Neither nature nor nurture compel me to care for my little friend. No, it has to be love
Having a newborn is never easy.
My wife and I welcomed our daughter Evelyn into our lives in October. Neither of us really remembers what a “full night’s” sleep is. We passed a movie theater the other night and thought, “Huh. Remember when we had four hours of our life to go there? What were we thinking?”
It’s not an understatement, but my little daughter is completely dependent upon my wife and myself. All new parents know this truth. It strikes you when you start considering little day-to-day actions that Evelyn cannot do without our help. If she’s thirsty and she needs a drink? We have to provide it to her. If she’s cold? We have to cover her. Pick her own clothes? We’ve got that. Move from place to place? Us too. Keep clean? Yup. Mom and dad. While she can certainly “take care of her business” on her own, she can’t deal with any of its consequences. Outside of an occasional glance at her hands and the sound of her voice, she’s not very good at entertaining herself.
I like to tell my wife, “You know, we really are her only friends.”
Of course, I don’t consider my newborn daughter and I “friends” in the “buddy-buddy” sense. Nor do I subscribe much to the Gilmore Girls school of parenting that “we’re really friends first so we can share everything.” The friendship I see is one based primarily upon need. The law has a funny term for my daughter (and my wife…but don’t tell her…): she’s my dependent. That is, come time to file my taxes, Uncle Sam basically views my daughter as a leach on my time and resources—or in a better light, as unable (or unwilling, freely or otherwise,) to provide for herself. So the tax-man gives me a break.
Most parents naturally realize this state of dependence: the mother more so than the father because she spent nine months knitting the little one in her womb. Waiting, often anxiously, to meet her and—let’s be honest—to get back a bit of her old routine and life.
Yet once the baby arrives, both parents are placed in a state of shock by every scream. I remember the first night—and the second and the third—when my daughter cried for several hours straight. Why am I breathing? Where’s my food? Why is everything so bright? What’s this stuff coming out of me? Who knows the specific reason for her distress, but for sure she had it good and secure just a mere 72 hours before entering the world.
Yet, my wife and I responded to this scream. Now to be frank, I see no reason why nature—at a purely naturalistic, that is material level—should impose any obligation on my wife and I to attend to Evelyn. Yes, she shares our DNA, but why should a common hardwired code oblige any person to care for another person? Physical similarities hardly constitute moral obligation. Neither does vulnerability as a purely physical quality. There are a lot of vulnerable people out there, so what’s to say one should get my presence over another? As purely physical traits neither generation nor deprivation put much of a claim on my time and treasure to come to the assistance of another.
Nevertheless, Evelyn is my little friend.
If there are needs (and boy are there needs) that I have identified in Evelyn, it is partly because I know I have those very same needs myself. And those needs go beyond mere physical comfort: they go to the very well-being of living and thriving in daily life. And more so, attending those needs is never something I can do on my own. First and foremost, I had a time when I knew not how to bathe, feed and work for myself. First, others had to do it for me (thanks, mom and dad), then others had to teach me (thanks mom, dad and all my teachers) and then I had to learn for myself with the help of others (thanks, human condition). But ultimately, nothing was truly mine by right or by nature: it was given to me strictly by compassion and mercy.