Only a Parent Can Understand Love
A nurse opened the door of the labor and delivery room where I was nervously pacing back and forth. The room had been full only moments ago, my wife 6cm dilated and surrounded by medical staff. One of them had called, “emergency c-section,” and they all vanished through the door, taking my wife, the bed, and half the room's equipment, which turned out to be all part of a large wheeled platform. They closed the door behind them with little more than a, “stay here.”
I saw a cart peeking through the door, crowned with a clear plastic bin. I never saw the nurse's face—something quietly squirmed in the bin. I saw something there I didn't understand. A tiny little preemie, wrapped in a blanket, looking around with unfocused eyes. My brain couldn't process anything. From near the doorway I heard, “mom and the baby are both fine. Congratulations, dad!”
Like a dream, I followed the bin down the hall to what must have been the nursery. She had me cut the umbilical cord slightly shorter than it was, which was a surreal experience—like cutting steak with dull scissors. Then there were eye drops and a bottle of formula and a few other things I can’t remember. It was when she put my son in my arms that my brain started to function again. My eyes were latched onto his closed eyelids. He was so light in my arms, but I’ve never held anything so carefully in my entire life. I was irrationally terrified of dropping him.
This little thing was alive, but delicate like a fuzzy, white dandelion. Separate, and yet somehow part of me. Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. I don't know how long I stood there. I don’t think I cried, but I wouldn’t have noticed if I did. The nurse woke me from my stupor and we took the baby to the room where my wife was just waking up from the anesthesia. I placed him in her groggy arms. We would spend the next three weeks in the NICU before Elian was strong enough to bring home. We slept in the hospital for some of that time, and nothing could have prevented us from being there precisely every three hours to feed him with pumped breast milk while he learned how to suck and swallow. Even when he was sleeping, I never wanted to sleep or even look away—what if he needed something?
I know this experience is different for women. They get the experience gradually, as they feel the child growing and kicking inside them. But for men, we don't get any of that. Instead, we get hit with the feeling all at once, the first time we hold the child. Everything about my life changed that day. Even getting married was a small event compared to this. I was no longer living my life for myself; I was living it for him. It was that day that I really grew up and became a man.
Different Kinds of Love
Before getting married and being a dad, my most familiar experience of love was the I like that kind of love. I did things that I wanted to do, based on what interested me. My time was largely my own. I could stay up until 4:00 a.m. playing video games, or spend my weekends exploring new operating systems and compiling custom kernels for Linux and BSD.
Being in a relationship and getting married taught me another kind of love. I enjoy you and I want us to be happy together. That's a higher level because it involves making sacrifices for someone else. But they are small sacrifices, and each one directly benefited me. For example, watching this movie instead of that movie, putting dirty dishes directly into the dishwasher instead of in the sink, or helping with her work instead of doing more of mine.
Being a parent put me in a completely different situation. I am required to make sacrifices every day in order to keep my children alive and healthy. None of it directly benefits me, and I can't take time off. Every day, my hands are dirty from changing diapers and wiping butts. I get woken up by a toddler climbing on me with suspiciously wet fingers in my face asking for a diaper at 3:00 a.m. Sometimes a kid wet the bed or a diaper leaked and I have to get up in the middle of the night, clean and change the child, strip and replace the sheets, and get everyone back to sleep. I spend an inordinate amount of time carrying grumpy children around putting them to sleep when I’m so tired I can barely stand. There's constant noise. Time to myself is rare. And even when my dinner is cold because I spent the whole meal holding a crying child, I have a splitting headache and need a nap, or I'm behind in work, there is no taking time off from kids.
This is all easy mode, by the way. My grandfather was poor enough that he had to skip meals so his children had enough to eat. Also, we have disposable diapers, a washing machine, and everything else we could want to make parenting easier. Plus, I'm the husband, who gets to go to work in my home office during the day and be annoyed when I'm interrupted; my wife sacrifices a lot more than I do on this front.
Looking back on my time before kids, I'm embarrassed by how much my life was centered around myself. And yet, despite the current pains, my life is more joyous than it's ever been. I'm suffering, but I'm happy about it. It's not just that there are pleasant moments like rays of sunshine on a stormy day; there's something about the suffering itself that is good. How can this paradox be explained?
What I'm describing is called sacrificial love. It is the highest form of love—to suffer and sacrifice for someone else for their benefit. It brings meaning to your life like nothing else. We are built for this kind of love. It's in our nature. It is the Christian message that gets this right. The story of Christianity is the story of God Himself loving us with this kind of love. He became one of us to suffer and die on our behalf, opening the path to our salvation. If we are indeed made in His image, then it makes sense that we are most fully alive, most authentically our true selves, when we live this kind of life also.
It's not actually true that only parents can understand love (as the title says), but it’s the natural mechanism for the vast majority of us to get there. Parenthood pushes you into this kind of love whether you're willing or not, forcing you to grow into it. Then it forces you to live it every day. It leads you to happiness and meaning. And when you get there, you finally understand what it means to say, “God loves you.”