but what will we tell the children?

I hope you had a good Christmas; ours was lovely. My family doesn’t normally do Christmas — we were always the sort of culture snobs who thought that Christmas should be a Christian holiday and everyone else should butt out. And since we weren’t Christians, we did.

But my wife is Episcopalian, and there is a grandchild, so my parents got very into the spirit of the thing with a ham dinner and stocking stuffers and a really lovely candle display on the hearth. Later in the evening, after my dad had gone to work — his holiday tradition, an act of infidel charity performed so that some believing soul might spend the night at home with family — we watched It’s A Wonderful Life, that great secular paean to duty and misery and not getting what you want, and we got to talking about what makes Christmas such a great folk holiday.

Why is it that Christmas, a theologically somewhat minor festival, is nonetheless easily explained to even the smallest children of even the most far-flung cultures, while Easter, whose antecedent is supposed to be the crowning climax of the Christian story, comes across as abstract, highly mythological, overly constrained by the rhythms of liturgy, and devoid of human feeling? Sure, these people might disagree:

But it strikes me that what they’re doing has more in common with this:

or even this:

than this:

We knocked around the theory of the winter solstice as a universal calendar pivot, of course, but I’m not sure I buy that. Certainly a winter holiday would have appealed to the ancient Germanic and Celtic tribes who were among Christianity’s most eager converts, but I suspect the return of the summer sun meant less to the Copts, for example, and nothing at all, really, to a kid in Miami on whom the symbolism of the evergreen fir or spruce so carefully recreated in plastic and aluminum in his living room is probably lost. When you’ve got palms and sunshine and twelve-hour days all year round, who gives a damn about the solstice, the equinox, or any of the rest of it?

No, I think Linus hits the nail on the head: Christmas is about being afraid and lowly and then realizing that a savior is born. Christmas is about how the birth of a child renews the world. Kids love the Christmas story because it’s about Someone Who is loved for His potential, rather than anything He does in the story, and adults love it because it’s about adoring Someone Who, in some unspecified, future-tense sort of way, will redeem your life and make it all worthwhile. Christmas is about the deal between children and parents.

The problem Easter has is that it’s hard to live up to Christmas’s giant, vague promises. When you get down to specifics, everything is less satisfying. There’s no shame in this, really. Many science fiction writers have perished under the weight of an unsustainable premise: the Matrix series is at its best in the first movie, when it’s hinting at a truer, realer world beyond our own and a savior to shake us from our slumber. Then we find out that the real world is kind of lame and the savior is less than inspiring (and also just part of the program). The first film actually cleverly acknowledges this kind of disappointment (“I know what you’re thinking…. ‘Why, oh why, didn’t I take the blue pill??'”) before wrapping everything up with some ass-kicking and bullet-dodging. But for some reason the story goes on for two more movies, with spider-worm-robots and rain-fighting-sunglasses-guys and blah-blah-sacrifices-himself-blah-blah-blah….

Where was I? Oh yes — Christmas.

Christmas represents our covenant with our children. At Christmas the child is magical and divine for no reason other than his existence, and parents come in two flavors: meek (Mary, Joseph) and omnipotent (the Other Guy). And everyone else exists to adore and to give gifts.

Since H. was born he’s been showered with both gifts and third-party adoration, so that part’s well in hand. But man… we have had a hard, hard time treating this kid like the divine gift that everyone around us believes him to be. It’s as if the Wise Men and the shepherds were all prostrating themselves before the Lord, while Mary and Joseph huddled in the corner saying things like, “We’ve GOT to move out of this manger and get an apartment of our own!” and “Why don’t we find his prophesying as cute as everyone else does??”

We’re probably not as badly off as the anonymous Metafilter poster who timidly admitted to the whole online world that she didn’t think she loved her six-week old. But the nearly-unanimous outpouring of support and “me too!” anecdotes her post received makes me think this is a fairly common phenomenon. For some reason, nature has chosen to make babies both amazingly dull and amazingly annoying in their first few months. Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby On The Block, calls this the “fourth trimester,” which is accurate up to a point — your baby is still only about as interactive as a fetus (hint: he will not be joining you for racquetball), but he’s no longer self-contained and easy to keep clean.

And of course all that is true if you planned to have a baby. We didn’t — which makes us, okay, a little like Mary and Joseph. But I’ve always liked the Mary of the Qur’an, who expressed what I think are fairly realistic new-parent feelings:

And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: She cried (in her anguish): “Ah! would that I had died before this! would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!” (Sura 19, verse 23)

Sure, God tells her to reach up and shake the palm tree, which comforts her with a shower of fresh dates. So I’m not saying these things don’t work themselves out, or that you don’t at least get some snacks out of it. But it’s worth noting that Islam considers Jesus to be merely a man — albeit a Holy Messenger — and not in any way a part of the person of God. Maybe it’s okay, in Muslim societies, to feel like a baby is less of a personal savior and source of meaning in your life and more of a terrifying spiritual commission imposed upon you by forces greater than yourself.

The reasons I love my son at this point are slightly embarrassing, having little to do with his character or deeds and a great deal to do with:

  • his bear-like gruntling
  • his fat little neck, in the folds of which he seems to make some sort of artisanal cheese curd
  • his dramatic gesturing, which makes him seem a lot like a silent film star
  • his usual response to tenderness and cooing, which is to fart disdainfully
  • his generally contented and mellow nature
  • the sweet, soft hoots he makes when he’s sleeping at your chest

Also, literally as I write this, he seems to have given his mom his first genuinely social smile. That little bit of coin will go a long way in the parent-child economy, I think.

Yes, he’s an amazingly sweet baby, and I can only imagine him growing into a wonderful, curious boy. I have no doubt that in 18 or 20 years I’ll love this young man like my own life. But there’s no arguing that he will have, in a fairly substantial way, replaced my life, obliterated it and plowed it under and reseeded it. All of which is fine, and ultimately we made that choice and I’m proud that we did. There’s something badass about abandoning your comfortable life as a beach bum to do something hard and socially worthwhile. But….

The other night Elana and I were talking, and we hit on the subject of how to tell Henry the story of how we got married and how he came to be. Every family develops an origin story over time, and to be honest I’m concerned about what ours says to our kid. Because there are only two ways that this plays out. One is that we never get over our RUINED LIVES and we burden our son with guilt about it so that he never feels entirely secure or loved or wanted. I don’t think that will happen, for several reasons.

First, there was no guarantee we were going to become successful writers/rail-riding hobos/alligator wrestlers anyway, so you can’t blame a kid or anybody else for that. Second, I’m pretty sure we would have gotten married anyway — I’ve been at least a tiny bit in love with Elana since the first time I read her writing, which was actually a week or two before we met. She’s sitting next to me now, just reading something on the internet and feeding Henry, but her hair’s still up in this adorable folded-over ponytail thing from our day out and we just had a fairly hilarious disaster-bath with the baby and I want to marry her all over again. So. Not everything that happened here was unplanned, let alone unwelcome.

But the other narrative is wrong, too — the one where he grows up thinking that if he gets some girl pregnant before they’re married or have jobs or health insurance, it’s no big deal and everything will work out fine.


I want my son to be terrified of sex, terrified of birth control failures and terrified of the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. I want him to wear six condoms at a time and use spermicidal jelly as a body wash, or maybe go to the seminary for a few years in his youth. Or prison. Or something. Anything but having a baby when he’s not ready. And I say this not because I don’t love him, but because in some weird, uncertain way I do, and I don’t want things to go hard for him.

Elana and I worry about what will happen if Henry someday grows up and reads this blog. Who knows how extensive and searchable the archives will be in the GOOGLE BRAIN-NET of 2030?? Should we talk about our doubts? Our fears, our concerns, our ambivalence? Should we admit that we are not good parents? I don’t know. I don’t want to hurt his feelings or make him feel unwelcome — especially if he stumbles across this when he’s, say, nine years old — but I really want to drill down the right lessons here.

So, Henry-Of-The-Future, here’s the deal: you’re not responsible for, nor can you control, your parents’ feelings about the way you came into the world. Therefore, I encourage you not to worry about that stuff. Are we ambivalent at the moment? Yes. But think about it this way — our love for you is a lot like your intestine: when you first come into the world, it’s immature and fragile and even a little painful. But by the time you’re old enough to read this, it will be completely sealed and fully functional. So now, having gotten that out of the way, please, take your dad’s advice —


Your mom and I love you very much. Now turn off the brain-net and go play in the yard-bubble.


5 responses to “but what will we tell the children?

  1. you don’t have to tell him anything about how he came to be. By about middle school, his math/biology skills will be good enough to work it out. He and his younger siblings will be both scandalized and enormously entertained at the idea of you and their mother committing such an epic indiscretion.

  2. That was a really entertaining read but too long. You nearly lost me. More like two blogs than one.
    Nice analysis of Christmas but comparing Easter to the Matrix sequels is a bit rich. Unless your only intention was humour, your argument sounds a little bit ignorant and condescending.

    I’m going to tune in to you again as long as you don’t mention Eyes Wide Shut which is possibly the most annoying film I have ever seen.

    Now to explore your website a little more.

  3. Seth,

    Great post, but I must concur with the previous writer that you do tend to wander a bit. I read two questions.
    1. Why is Christmas so popular?
    2. Why do we love Baby Henry so much?

    The second question is easy. How could you not? we are just wired to love. This of course excludes those narcissists and self-involved autistics who can’t love anyone. Based on my experience the love for your children will not decline with time. I feel sorry for people who chose not to have children. How could they know?

    Question #1: I believe that most children (people) love Christmas because of three major influences:
    1. Presents
    2. Santa Clause
    3. Music

    Yes, the origin of the holiday is a Christian/pagan celebration of the birth of Christ. Millions of people celebrate Christmas who certainly don’t believe in Christianity. Japan is a good example of this. I am a good example of this.

    Is Christianity the only religion whose major celebration is the birth of its god/guru/founder? I note that the biggest shindig for Islam is the celbration of the Hejra during Ramadan. This was the migration of the Muslims from Mecca to Medina and the beginning of the Ummah. I have never seen an Ummah tree or heard an Ummah carol.

    At the end of the day most folks are pretty secular about their celebrations. Most of us believe that it is important to believe in something. This second tier belief yields a fair amount of secular freedom!

  4. Awesomeness!!! I agree heartily with you on the baby musings, and the rest is good stuff too. Judging from your virtual web presence, sounds like Baby H is pretty easygoing.

  5. thehandsomecamel

    @ Amy — Ha! God, I hope that’s the case.

    @David — Thanks for stopping by! Sorry it was a little long, but if you explored the rest of the site you probably figured out that I write at length. Wasn’t it Pascal who said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”?

    @ Dean — I guess for me the real questions are (1) Why don’t more people talk about how HARD and TERRIFYING it is to learn to love your child? and (2) Can you counsel your kids not to repeat your dumbass mistakes while still reassuring them that you’re glad they exist?

    @Julien — Thanks! And yes, despite my occasional griping, he is a very good baby. Also, we have a huge amount of family help right now. I think we’d be a lot more freaked out otherwise.

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