New Year, New Family

First published at on January 7, 2011

This is my first column after a month’s hiatus. I want to begin by thanking Chase Whiteside, who filled in for me while I was gone. Chase has a knack for keeping the big picture in sight while keenly highlighting details. I look forward to his future work.

Thanks, too, to my readers, who sent encouraging messages during my absence and reminded me of the great privilege of a regular column space.

My biggest news during my break was the birth of my niece, Tess, followed a few weeks later by the birth of my partner’s niece, Hadley. This is our first venture into uncle-hood.

I have never been a “baby person.” I would smile when people would show me baby pictures, but only because it’s polite. If they tried to hand me their babies to hold, I would find any excuse to demur. (“Sorry; nasty cold.” “Can’t lift; bad back.” Or, as a last resort: “Go away—I hate children.”)

It wasn’t just that I was afraid that I might break them or something. (“Support the neck! Support the neck!”) It’s that babies don’t DO anything. They just lie there and make funny noises and poop. I didn’t get the appeal.

I get it now.

In the last few weeks, I have become one of those “baby people.” I want to hold my nieces, press my face against theirs, share their pictures with absolutely everyone.

In the past, the only thing I appreciated about babies is that they weren’t yet toddlers. Babies stay put in their little carrying cases, unable to run amok and break things. Now, oddly, I eagerly look forward to the day when my nieces are self-propelled.

My obsession with my nieces may be partially connected to my growing sense of my own mortality. I’ve been dwelling on that a lot lately.

In the latter part of 2010, I lost two dear friends my own age (41). Last month, a 59-year-old colleague in another department apparently committed suicide (car left on a bridge; body not found). Then, a couple of weeks ago, a former chair of my department died at the ripe old age of 92.

Even relatively minor events have prompted me to dwell on big questions. I’ve been at my current academic job for over a dozen years. The old brick building which housed my first office was recently demolished, reminding me in a rather tangible way of the inevitability of change.

Birth, death, change. Which brings me back to the subject of my nieces. (I warned you I talk about them constantly.)

I don’t plan on having children of my own. Even my newfound appreciation of babies hasn’t sparked that desire. My nieces, therefore, may end up being the closest thing I have to progeny.

Progeny serve certain practical needs, of course. I will try to help keep my nieces out of trouble in their youth, and they, in turn, may help keep me out of trouble in my dotage. It’s a fair bargain. I hope that my nieces will love me enough to stick by me when I get “difficult,” as I surely will, even more so than I already am.

But the value they add to my life goes far beyond the practical. Indeed, their biggest value to me thus far has been teaching me something about savoring the moment.

It’s not just that “they grow up fast,” although I’m constantly reminded by friends that they do. It’s that, when I’m with them, there’s little more to do than enjoy their presence. (That, and change diapers.)

Our nation’s Protestant work ethic, for all its value, has put the contemplative life increasingly out of reach. Modern technology promises “connectivity” yet paradoxically makes it harder to enjoy one another’s presence. Our “to-do” lists are constantly expanding.

So while it’s true, in one sense, that babies don’t DO anything, that is a great part of their charm. In a world full of agendas, they remind us of the joy of simply being.

Happy new year, readers. May 2011 bring us all a better balance between “being” and “doing.”