When I was in high school and college, I painted houses each summer: now there was a job where every day something got done. The whole world knew it—or at least the whole neighborhood. We could do a decent-size house in just a few days, and as we sat on our overturned buckets spinning out rolls and washing paint from bristles, we’d glance up and see exactly how far we’d gone, precisely how much we had accomplished. That was a beautiful thing.
One might think that academia would have trained me well for the experience of raising a child. After all, when I’m writing an article (let alone a book), I can work for months and even years with nothing new to show for it, no public thing produced, my c.v. as flat and blank as when I first began. But caring for a baby is not like academia. In academia, even when progress seems stagnant and nothing public appears, the day never ends where it began. I can read x amount of pages, take x amount of notes, draft a paragraph, sketch a syllabus, make it through a lecture, lead a discussion, grade a paper, do something, have something that did not exist or was not done before—something I did. When that happens, my heart lightens and I can relax. If it happens by 5pm, I become a much better husband and father. And that is why, despite all the delights that paternity leave has to offer, I can often find it incredibly stressful.
With Grace, it can feel as though every day ends where it began—not because Grace never changes but because I can take no credit for how she grows. I have watched Grace learn that her hands belong to her, seen her use them to reach and grab and bat at large, fake bugs; I have watched her start to watch me, following my movements with her wide, bright eyes; I have been with her as she learned how to laugh. Soon she’ll sit up, she’ll crawl, she’ll grow up more each day. But not because of me. Grace is not the work of my own hands. From my end, I have merely made it through another day; I have kept her alive (which she doesn’t seem to appreciate, I must say) and I have loved her (no small part of parenting), but other than that I haven’t done anything. A baby is fundamentally not a product or an accomplishment; loving Grace and caring for her is ultimately non-utilitarian. Which is why caring for a baby can sometimes feel like treading water: progress is just not drowning.
When I really want to accomplish some academic work, I plan my day so as to be home for every nap; as soon as Grace’s eyes close, my computer opens. This is an effective technique for filling my thirty-minute allotted time with writing, but apart from the strain of being cooped up in the house all day, this approach can lead to some rather devastating—and yet utterly predictable—psychological consequences: on too many days, I have found myself waiting and hoping, hoping and waiting for Grace to fall asleep, then deeply disappointed when she awakes.
I don’t think I’m alone in having this driving need to produce. My cleaning and cooking and shopping often flow from a dark mine of terror about doing nothing, a void where the only thing that happened today is that I hung out with my baby. Somehow, that is not acceptable. On the days when I do little else than talk to Grace and keep her happy, maybe watch a little TV, I begin to feel cut off from the outside world; I start to stare out my window at cars without car-seats, professionals out professing, workers driving back and forth from work. My eyes linger on lawn care crews. I long to join all those producers coming home from productive jobs where they spent the whole day out producing things.
Why this need? That would involve a much longer discussion and more self-knowledge, but if I had to guess I’d say it comes from being an American, being a certain sort of Protestant (Reformed), being a professor, and, possibly, being male in a certain kind of culture. Some of these affect my desires consciously, others unconsciously. Some of my desire may just come by nature, amplified by profession. Anyone who has earned a Ph.D. has a basic push, a basic drive: nothing else explains the ability to get through the process. In her recent work, the psychologist Angela Duckworth has shown that grit matters at least as much as intelligence in gauging academic success. While it’s certainly not unique to them, Ph.D.’s want to accomplish something—even in those cases where the outside world does not understand or value it—and they pursue that goal on their own schedules over the course of several years until the dissertation gets done. In other words, professors may represent a self-selected crew who are perhaps less able than others to relax. Maybe. Maybe not. Such a claim requires further work.
Finally, there is the potential that this need to produce has something to do with being male and at home in a certain kind of culture—though of this I am even less sure. I belong to a small group from church where in three out of the five couples, the wife currently works and the husband stays home with a baby. One fellow father absolutely loves being at home and takes every opportunity to enjoy this time with his son; several times he has invited me to stroll with him through the zoo for a couple hours in the morning. At first I think, “How lovely! How perfect! This is exactly what paternity leave is for!” And then I realize that if I left for the zoo, I would miss the morning nap: I wouldn’t have that first, best chance to get something done.
So I clean and cook and shop and exercise—and at the end of the day I have something to show, something done that wasn’t done before. Until now, I have been able to accomplish these tasks while still talking to Grace and attending to her needs. But lately she has become a little grumpy. She can be in one seat for only ten minutes or so before she starts to cry; she now bursts into tears the moment I leave a room, which means dashing downstairs to throw in a load of laundry will require a period of calming. She wants to be upright now, held more. In short, I have lost a hand. I can still do the laundry with Grace hooked in my arm, but it is not easy; I can still load or unload the dishwasher in a ten minute window, but every task competes against the clock. More and more, I take walks. Grace loves to be outside, especially with a fresh breeze and blowing trees. Sometimes, when she’s otherwise in a bad mood, we just sit in a chair on the back deck and stare at falling and fluttering leaves; she’ll come out of her tears, grin, smile, and give a little hiccup of glee. Grace, it seems, has developed her own desires, and she seems to be saying, in as many ways as she can, that she’d prefer to go to the zoo.
Whatever desires or needs I have—whatever their source and no matter their drive—it looks as though they will all be broken down. According to classic accounts of conversion, on the other side of brokenness lies a better sort of bliss. It seems that I’ll find out, whether I want to or not. If Grace and I are going to flourish together, I will need to change more fully. Caring for a baby part-time, as I did with my son, meant curtailing my wants and needs; caring for a baby full-time, as I am doing now, means having no desires of my own—or rather, having them so radically altered that what I begin to want feels like something wholly new. As with an old God, so, apparently, with a new Grace: peace may come when I can form my heart to hers.
I’m working on it, Grace.
Forgive me. Have patience.
You’re working on me, Grace.
Abram Van Engen