I believe in the power of things outside ourselves to make claims on us we cannot resist. I believe this because I remember the awesome sense of responsibility that descended on me when I learned I was going to be a father. Previously, I had no special interest in fatherhood. But then came the news, and then the overwhelming sense that I had to be a good father. I had no idea what that meant; I merely knew I had to be good.
Yet this feeling of “having” to be a good father, though I have described it as “descending” on me or as coming from outside me, never felt imposed or forced upon me. It was right for me even though I did not feel I had chosen it, did not feel it was my idea. So when I learned the name my wife and I had chosen for that first child, Matthew, meant “gift of God,” that also felt right. I don’t mean having a child made me believe in God. But I suppose a Christian using the expression “gift of God” would refer to something both good and surprising—good because it must be good if it comes from God, and surprising because God surpasses the understanding, therefore you cannot know what you’ll get from him.
This was how I felt about each child. Each was good and surprising, because with each I discovered I had more love to give. Before each child came, I thought I was done with love—not in the sense that I was not going to love anymore, but in the sense that there were already exactly as many people in my life as I needed. And then I was proved wrong, and I benefited incalculably from being proved wrong. Something came along from outside me and yet did not feel alien because it made me larger, made me do good I had not known I could do.
For most of our marriage—now in its thirtieth year—Marianne and I did not have much money, and trying to raise four children put pressure on our marriage. There were times when one of us would wonder aloud whether we had done the wrong thing to have so many children. It was an echo of the earliest days of our marriage, when the first child came along quickly and our families wondered if we knew what we were doing: “Aren’t you too young? Shouldn’t you have some financial security?” We were no longer so young by the time we had four children, but lack of financial security was still an issue. So maybe we had been foolish, and maybe four children were too many. We would think about that when we had a hard time making a mortgage or car payment. Why four children? People don’t do that anymore. Then one of us would look at the other and say, “All right—which one do you wish we did not have?”
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