JUST WHEN YOU START TO LIKE THEM
God didn’t tell us, when he gave us children, that we’d have to give them back. There were times along the way when we’d have gladly let them go with any stranger who’d have taken them, but only till the tantrum wilted or the howling gave way to fatigue. When one had wandered from our vision, only to be hand-delivered by a supermarket manager with toddler in tow, wanting to know, Is this kid yours? we gave a heavy sigh and said, So it appears. We claimed them, even when we’d rather have owned twenty Saint Bernards, or when we heard about a friend confined to bed, in traction, and our sympathy was liberally mixed with envy.
What we craved was time alone without responsibilities or duties or demands. If now and then we asked ourselves Whatever were we thinking when we desperately wanted to conceive? nevertheless we smiled when they were sweet and when they weren’t we soldiered on. We had to. They were ours, no question, and we didn’t see the gig as temporary or ourselves as marking time until at last they flew the nest. We didn’t guard our feelings or take care to not get too attached. We gave them everything we had and then discovered fifty times as much would be exacted, so of course we gave them that and more.
We never thought of keeping score, not even when we would have sold our souls for half an hour of rest, a solitary cup of coffee and a novel we could read a chapter of uninterrupted. None of us regarded children as investments toward a worry-free old age. We sacrificed, oh, yes, but not because someday we’d be paid back. Not once did we think All this stress and heartache will in some way be redressed.
The fact remains that God stayed in the background (as it seemed) when they had chicken pox, when they were two and terrible or in their teens with hormones raging. God was waiting till they ceased to need our constant supervision and until they had depleted every penny of our savings. Once they reached the age of understanding and had learned civility and kindness, when they finally were able to secure a job and make a living—that was how we raised them, wasn’t it?—then God said Time’s up. Never mind that we weren’t ready. Too bad if we didn’t know how much we needed to be leaned on. Doggone shame if we had cherished, way down deep, the hope that all the sleeplessness, the tears, the worry and expense would be redeemed. We had them when we had them, and we’re not allowed to keep them, so we’d better take up macramé or learn Norwegian.
If we’re lucky, they might like us and decide to keep us close, to make a space for us within their grownup lives, their families, their work, their recreation. If they don’t, too bad. They didn’t ask to be here, didn’t sign a contract or accept an obligation. It was we who took them on, to satisfy a need as old as time, begun with Eve and Adam. And it’s not as if there were no compensation. We don’t get to keep the kids, but if we wish we can retain the lessons learned, the softened hearts, the lively spirits, the compassion. Best of all, we find, when all is said and done, that we ourselves are blessedly and permanently children.
Now I’ll leave you with a small suggestion: If you’re ever bored or lonely—Yes, I know, life isn’t fair, nobody cares—do what the children of the world do every day: Go out and play.
Artist Bessie Pease Gutmann (1876-1960) captured childhood innocence as beautifully as any of the Golden Age illustrators, with the possible exception of Jessie Willcox Smith. You can download A Child’s Garden of Verses with Gutmann’s illustrations at Project Gutenberg. The images below are titled Feeling, Tommy’s Wish Comes True, Nitey Night, Good Morning Little Girl, Unknown, Unconditional Love, and Sweet Roses.