Bathtime at our house fills the better part of an hour. Sam likes to tell Clara she’s at the spa. It starts with both of her parents proclaiming her beauty as we remove her tiny pants and shirt, chewing on the tender heels of her feet (yes, chewing. we’re super weird over here). Clara laughs and shrieks in her miniature bathtub filled with warm water, looking back and forth at our faces while her baby talk echoes off the shower walls.
Sam and I kneel on a bath mat beside her, shifting our knees on the hard floor, commenting on how much her hair is growing (ha!), how chubby her thighs are getting, and how much longer she looks in the tub compared to when we first brought her home. We wrap her up in an oversized pink towel that has her name stitched onto it and we carry her into the nursery, where we spend twenty minutes tending to her needs.
Aquaphor glopped onto her cheeks and nose, a combatant to the dry winter air.
Fragrance-free, dye-free lotion smoothed over her stomach, her chest and back, her tiny symmetric toes.
Thick paste rubbed on her booty to prevent rashes.
We fasten on a new diaper and zip her into clean, warm pajamas. We read and sing and pray, wrap her tight in a soft swaddle blanket, and tip-toe out of the quiet nursery after tucking her into the crib.
A few nights ago, a few hours after Clara’s bedtime routine ended, Sam and I huddled close in our flannel sheets and whispered in the dark. Sometimes he reads news stories to me from his iPad when we get in bed, and that night he shared a story about a young woman and her boyfriend. These two teenagers were found unresponsive in their home due to copious amounts of marijuana, and then arrested. The girl’s baby was asleep in the home, also completely unresponsive.
Here’s the part that really gets me.
The police discovered the baby, alone and naked in a playpen, suffering from “what police describe as severe diaper rash.” (Idaho Statesman online)
I know there are lots of really big problems in the world. In fact, I avoid the news for that very reason. My main source of information are those times with Sam when he reads the news directly to me, and he usually skips anything that involves kids. And this wasn’t even the most horrific kid-related story in the weekly news cycle, to be honest. But I can’t seem to shake my emotional response to that baby and the diaper rash.
I’d like to yell at that mother. I’d like to grab her skinny little 18-year-old arms and shake some sense into her, tell her to leave the moron boyfriend, to appreciate her life, to appreciate the baby that SO MANY OTHER PEOPLE WOULD DIE FOR THESE DAYS. I want to take her baby away and raise it, or give it to one of my sisters, or give it to someone who would never let it cry itself to sleep, naked and alone. Someone who would put medicine on that baby’s bottom before a diaper rash could even happen. I want to call this girl a bad mom.
And maybe she is a bad mom.
Or maybe she’s not.
Maybe I don’t know the whole situation here (I don’t) and maybe I don’t know what’s happened in her life (I don’t) and maybe I don’t actually know what’s best for that baby. My friend Cassidy worked as a domestic violence advocate, in a secret shelter that provided a safe haven for abused women. I’ve debated many times with Cassidy, arguing the “rights” of a mother to her children, the merits of Child Protective Services, the mess of the foster system, and what society is supposed to do with parents who don’t take care of their kids. Cassidy and her co-workers stood up for women who could not stand up for themselves, and she fervently believes that a child needs to be with their mom if at all possible. I tend to lean the other direction, wanting kids to be raised by good parents who make good decisions- and if that’s not their biological mom or dad, then so be it.
Sam and I were not born knowing how to take care of Clara. We learned from our families, how our parents raised us and loved us with all their hearts. And we live in a community of people who value children. We know how to do a bathtime routine because we watch our friends do bathtime with their own kids. We know that Aquaphor is magic for our daughter’s skin because our friends are nurses and doctors who share that information with us. We know our baby is a precious gift because we have friends and family who spend tens of thousands of dollars trying to have their own children, through special doctors, fertility treatments, and adoption.
So are we better parents than the two who were arrested last week, or do we just have deeper resources? Better examples to follow? And why, WHY, does Clara get to be in our house, while that other baby has to suffer with parents who don’t appear to care about its well-being- at least, not care enough to change a dirty diaper?
The truth is, it doesn’t matter. Because I don’t get to raise that other baby. I don’t get to fix that diaper rash. And I don’t get to decide whether or not that young woman is a bad mom. I have been given the same opportunity she has; to be a parent. What we do with that privilege is between us and God. No one else.
I’ve been praying for that little family. They need help, and that baby needs someone to care, to protect it. But in the end, that baby and our baby will both grow up and become adults. And while I’d like to think that my parenting style, my bedtime routines, and my sacrifices for Clara will decide who she becomes, I know that’s not true. My daughter might end up making very bad decisions that break my heart. And the other baby? The one naked and alone in a playpen? That baby could end up changing the whole world.
WE DON’T KNOW what will happen. They will choose. Not us.
After all, parenting is merely a shaping mechanism. We try our best to influence our kids, and we share our love and advice with reckless abandon, we make small mistakes and huge ones, we do our inadequate bests…but someday our kids will leave. They will take what they heard and decide what to do with it, and none of that is up to us. This is a terrifying thought, but it’s the inevitable order of life.
There might be good moms and bad moms. There is probably a line we could draw, blurry and uneasy and arguable. But what’s the point? My job is to love my baby, and to love other peoples’ babies when given the chance. We have to help each other, and we have to give each other grace. There will be mistakes and missteps and triumphs and satisfactions for all of us. So I’m just going to choose to be thankful for my own little family, and to be a safe place for other moms to land, in grace and love and patience; for myself and for them.
That’s what God asks of me, after all.
I might as well listen and let Him take care of the rest.