all 7 births. You would think I’d have been ready for this. Instead, my mind is reeling:
I mean, all babies are squished and funny looking when they first come out, but I don’t remember the other ones looking like this. What’s wrong with his mouth? Why is it so big and protruding? It’s like a chimpanzee mouth.
“You want to cut the cord, dad?” the doctor asks. I already told them I’ve done this enough times that I’m avoiding all the gross stuff on this go round. Not my cup of tea.
“Nah, I’m good. I’ll cut the cord when he’s 18,” I say. Then, thinking of a comedy bit I love from Nate Bargatze, I say, “Didn’t you go to umbilical cord cutting school so you could learn how to do this? I’ll leave it to the experts.”
After a few moments of skin on skin time with his mother, they take him to weigh and measure him.
“He looks really small to me,” I say. More worry sets in. Every baby we’ve had has been north of 7 pounds. None have been more than 8. They all come in around 20-21 inches. There’s a look, and I’m not seeing it. He’s scrawny. He’s tiny.
“Let’s find out,” the nurse says. The scale does its digital thing, and the number comes back in grams. She hits a button, and I get a reading I can make sense of.
“6 pounds, 3 ounces.” she says.
“I knew he was small,” I say. She measures him. 19 and 3/4 inches. He’s about the right length, but the weight is low.
The guilt shifts in my mind and my gut.
Why is he so small? Is it because of something we did?
“Is it normal when all our babies have been the same size to have one so much smaller?” I ask.
“Every baby is different,” they assure me. Still, he’s only in the 7th percentile for weight at his gestation, so they have to run extra tests. He winds up being perfectly fine, just tiny. And as his face begins to unsquish, I see that he’s not ugly after all. He’s just a bit skinny — his siblings had big chipmunk cheeks when they were born — and that made his mouth look strange. Newborns are like shapeshifters in their first few hours, though, and he has already transformed from an ugly duckling into a little swan. He’s beautiful after all.
Finally, after all the commotion and cleanup have died down, and it’s just me, my wife, and my little unnamed boy, I get my first chance to hold him.
And everything I was worried about just melts away, and I’m crying at the sheer awe of this little person, this fruit of our rekindled love, my son.
(Even now as I type these words I have tears streaming down my face. I don’t remember being so moved at the births of any of my other children, but this feels profound. Perhaps because it was so unexpected, and we thought we would never experience this again. It’s overwhelming.)
But there he is, cradled in my too-big hands, and all I can feel is gratitude. And hope. And the blossoming of that weird, totally unique love that only a newborn can elicit from a parent. A love that is rooted in their total, unconscious dependence and complete fragility. They have nothing to offer; they are writhing bundles of pure instinctual need. But the totality of that need is what cements you to them, irrevocably.
His name is Elijah Daniel. “Eli” for short. We had a hard time coming up with a name we loved, and we’re still trying it on him. It’s a bit Old Testamenty, which is out of the ordinary for us, but it has a kind of music to it. We hope it fits more and more as we get to know him. With the other kids, that’s always been how it went. But he won’t suffer for lack of love. My lovely Jamie, who was so worried she wouldn’t love her baby enough, has fallen head over heels, just like I knew she would. I kept telling her that she just needed to give herself time to connect with him; that her heart is far too big for anything else to happen. When I see the way she looks at him now, there’s no doubt. She’s always been an amazing mother, and this time’s no exception.
There’s a part of me that still feels guilty about bringing another child into this incredibly screwed up world. I’ve spent no small amount of time thinking about my children’s future, and how it’s likely to be worse for them than it ever was for me. That’s a hard reality for a parent to face, especially knowing that we’re powerless to protect them from it. All we want to do is give our children the best things. We want them to avoid our mistakes, dodge the heartaches we know all too well, learn lessons as long as they’re not too hard, and be happy and prosperous. And when we look at the way society is trending, it’s hard to believe any of that is in the cards.
But maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do. Maybe we need to spend less time watching the world set itself on fire and worrying about what that means, and more time hanging out with babies. Maybe more of us need to be having babies, and filling the world with hope.
I don’t know what the future holds for little Eli, but for the first time in a long time, I feel as though I have encountered an unmitigated good; a reason to think things might be better than they seem. And every time I hold him, or feel his tiny hand wrap itself around my finger, all the things that seemed so important not so long ago are put in perspective.
There’s still some magic in the world after all.
Yes, yes there is. (“There’s still some magic in the world after all.”)
I can relate to so much of this. Hubs is 62, I am 56ish. Our last child(unless God pulls an Abraham/Sarah on us ;) ) was born 13 years ago, on St Joseph’s day(Mar 19).
I have seen so many conversions and reconversions, in myself, personally. Keep moving forward. Pain means that you.are.healing. Gratitude is so crucial to keeping your head above water.
A couple of days after my first child was born in 2018, I got home from hospital one evening (he was very underweight, wouldn’t feed, so my wife had to endure a prolonged stay in the arms of the sainted NHS). I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. I put the oven on to cook a ready meal, and then just sat on the floor and cried. And cried. I can’t tell you when else I’ve felt emotion like that.
My meltdown was beautiful. I was struck by the simple enormity of the whole thing; that this small child was flesh of my flesh, but on a much deeper level, the realisation that we had co-created an eternal soul, destined by God for God. And even beyond that, an unutterable love for this little human that transcends the normal limits of human understanding: the realisation I was seeing in my own love for this little child, a glimpse of the love which God has for me - and you Steve - and just how much He longs to spend eternity with us.
What a gift to be able to reminded of that moment by your words here.