This is a piece I prepared several months ago that I put aside and recently rediscovered. Rereading it, I felt it was too beautiful not to share. Even though the day-to-day reality with Gabriel is different now, this piece captures what it was like for us in those early months. Enjoy!
3:30 AM. Sound of a crying child. Mom says she just fed and changed him. I take the little one into the living room rocking chair, struggling to keep my eyes from closing; his are wide open. We sit in front of the fire and I think, it’s a shame I don’t have the energy to appreciate how beautiful this moment is.
For the benefit of all sentient beings: according to the Buddhist sage Shantideva, this is the highest motivation for spiritual practice. Aspiring to this ideal, I try to dedicate the merits of each day in this way.
My foot continues to push against the ground, creating a rocking motion we both enjoy. Minutes pass. I don’t change a single thing, but his calm suddenly vanishes. I sense a storm is about to arise, so I sling him over my shoulder and he quiets down. But only for a second. My body is so tired that I don’t think I can walk around. I know I must if there’s any chance of staunching the oncoming fuss.
“Ok, Daniel. It’s great that you want to be of service to all sentient beings. But that’s a pretty big undertaking. Are you really cut out for it? We’ll start you off with one and see how you do with that. ”
It would have felt funny to pray “may I be of service to one sentient being.” I suppose that, owing to my American roots, I wanted to go big or go home. Why serve one when I could serve them all?
But now that I see what service really involves, I’m happy I only havethis single, small life to care for. I don’t know if I could handle anything more.
I remind myself that the Dalai Lama is awake at this hour practicing meditation. I try to emulate him and see this insomniac episode as an opportunity for walking meditation. As I tune in to the sensations the baby creates on my chest, I feel my foot dropping slowly to the ground. I prepare to take another step and add a side-to-side swing.
During the first few weeks of being a dad, I thought it wasn’t really so hard. Sure, I was tired and made mistakes (my wife had to intervene several times when the baby carrier nearly tumbled off the edge of a chair). But the novelty and wonder of our new baby brought me more joy than anything else.
At a certain point, though, the honeymoon wore off. Sometime around the second month of sleep deprivation, I began to think, holy shit, this is going to continue day in and day out for the foreseeable future. He’ll start sleeping more at a certain point, I’m sure, but I’ll still be on call 24/7. For years. No weekends where I can sleep in till noon, no way to get away from it all to recharge my batteries, no more time to do yoga and meditation in the morning… perhaps I should have been more careful what I wished for.
My last resort is to stick my little finger in his mouth. Again, the results are mixed: he’s assuaged for a moment, but the piercing cries soon return. What more can I do to calm you, little one? I wish you could tell me what you need.
His sounds get louder and more urgent, so mom tells us to come back to the bedroom to see if he’s hungry again. I feel I’ve failed my task. My guilt that she now has to take care of him after already having done so much isn’t enough to overpower my utter exhaustion. I collapse on the bed beside them.
His crying sometimes brings me to tears not only because I see how upset he is, but because I can’t do anything about it. In a culture that expects strength, skill, and competence from men, I’ve had trouble knowing how to deal with the feelings of impotence, ineptitude, and hopelessness that my newborn has stirred up.
It’s tough to admit that I cannot be the type of servant I thought I should be. I look at how frustrated, impatient, and angry I sometimes get and realize the extent to which I’m still trapped in selfishness. Perhaps if I could have just a night or two of uninterrupted sleep, or get some time for my yoga practice, then I could willingly and enthusiastically anticipate my wife’s needs, change poopy diapers, and keep my cool during a crying fit.
I sometimes feel ashamed of my inability to live up to the ideal I’ve set for myself. Our baby’s fragility, it seems, is making me more aware of my own.
No need for an alarm clock anymore; we’re up at dawn every morning. As the light begins to filter through the curtains, I hop out of bed to grab a quick snack. I take care of the previous night’s dishes while my coffee brews, not letting a spare quiet moment go to waste.
For a long while, I held the assumption that my intention to serve all sentient beings should involve working on something major. Stopping climate change, eliminating exploitation, ending inequality: this would be the concrete expression of service to all. If I didn’t devote myself to doing something like that, then I wouldn’t be using my precious human energy to its fullest. I joined campaigns to promote green commerce and end war in the hopes that my involvement would finally tip the balance and allow the world to see the light.
There came a point, however, when I realized that my efforts weren’t going to succeed in the way I imagined. Nothing I did felt like it made any difference. But instead of changing approaches or persisting, I just gave up. The world became an immalleable foe; I joined the ranks of disillusioned revolutionaries.
Oh well, I thought. At least I tried to serve.
As burnt out as I am, I know that my wife’s fatigue is even greater. To give her a chance to catch up on lost sleep, I snatch little Gabriel out of the bed, strap him into a sling, and prepare to go outside.
He usually protests to this bodily constriction at first, but as we take the first steps, he quiets down. Tightly bundled, swaying in motion: I imagine this must be reminiscent of the womb. What a strange transition to the outside world it must be! Even stranger that few of us really remember these first months and years. For a moment, I wish I could re-attain the simplicity of the child breathing against my chest. This thought quickly passes as I put on my ipod and select a talk about God.
Holding onto the dream that the day would come when I would do something big (preferably against an exotic foreign backdrop), I continued to divert my focus away from situations where I actually could do something.
The process of becoming a parent has opened me to the truth of Mother Theresa’s saying, “we cannot do great things, only small things with great love.” I don’t need to sit around waiting for some magical alignment of circumstances to put others before myself, because every moment offers an opportunity for practice. Every face is an invitation to serve.
(part 2 next week!)