Franciscan Spirit Blog

Dances and Diapers: Reflections on Parenting and Prayer

I hold my newborn son; he holds my gaze. As I carry him in my arms, he carries my heart to a new place. I notice every shift of his eyes, every wince, every movement, and all the thoughts he has not yet learned to express. I feel every ounce of energy jolting through his body. Then I feel the energy slowly dissipate, trickling out into the nothingness, as I bob him up and down, swaying in the living room to Fleetwood Mac. His body relaxes as he closes his eyes. 

As we dance, I’m reminded of Thomas Merton’s communion with the birds outside his hermitage: “Sermon to the birds: ‘Esteemed friends, birds of noble lineage, I have no message to you except this: be what you are: be birds. Thus, you will be your own sermon to yourselves!’ Reply: ‘Even this is one sermon too many!’” 

How was I ever on the fence about wanting children? Thank God for my wife, who always knew she wanted to be a mother. My children are my books, I always thought to myself. But now my words are uncontained, spun out in every which way, like threads pulled from a blanket. It is the very beginning, I suppose, of my writing decline. 

My only other comparison to this wordlessness, this mysticism, is grief. I once wrote a parable about a mystic who spent each day writing about God, then casting her pages into a bonfire each night. I think I understand that parable more now. 

A New Prayer

We named our boy Indy Jude. I was raised near Indianapolis in a small house in the country. I was surrounded by love, by fields, by sisters, cousins, and friends. Indiana has always represented a sense of safety, simplicity, and kindness—an environment I’d like to give to my son here in North Carolina. 

There is a quote I love from Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, where the protagonist is asked to baptize the town’s babies even though he’s not a priest. These are his censored words: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies, you’ve got to be kind.” 

I feel the weight of Indy’s head in the palm of my right hand. There are so many things I do not know about developing this formative mind, but I know this: I can raise him to be kind. It is enough to calm my fears. 

We gave him the middle name Jude mostly because we liked the sound. But why not do some meaning- 
making? St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. It has been a hard year, the hardest yet. I already feel little Indy Jude recovering my wonder, my hope. (Or is that the Zoloft?) 

I carry Indy over to the turntable. It’s time to flip Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours record, which I do, already a pro at one-armed tasks. I was always afraid to hold babies. I was even afraid to talk to babies—those strange little aliens—unsure of what to say. I don’t feel any of that these days. I was born to be a dad. 

Indy shifts his head, squeaks, then settles back into the dance. I think of his two grandmothers in heaven. I think of how happy they would be. I return to studying his face, to reading this book that I will never finish. His cheeks and forehead have mostly recovered from the bruises and scratches he suffered from the C-section two weeks before. How could I have made someone so beautiful? I look at my wife on the couch and understand. 

I have work to do. I have deadlines to meet. There is no paternity leave for a freelancer. But my to-do list has little hold over me during this dance, this magic, this thin space, this prayer. I am reminded of another Merton quote from his beautiful essay “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” where, in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, he meditates upon the sound of rain at his hermitage: “Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen.” 

Until Indy gets hungry again, I’m going to dance. I’m suddenly startled by a loud noise. Energy shoots up my back and stiffens my arm. Indy has blown a hole in his pants. He is awake now, flustered, though he was the one who fired the cannon. 

I think of Brother Lawrence’s prayer to the “Lord of the pots and pans,” this Lord of dances and diapers. A new prayer in a new moment has begun.

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