We are there to praise and worship God, to be spiritually nourished, and to unite our lives with the life of Christ as He offers Himself up to the Father. We are not there because we bought our ticket and are entitled to a certain experience.
After eighteen straight years with more than one child in the house, I suddenly find myself alone with a toddler. I was worried it would be hard to keep her occupied while I got my work done, but it turns out toddlers are great at entertaining themselves. All you have to do is supply them with the right equipment — and try to turn off the over-anxious housekeeper in your brain.
Here are some tips to help your little one have fun, and to help you relax while she does!
-Let her play in the sink. Turn the chair backward for stability, and put lots of ladles, cups, sieves, and other tools in her reach. Don’t worry about the mess! Water is easy to clean. Put some towels on the floor if it helps you relax.
-Give her a bunch of brightly-colored cloths, preferably silks, that she can sort, fold, and distribute around the house. Yes, laundry will do! Laundry can be cleaned up, Mama, but babies don’t stay babies forever. Relax.
-Give her giant chalk and let her do her thing. Sure, inside. Chalk comes off just about any kind of furniture or paint, so relax. Or it doesn’t. Relax. Just relax. Just. Oh shit those are markers. But maybe they’re washable. Relax.
-Give her a spray bottle and let her “clean” things. Ignore it when she licks up the spray. Yes, ignore those other things she is licking, too. And those other things she is spraying. Maybe put bells on her so she can’t sneak up and spray you in the back of the neck. Or down the back of your pants. Or your compu— oh, well, keyboards can be replaced, Mama! But babies don’t last! Mama!
-Give her a metal can with a slot cut in the lid, and a bunch of coins. Such a satisfying sound as they tumble in! If you’re nervous about her eating coins, give her a milk jug with a hole cut in the side, and a supply of clothespins. Or give her whatever she wants. Give her your wallet. Give her a goldfish. Give her the gold bouillon you’ve been saving for your retirement. Give her live ammo. Just check her diaper later.
-Give her a knife. No, just a butter knife, and some, some, some play doh or celery or whatever to chop. Fine, let her have the real knife. Fine, let her cut you. You have more blood to give, Mama, I know you do.
-Watch Octonauts. Watch it and watch it and watch it.
Remember the scene in Monsters, Inc. where all the various monsters are getting ready to be scary? They each have their own style: One is a blob with many eyes, one has retractable spikes; some are sneaky, some are creepy. And then there is the one who makes his point by flailing his orange tentacles around and rushing forward with a hysterical shriek.
This is the approach taken by a blogger for the Register a few days ago, in a post called “The Advent of the Artificial Womb: Suddenly, it’s a braver, newer world.”
Currently, preemies must adapt prematurely to breathing air and receiving nutrition orally — an ordeal which sometimes saves lives, but still often leaves survivors with profound, lifelong disabilities. Rather than being intubated in an incubator, sedated and on a respirator, premature babies in an artificial womb would grow in a pouch filled with lab-made amniotic fluid, which would be gentler on their tiny bodies, and would allow their lungs and brains to develop more normally.
But this blogger calls the artificial womb a “travesty.” In nearly 3,000 words, he devotes only a few brief paragraphs to the idea that the invention, if successful, will keep premature babies alive, and he allows half a sentence for the idea that it’s a good thing to keep premature babies alive.
And the rest of his post is flailing tentacles, as he drags in everyone from Descartes to Dune to homeless schizophrenics to Simone de Beauvoir to Octomom, to the right to spank and homeschool, to (of course) the gays, and finally to – shudder – “feminists,” saying, “The artificial uterus is fraught with danger to the point of moral disaster on the par with abortion.”
He looks into his crystal ball and sees nothing but horrors:
Now that artificial uteri are to soon be a possibility, how many more made-to-order pedophile sex slaves are we to expect? How many of more will a liberal media refuse to shed a spotlight on?
Also, can a woman who has used an artificial womb truly bond with her child? Can the child develop normal feelings for the person who purchased its birth in a plastic Ziploc baggie?
Does he have a leg to stand on?
Well, it’s true that some folks will immediately scheme how to use this medical advance in ways that are harmful and contrary to human dignity — like incubating a child entirely and electively in an artificial environment, so that women no longer have to give birth, or so people can design and purchase a child to their specifications, with motives ranging from selfish to monstrous. I’m no fool: I know that there are people who desire these things. (It’s already being done, only we use poor Indian women rather than a plastic bag.)
But it’s also true, once artificial wombs are functional, that some of the tens of millions of babies born prematurely may live instead of die, and may be born closer to full term, with less trauma and more of a chance of avoiding life-long health problems. This is not nothing. This is not some negligible perk that we can easily decline for fear of potential abuse.
Artificial wombs are not intrinsically evil. They may someday be used for evil, but so may every other medical advance you can name. The medical syringe, for example, was invented to inject painkillers; now it’s also used to heal the sick, to administer vaccines, and to save lives. Syringes are also used for delivering heroin, and consequently are responsible for the spread of HIV and hepatitis, which is transmissible to unborn children of the infected. Bad, bad stuff. Things that make the world undeniably worse.
But that doesn’t mean that syringes are a travesty on par with abortion. It means that human beings are prey to original sin, and will immediately set to work perverting the use of everything they can lay their hands on.
The outraged blogger fails to draw a vital distinction between two kind of scientific advances:
- Things that are morally neutral, and may be used well or misused, and so should be approached with caution, and
- Things that are intrinsically immoral, even if they may be used for good ends.
IVF and abortion fall into the second category. The artificial womb falls into the first category. But he seeks to blend the two categories, essentially arguing, “Just think how very wrong this could go!”
And what if God the Father had made this very persuasive argument when He made our first parents? Lots of potential for abuse there. Should He have scrapped the whole project?
There should always be special caution when we see medical advances related to the conception and gestation of humans. Because human life is sacred, it is especially heinous when it is treated as a commodity, as a means to an end, or even, God forbid, as a trinket.
Because human life is sacred, it is wrong to use technology to create a human life in a petri dish, even if the parents of the child love him. It is wrong to use technology to deliberately end human life through euthanasia, even if the patient is suffering.
And there are some murky areas about which, as far as I can tell, Catholic bioethicists have still not made a definitive pronouncement. For instance, it’s possible that a theoretical womb transplant might be moral or immoral, depending on the object, the end, and circumstances surrounding the procedure. It’s uncertain whether it’s ethical to “adopt” a frozen embryo which would otherwise be destroyed.
So I have some grudging sympathy for the blogger. Medical advances and human gestation make uneasy bedfellows, and modern folks are not especially particular about which bedfellows they choose. It’s no use pretending that there are no dangerous possibilities when medical technology makes another leap ahead. It’s no use pretending that everyone who might use new technology will be pure and noble. Horror are all around us, and technology is advancing faster and more recklessly than we can keep up with.
But nothing will be gained — nothing but more horrors– by shrieking hysterically and wishing for the good old days when people just went ahead and died. “It’s a braver, newer world suddenly,” says the blogger. “It’s moments like this that make me long for simpler days.”
I was at a cemetery yesterday. One large grave plot included one man, his first wife with a string of child’s headstones, and his second wife with her own string of dead children.
Those were simpler days.
Babies died, women died, over and over and over again, because the medical technology available was a bowl of hot water, a poultice, and a prayer. Things were simpler then, and children flickered in and out of life like stars, too tiny ever to send their light all the way to earth.
Was it simpler? Yes, it was. Was it better? No, it was not. Evil ebbs and flows. It adapts to whatever the current age can offer. There was evil, and carelessness, and the devaluation of human life back in the old days, and there is evil, carelessness, and the devaluation of human life now. An artificial womb may look scary and dystopian to us. For perspective, maybe browse baby coffins.
I won’t lie: I’m horrified when I look into the future (or even the present) and see that science is separating us more and more from our humanity. But I’m equally horrified when I see Catholics retreating into a sort of sentimental brutality that sighs heavily, dons a cloak of false nobility, and grandly chooses death for others over hard choices for us all.
Last week, pop science entertainer Bill Nye set off a wave of righteous indignation by asking, “Should we have policies that penalize people for having extra kids in the developed world?”
The only response is, of course: What the hell do you mean, ‘extra?'” What is an extra child? Who is disposable and extraneous, and who gets to decide? Are you “extra,” Bill Nye? Am I?
Last night, I saw for myself what an extra child looks like. An Australian company called Baby Bee Hummingbirds will take your extra, unused IVF embryos, preserve and cremate them, and then encase them in resin as “keepsake jewelry.”
The founder asks, “What a better way to celebrate your most treasured gift, your child, than through jewellery?”
Well, you could let him live, I suppose. You could allow him the basic dignity of spending time in the womb of his mother, to live or not, to grow or not, but at least to have a chance. You could celebrate the life of your child by giving him some small gift of warmth and softness, however brief, rather than letting him travel in an insulated pouch from lab to lab, frozen and sterile from beginning to end. You could conceive a child so as to give him life, and you could rise like a human should above the blind proliferation of biology.
I have not experienced the anguish of infertility. I can easily imagine how the ancient, unquenchable desire for a child would drive a couple to consider IVF. Who would fault a loving couple for wanting a child?
I can imagine, if I had no guidance, seeing IVF as a way of simply bowing to the inevitable awkwardness of life. We’d rather do things the natural way, but sometimes nature fails us. If science offers us a workaround, and we end up in a place of love, what does it matter? I can imagine thinking this. It is natural to want children.
And it is natural to want our children to remain with us even if we can’t hold their plump, warm baby bodies in our arms. We want something we can touch. I can imagine this: Knowing, no matter who thinks they’re just “extras,” that these embryos are more than just specimens. I can imagine wanting to keep them safe, or something like it.
And so the mother does the thing that makes the most sense to a pagan, when nature fails her: She bows to artifice, and finds a way to bring her children with her, clumsily, sentimentally, but grasping at something that seems true: We are made to be with the ones we love. We are supposed to be able to give them life, and to keep them safe.
She knows they are her children. But does she know what children are?
In order to turn embryos into jewelry, one must believe that all children, and all people, can be made safe. One must believe there is such a thing as safety in this world.
But mothers, and fathers, and you barren ones, listen to me. You cannot have any loved one forever. Don’t you know that they all go? Don’t you know this?
Sometimes it happens before we even knew they existed; sometimes it happens when they are old and feeble, frightened and crying for death. But they all go. No one is safe. No one can be preserved. Why are you lying about it? Haven’t you been through enough springs to know that winter always comes? Haven’t we been through this? No one is with us always, until the end of time.
Anyway, hardly anyone.
Imagine, a body encased in glass, made portable, made consumable. But not jewelry. Instead, a sunburst, a fountain of life, a wellspring, the maker of worlds somehow contained, first in His mother’s womb, and now on our altars, through springs and winters and then through springs again.
The body inside is a willing victim. Not preserved in death, but alive forever, immortal. Here is the difference between the scandal of the Incarnation and the scandal of sentimentality. The Incarnation invites us to accept forgiveness, bought for us through His death. Sentimentality puts our sin always before us, but tells us we can be comforted through everlasting death.
I do understand. We want the body. We grieve when the beloved one is lost to us, even if, like the parents who make “extra” embryos, it’s entirely our fault that our children are cold and dead. We want to heal our grief, to control it, to contain it.
That is not how sin is healed. That is not how death is conquered. Healing comes when we send our dead to be with Him, not preserved forever in death, but to be restored forever in His life.
I commend all the dead, all my beloved ones who are passing away like the grass: Go and be with Him. You don’t need to stay here with us, to comfort me in my weakness. Go and be with Him.
Here’s a spot of light in the news this week: Huggies has just announced a new diaper designed for babies who weigh under two pounds.
Under two pounds. Two pounds is how much a large loaf of bread weighs.
It’s not just that these babies are so tiny, and need tiny diapers, but they need to be curled up like little bean sprouts, and their poor little skin is terribly sensitive. Huggies quotes “an infant development specialist at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital in Houston, Texas” as saying the new tiny diapers “conformed to the baby’s bottom without gapping or limiting leg movement. The thinner fasteners and less material at the waist provided a good fit for baby while still protecting their fragile skin.”
I mention all this because it’s good to remember that this is still a very excellent century to be alive. It was not so long ago that a baby born young enough to need a “nano preemie diaper” would never have a chance to need a diaper at all. Now such babies often survive, and even thrive.
In the same week, the Vatican has released a new Charter for Health Care Workers (the last one was in 1995; and that’s the Vatican site, so you’ll want to put on your parchment-filtering goggles so you can read it). It’s a directive for those who, among other things, care for premature babies and other that would have died in other centuries — and also for human beings who, in any other century, would have been allowed to live, but now may not.
The Charter provides encouragement and guidance for health-care workers in coping with three stages of human life: “generating, living, dying.” Regarding “generating,” the document affirms the Church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion and destructive embryo research. It calls for treating infertility problems only by natural methods, and without destroying unborn lives.
The “living” section includes articles on topics as diverse as anencephaly, ectopic pregnancy, embryo reduction, vaccines, regenerative medicine, and the treatment of rare diseases with “orphan drugs.” The section on “dying” stresses the need to respect the dignity of the person, providing care but not extraordinary or burdensome treatment for those who are terminally ill.
A strange and terrible and wonderful time to be alive. Terrible and wonderful at the same time. As fast as medical gains are made, we dream up ways to exploit them. And so the Church rolls up her sleeves and sets to, giving guidance on problems that simply didn’t exist fifty, thirty, or even ten years ago.
I want to be a Catholic like the Church is a Catholic: looking clearly at life as it is right now, and saying, “There is good and bad here. How shall I help?” It is no good pretending everything is fine, but it is no good pretending everything is dreadful, either.
In the meantime: Two-pound babies and one-pound babies are surviving. Thanks be to God.
We have reason to hope that even those little, innocent ones who never had eyes to see the light of day or the waters of baptism will be welcomed into heaven as well, not smuggled in the pockets of a low-ranking god, but recognised and called by name back home by their Father who made them.
Still, we are human. It is not wrong to look for physical reminders of abstract truths.
Odd for the magi to know enough to prostrate themselves, in their jewels and flowing robes, before the seemingly unremarkable but truly extraordinary son of Mary; odder still, odd times a billion, for that Son to prostrate Himself for us, who are truly unremarkable.
Why? Why would He do this?
Because, to Him, every last one of us is that child who is unlike any other child. Each one of us is cherished like the “little man” who is adorable just because he enjoys eating eggs, or sweet beyond compare just because he has learned to blow kisses, like billions of other babies. To Christ, each of us is that special one, that cherished child, that singularly beloved one who makes his parent’s heart swell with affection.
Most years, we hear our priests gently (or irritably) reminding us that it’s still Advent! Not Christmas! Not Christmas yet! Stop with the “Merry Christmas,” because the Baby hasn’t been born yet!
So we’ve tried hard to keep Advent as a separate season: joyous anticipation rather than celebratory blow-out. It’s hard to hold off when the rest of the country is already whooping it up, but the restraint feels worthwhile when Christmas finally dawns.
So it landed with a bit of a thud last year when our bishop, Peter Libasci, issued a letter asking the Diocese of Manchester (NH) to make some changes in how we spend our Advent.
He encourages lively decorations that suggest life and hope, and calls for an emphasis on warm, personal hospitality, especially toward the poor; he exhorts us to “avoid whatever may encumber you during this time.”
These things are not too much different from what we already attempt, but this part is new:
Beginning with the FIRST Sunday of Advent, in every rectory, convent, Catholic school, diocesan institution and Catholic home, display the image of the Christ Child in a suitably decorated place of prominence and approachability. Not the crèche, just the infant.
Beginning with the FIRST Sunday of Advent and throughout the Advent Season, the music at Mass should include Christmas carols that enjoy the quality of a lullaby and center on the great mystery of the Incarnation and birth that did occur in history. (Away in a Manger, O Come Little Children, The First Noel, Little Town of Bethlehem.)
Huh! Really? Usually we stick to Advent music as much as possible, and if we put up a crèche, we keep the Baby Jesus packed away in tissue paper until Christmas morning. But I’m delighted to have a bishop who actually asks us to do stuff, so I’m game.
His directive to bring that baby right on in made me think of the Roots of Empathy program, which has teachers in poor, tough neighborhoods welcoming babies (real ones, not plaster statues!0 into their classrooms. They believe these visits, and subsequent discussions, teach the school kids empathy, rather than the lesson of “survival at any cost,” which is what they’re learning everywhere else they go. This story from the Washington Post says:
Roots pairs each classroom with a baby, who visits nine times throughout the year with his or her mom or dad, a volunteer recruited from the community. Each child has a chance to look the baby in the eye, squeeze its toe and say hello before the class settles into a circle around a green blanket.
They watch the baby respond to songs and games, and they talk about what he’s feeling and why he behaves as he does. The kids and the teachers have noticed a great change in the classroom: more peace, more respect, and better learning, too.
The idea is that recognizing and caring about a baby’s emotions can open a gateway for children to learn bigger lessons about taking care of one another, considering others’ feelings, having patience.
Our bishop is looking for a similar transformation in his flock, putting the Baby right in front of us before the altar, and having us sing lullabies before we head back out to the world on Sunday morning. In his letter, he says:
during the Advent season, we take the INFANT as our centerpiece, remembering that He came as one of us. When an infant is in the house, everyone must be conscious of that presence and speak more softly, be more attentive, welcome family and visitors, exercise patience, accept inconvenience—even in the extreme, for the sake of the fragile life entrusted to our care.
Okay, but . . . the Church demands a bit more than being caring and considerate, yes? It’s all very well to acknowledge that babies can teach us to be kind, but the Incarnation was not some kind of inner city niceness project, and “considering others’ feelings” is not one of the Ten Commandments.
Can we not, as a millennia-old institution, set the bar a little higher?
No. We can’t.
Don’t you roll your eyes at me! The older I get, the more I realize that God usually wants us to do very basic, mundane things — and the more I realize how hard it is to do those mundane things well, with my whole heart.
And here’s the main part: The older I get, the more I realize that the whole point of the Incarnation is that the divine and the mundane are now inextricably linked. There cannot be a meaningless act of service, because of the incomprehensibly great service God has performed for us. There is no longer any such thing as a small act of love, since God, who is love, became small and asked us to care for Him. There is literally nothing greater, more meaningful, or more transcendent we can do than to care for each other for His sake. All acts of love are great. All acts of love make us more like Him.
In his letter, Bishop Libasci says,
To be judged as having achieved a fuller awareness of human fragility and potential, is to be judged as growing more closely to “the full stature of Christ.”
Anyone can blaze with righteous glory for a moment. Anyone can get wrapped up in an exquisitely arcane theological puzzle. But just treating each other well, day after day, in and out of season, whether they deserve it or not? That’s hard, hard, hard. As hard as caring for a baby who won’t stop crying no matter what you do. As hard as being that Baby, when you didn’t have to be.
Step beyond your duty and be actively generous. Be gentle when you could justifiably be harsh. Acknowledge that you are “disadvantaged,” that you think too much of your own survival and not enough about the unreasonable needs of the helpless people around you. Fight down the battle cry and substitute a lullaby.
The Baby’s needs are simple and basic. Start with those before you consider yourself ready to move on to higher things. There are no higher things. Start with the Baby, because that’s what God did.
A reader writes:
I cannot understand why some practicing Catholics that I know do not agree that referring to a child by his/her gender and name before birth (as soon as it can be known) is MORE life-affirming than not doing so, and is clearly a moral issue because of the inherent dignity of the unborn.
In Slate, Education Columnist Rebecca Schuman shares a gallery of photos of herself flipping off her sleeping seven-month-old baby. Schuman explains why, so far, she hasn’t found a compelling reason to stop taking and sharing these photos.
She loves her baby, but the kid is a bad sleeper, and is making her very tired and frustrated.
The reasons I take and post these pictures are varied. I crave emotional release after hours of increasingly desperate nursing, jiggling, rocking, walking, and, my personal favorite, walk-nursing (all wriggling, self-torpedoing 22 pounds of her). I’m also trying to amuse my husband, to diffuse what could otherwise be even more strain on two adults pushed to the boundaries of civility. And, of course, there’s the defiant gesture of Parenting Realness, an offshoot of the Go the Fuck to Sleep genre—that urge to fly in the face of decades of parenting decorum and admit that while we adore our children to smithereens, we’re not going to pretend to love the bare Sisyphean relentlessness that our days and nights have become.
She argues, I guess with tongue in cheek, that Kant and Artistotle would frown on her behavior. Kant, she says, would say that “what I’m doing isn’t necessarily bad for the baby per se, but it might be hardening my heart toward humanity in general”; and Aristotle would condemn her for “habituating” herself to “the wrong kind of actions.”
[I]s my current use of the one-digit salute warping my offspring’s fragile little mind? She’s a baby, so she doesn’t understand what the bird means yet. Also, she’s asleep, so she doesn’t know I’m doing it. And also, she’s a baby.
Let me be clear. I, like the author, despise the “lovin’ every minute of it” culture that is strangling American parenthood like so much sentimental kudzu. We’re expected to cherish every second we spend with our children, and we’re expected to be awash in joy and wonder at all times.
This is bullshit, and I’ve said so more times than I can count. It makes us into worse parents when we expect to be joyful and grateful all the time. Raising babies is hard, and there are lots of times when it just plain sucks. I recall telling my pediatrician, in a moment of sleep-deprived candor, that I wasn’t actually going to throw my always-screaming baby out the window, but I sure felt like I wanted to.
Speaking the truth about how we feel can be a great release. I have mountains of sympathy — oceans of sympathy, galaxies within galaxies of sympathy — for strung out parents who are exhausted beyond belief by the insane demands of babyhood. My own baby is six months old and is currently all angry all the time, because she thinks she can run, and her ridiculous doughy legs won’t cooperate. I’m hardly getting any sleep, and things are kind of awful right now. I’m having a hard time writing this post, because the baby won’t stop shouting at me.
But listen to what I said: the demands of babyhood are awful. That does not make your baby awful. One of the first things you need to learn, if you want to be a good parent, is to make sure you know the difference between “fuck this situation” and “fuck this baby.” The former is a universal experience. The latter is grotesque.
But why? The baby doesn’t know the difference, and I believe this mom who says she loves her baby. Isn’t this just some harmless, if tasteless, venting? Does it really matter what goes on around the head of someone who doesn’t and can’t understand what’s happening, which is really just a joke anyway?
Well, how would you feel if this were a gallery of photos of a fed up policeman flipping off people he’s put in handcuffs? Or a gallery of photo of an overworked heart surgeon flipping off a series of unconscious patients? Or a gallery of frustrated judges flipping off prisoners headed to jail? Or a gallery of exhausted nurses flipping off dementia patients? Or a gallery of under-appreciated ESL teachers flipping off a roomful of baffled foreign students who didn’t know what the middle finger signifies?
Not cool, right? Even if they are only venting, even if the people being flipped off had no idea it was happening. We expect more of people who do know what it means, because of their position of authority. Along with the authority and strength of their position comes the responsibility not to abuse the weaker person, even if the weaker person has made a lot of trouble for the stronger person, even if the weaker person doesn’t know it’s happening, even if the stronger person is very tired. If these policemen and judges and surgeons and teachers felt free to behave grotesquely and offensively toward the people under their authority — if they wrote jocularly about it in Slate magazine, and proudly provided a link to more photos — we’d freak the hell out, and rightly so.
We would demand that they treat the weaker person with the dignity they deserve because they are human beings. This is what we expect from people who are simply doing the jobs they are paid to do. Why should we expect less of a mother?
Just because someone can’t fight back, that doesn’t mean we can use them. Just because someone can’t fight back, that means we can’t use them.
Recall the infamous Army Private Lynndie England photos from Abu Ghraib. There were many photos showing prisoners being tortured and humiliated, but Americans were especially repulsed by the jaunty, thumbs-up “lookit me!” ones. The ones where the prisoners had bags on their heads, the ones that showed that the torturers thought the whole thing was kind of funny.
No, the Slate writer’s baby isn’t be tortured. But there is something chillingly familiar about “HA, you can’t fight back!” attitude. You don’t need to look up your Aristotle to know that some things just aren’t funny. Even if it makes you feel better.
The very worst thing that you can do to another human being is to use him. I used to think this was just some abstract theological formulation meant to neaten up the codification of sins. But now I see that objectification of human beings lies at the heart of every sin. That’s what it always comes down to.
We don’t use people, even if they don’t know they’re being used. Especially if they don’t know they’re being used. And for God’s sake, especially not when it’s our own child.