Conservatively, estimating 12.5 cries per day per toddler and 15 cries per day per new baby, I've heard at least 20,050 child cries since June 2005.
Sometimes it's just a pinched finger here or an empty tummy there, but viewed all together, the cries really add up. Yesterday I heard a cry like no other.
There have been copious loose stools around my house lately (which has you thinking this is either evidence of my tendency to release too much information or a cheap attention-grabber, but it's essential to the story I'm about to tell).
Yesterday morning I found a just-awakened Wesley, one of my two-year-old twins, awash in a crib of poo. He cried because it burned, but even after I cleaned him up and applied tenderizer to the raw meat that his inner thighs had become, he continued to cry. He tried to hide his body from me and avoided eye contact; it was the first time I have seen him experience what I believe was shame. It's one thing to do something wrong, like throw a toy at someone's head, look to mommy for punishment, and then cry in the time-out chair. It's another thing to be physically hurt and wail. It's yet another thing—shame—to realize that something has gone wrong, you did it, you wish you hadn't done it, and you'd like to hide it but can't.
My doctorate is in anthropology, not child development theory, but it seems to me that potty training is a stage of immense psychological proportions. I'd even argue that it's deeply spiritual. A toddler becomes aware that one's waste should not be near oneself, but isn't always able to get the waste away. Parents become coaches, cheerleaders, and cleaning crews in companioning the toddler toward successful waste management. What a metaphor for being human. We hate our excrement, be it relational, emotional, spiritual, or whatever, but we keep making it and are unable to distance ourselves from it. We need companions to advise us, cheer us on, and help us clean up after ourselves.
It's no fun to clean up bodily fluids. I can see why a parent might shame a child for making messes. It was clear to me, however, that Wesley was shaming himself. (Why won't he feel shame over something worthy, like throwing toys at heads?) Coming from an evangelical background with plenty of legalism and shame and a pre-therapeutic family focused more on outcomes and behavior than processes and feelings, I don't have good, cultivated responses for situations like this. But Wesley called forth the love that he needed. After a few bad minutes of cowering in the back of the bathtub while I poured water over him, he climbed onto me and held on for dear life. I traced the angel hairs that grow into a V at his lower back and chanted, "It's okay" until he felt better.
The Golden Rule is not a rule at all, something to be memorized and performed, but a reality that is called forth when we love and are loved. While holding Wesley, I realized that in the act of parenting, I also am parented. In loving, I am loved. Faith means that even when I can't see anyone out there, I still cry out and ask for the love I need, believing that someone will come and not only count the angel hairs in the small of my back, but also stroke them until I feel better.
Jenell Williams Paris is professor of sociology and anthropology at Messiah College.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Paris has more information about herself at her Bethel University page. She blogs at The Paris Project (where a version of this essay originally appeared), ParisBabies, and the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank.
Previous articles by Jenell Williams Paris include:
Disorderly Disciplines | When I entered motherhood, my traditional spiritual life became impossible. (May 21, 2007)
When Mother's Day Is Hard | Taking solace in Scripture's difficult and unsentimental image of motherhood. (May 1, 2004)
Has Natural Birth Control Been Proved Impossible? | "Don't believe the media reports, cautions the author of Birth Control for Christians" (July 1, 2003)
Community and Conscience | Catholics and contraception. (Books & Culture, May/June 2005)
The Truth About Sex | Even Christians get seduced by the sexual lies our culture proclaims (November 12, 2002)
Sex Ed. For Adults | God-given longings in a broken world. (Books & Culture, September 1, 2004)
Beyond Integration | Two recent books on race (Re:generation Quarterly, July 1, 2000)
Why I No Longer Live in a Community (Re:generation Quarterly, April 1, 1999)
Christianity Today's other articles about family and parenthood are available on our site.