At the end of each day, somewhere around 9 p.m., comes this moment:
I let the cat in. She nibbles at the food left in her bowl, then goes upstairs to the dog bed in our room. (No one told her it’s a dog bed; she just thinks it’s a really, really big cat bed.) Tired and satisfied from her twilight wanderings outdoors, she curls into a ball and goes to sleep.
The dog, having driven us crazy with her version of the “witching hour,” in which she acts like a maniac, nipping at heels, stealing paper from the recycling bin and gloves from the closet, from about 5 to 8 every evening (I swear she is payback for the fact that I never had a colicky infant), climbs up onto the couch. She yawns and her eyelids droop. Soon, she is stretched out sideways, leaving her belly helpfully accessible to anyone who might want to bestow a scratch upon it.
I stop in Meg’s and Ben’s rooms to say goodnight. They are reading. I smooth their still-damp, freshly washed hair, note their clean hands and faces. After reminding them of anything out of the ordinary coming up tomorrow, I say goodnight and leave them with their books.
As I make my way to my own bedroom, I hear giggles coming from Leah’s room. I poke my head in to find her lying on her bed, glowing iPhone in hand. I ask what she’s up to. Sometimes she’s texting her friends, sometimes watching a funny Youtube video. I remind her not to stay up too late and say goodnight.
As I get myself ready for bed, I feel, for a few moments, a profound sense of calm. For the moment, all of the small, needy, vulnerable creatures entrusted to my care are right here, safe, fed, clean, and resting. I have yet to find any work as tangibly satisfying as tending to the basic needs of small, vulnerable creatures. In these moments, I see how my work tending to this particular family of creatures is vital, central, necessary.
People say being a parent is the hardest job in the world. I’m not sure I’d agree. Moments are hard, oh yes. Terrible and wrenching and confusing. Allowing your daughter to shriek and pound out her anger at losing a precious summer to multiple broken bones. Figuring out the proper response when your 9-year-old asks, “Am I skinny, mom?” Hearing your creative, expressive son describe the snickering comments from classmates about his “girl” clothes.
But overall, I wouldn’t say that raising children is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The most tedious? Yes, sometimes.
I and many of my friends are at the stage of parenthood when we’re asking, “What next?” The precious, mind-numbing days consumed by infant feedings and toddler naps and playground visits and Candy Land marathons and endless questions looping back on themselves are over. Our children dress and wash themselves, clear their dishes, know how to do a load of laundry, play instruments, sing in choirs, do times tables and algebra. Family life now is not so much easier or harder as it is less tedious, less hands-on, less dominated by minutiae. Those of us whose primary work has been caring for small ones are figuring out what other work might fill the hours when our now not-so-small ones are off at school. Friends are taking classes toward degrees, returning to classrooms as teachers instead of parents, saying “yes” to more hours from their employers. I am bringing more focus to my writing, setting and pursuing specific goals rather than writing when I’m able and seeing what comes of it.
But at the end of the day, there are a few moments when the scope of my work, my sense of what I am to do with my “one wild and precious life” (to paraphrase Mary Oliver) narrows, when I am sure that the greatest work I will ever do is what I do here at home, at the end of each day.
In the Gospels, we read:
Whoever is faithful in little is faithful also in much. (Luke 16:10)
…As you did to the least of these, you did to me (Matthew 25:40)
These passages are really about justice, about how we share our resources with those in need in a sense that goes far beyond domestic life. But they speak also to how caring for the small, vulnerable creatures in our own homes reveals what love looks like, the kind of love Jesus was talking about—love that responds to a vulnerable one in need simply because the vulnerable one and the needs exist, not because of the needy one’s personality or history or righteousness or ability to pay us back in some way. There is, of course, much joy and “pay back” in loving children and pets. But there’s also tedium and fatigue and crabbiness and a host of reasons why, sometimes, I’d like to ignore the meowing cat or the whining children, forget about the family dinner and eat a bowl of ice cream by myself, crawl into bed without first ensuring that everyone is fed and washed and tucked in, the homework done, the lunches made. In such moments, love is clearly a verb; love is what I continue to do for the needy ones in my household even when I don’t much feel like doing it.
9:30 p.m. The children are snuggled under covers, asleep, their books and electronic gadgets set aside. The dog, reluctantly making the shift from couch to crate, turns a few times and settles. My climbing into bed is the cat’s cue to get up from the dog bed and join us up in the people bed. For the few moments before I drift into sleep, I know the profound satisfaction of caring well for small, vulnerable creatures. This work is nothing remarkable.
This work is everything.