It occurred to me the other night that having a newborn is surprisingly similar to being a monk or nun. Let me cite a few examples. Monks, Nuns and the parents of newborns all live a life of extreme asceticism and self-denial; they all go to bed early, and then wake regularly throughout the night to perform acts of service as a sign of their love for a being that is both mysterious and wholly other; they all find themselves cut off from the outside world and, as a result, swing between feelings of envy at the life of pleasure and ease that they have given up, and joy at the privilege it is to live a life of such simplicity and in such close contact with the essential things of life; they all generally have pretty poor standards of personal grooming (though not for the same reason).
One great difference is, of course, that, from day one, the life of a monk or nun is perhaps as ordered and predictable as life can get, while the life of the parents of a newborn about as chaotic and unpredictable as life can get. Though far from making the latter a lesser vocation, I reckon the chaos makes it a spiritual vocation that is much more grounded in the Real. It is also, dare I say it, much more Christian in its form than monasticism. The parent of the Newborn struggles to create order (a feed-play-sleep routine) out of initial behavioural chaos. Sure it may take them more than six days, but then again, parents don’t get to rest on the seventh day.
The serious point I am trying to make is that in this early stage of parenting, like being in a monastic order, there is an opportunity to engage in a heroic struggle to find the sacred in a grindingly mundane routine. I’m convinced that, as with monasticism, there should be books of spiritual exercises that help parents to swim rather than sink, that help them to positively reframe the sudden, profound changes they are experiencing, which on the surface feel like an unqualified loss of self.
This is, after all, the wonderful alchemy that is the goal of monasticism in all its forms, turning the dull lead of renunciation and self-denial into the pure gold of enlightenment and bliss. Surely there can be something like this for us parents of newborns.
As a start, I am trying to turn the act of rocking the child that just will not go to sleep (what is wrong with you?) into an act of meditation (oh please don’t go to sleep and cut my meditation short). I am trying to overlay everything with gratitude, trying to stay in touch with wonder. The reality is that, on the one hand, Susie and I have been entrusted with a miraculous and beautiful new life, and, on the other hand, we often feel trapped and resentful. By trying to focus on the former without pretending that the latter doesn’t exist (or feeling guilty about the fact that it exists), perhaps the latter will become easier to manage. Maybe not. I don’t know.
Afterword (I does seem a bit pretentious to attach an afterword to a blog post, I know.)
The other day, a friend suggested that the hardest thing to rise above is your baby’s crying, and I think she’s right. The crying of babies really is the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a walnut. It is designed to be intolerable in order to force parents to address the cause of their baby’s distress. Unfortunately, the real effect (especially when the parents in questions can’t work out what is causing the distress) is to create an overwhelming (and thus dangerous) impulse to make the crying stop whatever it takes.
I guess this is the other important difference between being a monk or nun and being a parent of a newborn: there is no place for unnecessary heroics in parenting, or for treating it as an opportunity for your own personal Dark Night of the Soul. In the end, you have to look after yourself as best you can to everyone safe. I may still be worth trying to redeem and reframe the extreme states, but more important to avoid them if you can.
Having said that, I certainly see no reason why monks and nuns shouldn’t test the limits of their capacity for detachment by practising meditation/contemplation in a room filled with the recorded cries of newborn babies, played at extremely high volume.