the pleasure of holding a baby

this is a first here: we have a guest contributor – my husband, glenn mori:

Recently we had the opportunity to spend some time with my sister’s four month old twin boys. Not everyone likes babies. Some people who like children don’t care so much for babies. They like older children, ones that they feel they can interact with. Tolstoy described two different fathers in War and Peace:

At that moment Nicholas and Countess Mary came in. Pierre with the baby on his hand stooped, kissed them, and replied to their inquiries. But in spite of much that was interesting and had to be discussed, the baby with the little cap on its unsteady head evidently absorbed all his attention.

“How sweet!” said Countess Mary, looking at and playing with the baby. “Now, Nicholas,” she added, turning to her husband, “I can’t understand how it is you don’t see the charm of these delicious marvels.”

“I don’t and can’t,” replied Nicholas, looking coldly at the baby. “A lump of flesh. Come along, Pierre!”

“And yet he’s such an affectionate father,” said Countess Mary, vindicating her husband, “but only after they are a year old or so…”

A co-worker had his first child about the same time as my wife and I had our daughter. He, like Nicholas, enjoyed his daughter more when she was a little older. I’ve always known that I was more like Pierre, enjoying babies from the moment that they are born.

I think that people like me and Pierre enjoy little babies because of what they receive from them. What is it that these little “lumps of flesh” elicit? How do they manage to give so much pleasure, in spite of the fact that they aren’t trying to please us at all? They’re fully engrossed simply with being, with living.

Well, for one thing, they’re helpless. In order to survive, in order to avoid pain and discomfort they require our help. Is our pleasure derived from helping them, in spite of their lack of explicit thanks? But my fish are helpless too, and rely on me to keep them fed, warm, and in livable conditions, and I don’t feel the same towards them as I do towards human babies.

Maybe it’s because babies are human. Helping another human always feels good. Offering an elderly person your seat on the bus, or opening the door for a mother with a child in a stroller is a nice feeling too.

Perhaps we misinterpret their neediness as love, and delude ourselves with the belief that they love us. Or maybe we just like to be needed.

They do train us, as best as they are able. They give us positive reinforcement by smiling when we entertain them, or by stopping crying when we successfully realize that they are hungry. Or they reward us with real quiet when we manage to help them to make the journey back to sleeping.

Or maybe it’s the physical contact. Babies need to be carried, their mouths wiped, their diapers changed. To get from one spot to another they have to be lifted, and their necks supported. Positive physical contact with other humans is something that has value for most of us too.

It could be something not so obvious. Perhaps we get some special juice from caring for the future of our species, from looking into those eyes that will still be there after we’ve gone.

Perhaps smelling the milky fresh breath of a baby and seeing the purity of their skin reminds us of something in our own babyhood, when life was not filled with so many ideas and concepts, when we were innocent and pure.

In a related vein, Wordsworth wrote about childhood “trailing clouds of glory do we come”, saying that children have an unconscious awareness of Godliness in nature which we grow further and further away from as we age.

I didn’t set out to find a definitive answer for myself here. I just wanted to express my appreciation for babies and for what they give to those of us that do respond to them.

And you know, the really cool thing is that they give us so much without trying to give us anything. Those of us that relate to babies get pleasure from them just being babies. They don’t have to try to do anything special at all, and we can receive so much. I think that’s where the real lesson in all of this lies.

Unfortunately their level of simply being is something that 99% of the rest of us are no longer capable of achieving. Maybe that’s another way of looking at what Wordsworth was lamenting.

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