Boston, 1985. I sit on the edge of my son's bed. His face is smooth with sleep. The glow of the night-light stands vigil against the "monsters" that he worries lurk beneath his changing table. In the warm dark of the room, the two rhythms of our breathing punctuate the silence. As I stand up to leave, I feel my heart, utterly self-contained a moment before, pulled out of my breast, stretched to span the widening distance between us. A presence, palpable in its intensity, connects us. Before he was born, I did not know how I could ever let him in. Now that I have, I don't know how I will ever let him go.
Any parent knows what it means to welcome a child. The entry of new life does not call for a polite if celebrative ritual and then a return to business as usual. Nor does it mean that you just schedule this person into your established routine like an appointment or meeting. You don't make a little space in your day or share a little concern and then wish an infant godspeed. To welcome a child is to accept responsibility for another person 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a good many years. Ultimately, it is to welcome the unfolding mystery of an entire lifetime's joys and pains as your own.
To welcome a child is to give priority to the unpredictability of another life, to tend it in sickness, no matter what you had otherwise planned, to allow your plans and dreams to be altered, even set aside, because of another's need. To welcome a child is to learn to think and speak in response to a different and constantly changing worldview, to be outside of your own frame of reference. It is to learn patience and judgment and be confronted with your own very real and heretofore untested limitations. To welcome a child is to recognize the surprising expansiveness of your own capacity to love and to confront the shattering truth of your own violence and self-centeredness.
A parent's love is different. It opens places in the heart that have never been exposed before. It awakens inexpressible tenderness, an awareness of the extraordinary beauty and terrifying fragility of human life. It calls forth hope, an almost giddy consciousness of the promise of what might be.
To watch each child unfold the mysterious uniqueness of his or her life is to have your deepest longings called forth. One need only be in a room full of parents as they witness their children's First Communion or sing at the Christmas pageant with the kindergarten class to sense how deeply, how poignantly, the hope flows. Yet to see how little by little the wonder of each life is stunted, crippled, or wounded by bitter encounters with the harshness of social realities, by illness and accident, by inborn limitations, is to risk the loss of hope.
To welcome a child is to have the doors of the heart flung wide open to embrace the fullness of life, both at its sweetest and at its most bitter. To love with the welcoming embrace of a parent stretches to the furthest extent the contours of the heart.