Life in the Marketplace of Ideas
Why We Have Children
We have children because love overflows. I believe as a Christian that I am created in the image of a God who is Love, a God whose love so desired an object that it brought us into being. Although the wisdom and power of love within us is clouded and twisted by sin, still the image of Love is there. We have children because love is essentially creative, and because our souls long for other souls we can love lavishly and forever.
Love precedes the beloved. That is why it is unconditional. In bearing children we participate in God's continuing creative act, and in sustaining and guiding and sacrificing for our children we reflect God's redemptive act. Theologically, then, we have children because we are made after the image of a God who had children, a God who is irreducibly relational and endlessly creative.
We have children because they make us human. Throughout my teens and twenties, I often went for years without being deeply moved. My friends called me even-keeled or unflappable, but the truth is that I almost never felt—really felt—anything at all. Not joy, not sorrow, not anger or hurt or fear. This might sound like a good thing. It was not. Every few years my heart would return to me, and for no apparent reason I would find emotions falling down like spring rains on parched soil. I was always relieved to feel connected again, vulnerable, alive—but then the season of feeling would fade and would leave me impassive again.
That changed when I learned we were having a girl. Perhaps there is something especially sweet in the father-daughter relationship, or perhaps it was just that the image of my child became concrete. Whatever the reason, I spent the remainder of the day staring at the ultrasound photo and downloading father-daughter songs in a joyous tearful mess.
Blessedly wounded, I never recovered. Lifelong singles can, of course, lead joyful and fulfilling lives and there are other ways in which they are shaped. In retrospect, however, my life prior to parenthood was like a symphony constrained to a single note. In the year that followed my daughter's birth, I felt—really felt—the whole spectrum of human emotions, the depth and richness of human experience. Through my daughter's eyes, I remembered wonder. Her laughter and unbridled joy reminded me why the world is good. She was a vessel of grace, a sacrament, and she returned me to life.
She made me human. We make children who make us.
Finally, we have children because children teach us to love. Marriage tests and reforms us, and begins to teach us to give for the other's own sake, and not in the hope of reward or return; yet marriage promises that the spouse will do the same. Marital love cannot approach the self-sacrificial love of the parent, in which we pour ourselves out for the joy of seeing our children grow and flourish. In loving our children, many of us learn to love truly for the first time.
My daughter wrapped her hand around my finger mere moments after entering the world. She was comforted. I was captured. Although I was finishing my dissertation, I spent the nights in her room, helping her sleep through the pain of a milk allergy, then of colic, and then of reflux. I never asked for a break—not because of any virtue in me, but because I knew I could help her, and because it is sweet to give yourself when your beloved needs you.
My daughter survived that terrible night. As we neared the hospital, her jaw began to twitch, and just when I thought she was choking she was actually regaining control of her body. Her eyes focused on me, and she drew breaths swift and deep, confused and disoriented. Then finally she began to cry—long, deep sobs that were the sweetest music her father had ever heard.
The frigid night air had helped to cool her. Her brain was undamaged, and she has never since suffered another febrile seizure. And I have still never wondered whether I might have been happier without her. I certainly might have indulged myself more. But I would never have known this overflowing, self-giving love that has changed me forever.
We have no choice but to give ourselves for our children, but we learn that in giving ourselves we receive our selves. In the frailty of this little form that called such an immense love out of me, this bundle of winsome life and running legs and embracing arms, I share in the quintessentially human condition of loving recklessly what is fragile, fleeting, and at risk. There is nothing for it; I cannot help myself. Even at thirteen months, my daughter was sweet and vulnerable and of immeasurable sacred worth. She was not perfect, but she was everything that was good in me, and yet so much better, the highest art I had created, my only true thing in a counterfeit world. She was my little girl. She still is, and always will be. And the joy of loving and being loved by her—well, it was worth any sacrifice and any risk.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.