Rainy Afternoon – What a Baby Does


From Mind the Baby by Mary Perkins, 1950’s

Poor Thomas Edmund is almost as damp with tears as is the world outside with rain. He is just getting over his rage at not going to the park, and his further rage at seeing his brother depart to play with the children next door. Big drops roll down his cheeks as he stretches on tiptoe to look out the window.

Look, old man, life is difficult, but not quite so bad as all that. Here is a cookie, and if you turn around you will see that the toy-box is open. Thomas Edmund looks at me reproachfully. After all, it was Mummy who not ten minutes ago dragged him upstairs kicking and screaming after he had got himself all the way down, sliding so carefully backwards over the slippery descent and thinking he was so clever to be all ready to go out-doors.

But he isn’t one to hold a grudge for long. He sees the cooky and snatches it. At the sight of the open toybox (kept shut except on rainy days), his eyes brighten. “Aii!” he says and trots over to it.

Now we should have peace for a minute and Mummy should have a chance to sit down. If I only had my son’s energy…Look at him now, throwing things out of the box as if his life depended on it, blocks, trucks, pieces of a wooden train, two tin pieplates (so that’s where they have been!), all flying out in a wild shower. Oh dear, what has happened? The shower has stopped, and Thomas Edmund is crying. I’ll have to get up and see what the trouble is.

My gracious, what a mess! He is trying to pull out of the box a horrible tangle of extra ropes for the swing, baby-harness, a peg-block, a dump-truck, and two coat-hangers firmly entwined in the middle. Nothing will budge, however hard Thomas Edmund pulls; he is red in the face with effort and frustration. All right, Mummy will fix it. I pull everything out, disentangle it, remove the pie-plates and the coat-hangers, and again leave Thomas Edmund to his explorations.

Now what? This time the yells are authentic yells of pain. Oh, poor little boy! He has fallen head-first into the big box. His fat legs wave wildly in the air; his arms thrash helplessly. Here we go. Now you’re all right. I stand him on his feet, but that doesn’t seem to be what he wants. He is trying to climb in the box again. Oh, I see, you want to sit in it.

I shove the remaining toys out of his way, lift him inside and sit him down. Is that right? Oh, the cookie…it would never do to lose that. I find it in a far corner, give it to him and retire again to my chair.

He has the cookie between his teeth, rather like a cigar, and both hands are busy with toys; he looks absurdly like a satisfied business man getting at the morning’s mail. To misquote St. Augustine: “How happy is the rich man in the midst of his possessions!”

What a number of desires has a small boy–and, except when Daddy is home, it is Mummy who has to try to satisfy them, or, which is even more wearing, to teach him how to begin to control them or to endure their remaining unsatisfied.

If Thomas Edmund’s desires were only physical–for food and sleep and exercise–I should certainly not be so exhausted at the end of the day. What wear Mummy out are his complex human needs: needs to find out about things and to master them; to find out about his own growing powers and to master them; needs to do things for himself and yet to be protected and helped and loved the same time.

And these needs express themselves so violently and unexpectedly and alarmingly. For they have been made immensely more complicated and difficult to handle by the effects of original sin in the “little angel” (and in his mother, for that matter), making the job of “minding the baby” rather like exercising a team of wild horses while teaching somebody else to drive it.

And, at the same time, the task of helping Thomas Edmund develop and coordinate and integrate his powers is made infinitely more necessary and more important by the fact that he is not just a human baby, but a member of Christ, possessing not only the faculties and weaknesses of a child of Adam, but also the powers and destiny of a child of God.

Yet, of course, I am proud of all his violent desires and impulses and actions. I tell people about them ad nauseam, because, though they exhaust me, they show me that Thomas Edmund has a full complement of human powers, that he is growing up, as a little boy should, towards normal human maturity.

No parents really want their child to stay a baby: a mother rejoices “because a man has been born into the world.” And all parents realize in some fashion that their job is not so much taking care of babies as helping in the development of future men and women.

A Christian mother, then, certainly ought not to complain at having so little time to sit down in a chair, for her job is even more glorious–to help in the development of a Christian, a member of Christ, a co-worker with God, who is called to grow up not simply to human maturity, but to the “measure of the age of the fullness of Christ.”

If my Thomas Edmund were only a kitten, taking care of him would be certainly much simpler, but how much less interesting or valuable than it is. He would need food and sleep and exercise and cleanliness; he would need to investigate things and try out his powers in play. But the kitten would only need my supervision and training if he were being brought up here, in a human environment. To a wild-cat kitten, his own instincts and those of his parents, innate patterns of action and re-action laid down for them by God, are quite sufficient guides to the fullness of wild-cat maturity, to the perfect achievement of God’s purposes for wild-cats.

Thomas Edmund here, sitting so solemnly in his box, has all a kitten’s powers, but none of the kitten’s instinctive skill in using them rightly. He has the same senses as the kitten; he has muscles and nerves; he has a sense for coordinating all his impressions and referring them to himself or to something outside himself; he has a memory for sights and sounds and smells and tastes and feelings and actions, and an imagination to bring pictures of all these sensations into his head. He can move around (he certainly can!) and absorb nourishment and grow; and in time he will be able to help to produce new members of his species.

But in Thomas Edmund all these powers are human, not merely animal. And therefore while he has such strong unformed tendencies towards using his powers for human kinds of actions, he was born with no fixed nature-made patterns as to how to use them for his own good or the good of mankind.

For the beauty of animal actions is that they follow God’s plan and God’s Will instinctively; but the glory of human actions is to follow God’s plan and to obey God’s Will consciously and lovingly and freely. Even though it would make life so much easier for me just now, Thomas Edmund could not have a kitten’s instincts and still be capable of his future manhood, of free and wise and skillful action for the love of God….

But more than this, the kitten’s powers at each stage of his development are always perfectly under the control of his cat-nature, are always used rightly for the purposes of cat-hood. But Thomas Edmund’s powers are developing unevenly and unexpectedly and are by no means under the control of his human nature, for he inherits the dis-integration and perversity which are the effects of original sin.

A kitten inevitably grows into a cat, if it grows into anything. But a little boy does not develop by any means inevitably into a true human being, with all his powers subject to reason and will, and his whole self subject to God; with all his actions truly human actions, wise and skillful and purposeful actions, done for the good of himself and mankind.

Much less does a little member of Christ inevitably develop into a perfect Christian man in time and eternity. The terrible danger of human life is that he can choose not to do so, as its glory is that with God’s help he can choose and achieve God’s high purposes. No wonder that it takes a whole life-time of God’s grace and one’s own efforts and those of one’s parents and teachers and friends and unknown benefactors to grow up to the fullness of Christian living. No wonder…

What is he up to now? Everything is suspiciously quiet in the living room. Wouldn’t you know it? He has a box of matches, the most fascinating kind of forbidden fruit in the whole house. He is sitting solemnly on the couch pushing the box in and out of the case. There they go–he pushed it too far that time, and the matches are all over the couch and the floor. “Oh, oh!” he says in comic imitation of my own tones on such occasions.

He picks up one match and tries to put it back in the wrong part of the match-box. Now one in the other. That doesn’t seem to be going so well; he stands up and starts shoving the matches one by one back of the couch. He hears me coming, looks up at me and says “Oh, oh!” again. He pretends that he has no connection at all with this sad state of the matches…What can we do about it, Mummy?

“Thomas Edmund, you know you shouldn’t have taken those matches, that’s bad!” He looks away, his bright little face puckers up, he is almost on the verge of tears. “Come on, fellow, help me put them in the box.” He brightens up and offers me matches from all sides. “No, of course you can’t have the box again. How about a swing?”

He scrambles down from the couch, goes over to the swing expectantly, tries to get on it by himself, finds himself on the floor, looks up at me and laughs. “Here we go, now.” I get the swing behind him, help his two small hands to grab the ropes, put the board under his rear. A gentle push and he is off. He hangs on for dear life, smiling a determined smile of effortful pleasure, and sings a tuneless song…back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

He may not have the full use of his reason or freewill, but he certainly has the rudiments of a conscience. He knows he should not grab match-boxes. He feels guilty even before I find him with one, and even guiltier when I do. He is sorry and hurt when I scold him, and he wants to make everything all right with me right away…

So I should not complain about all the getting up and the interruptions and the endless minor complexities of minding the baby, since every waking hour of his day is thus evidently a practice session for human living.

In all his funny and infuriating and pathetic activities he is discovering and exercising and beginning to coordinate his powers of body and mind and soul toward the time when he will be capable of a fully human action, of choosing to do something or not to do it according to right reason, and of acting on that choice–his senses and muscles and emotions and tendencies all subordinate in act to his mind and his will.

And, thank God, while he is discovering the strength of the disintegration and perversity in himself caused by original sin– “the evil that I will not, that I do”–at the same time, he will be discovering the power of grace to help him overcome it.

Now he is sorry for having offended Mummy, but in time he will be sorry for having offended God. Now he wants Mummy to love him and be pleased with him, but in time, with God’s help, he will seek only God’s good pleasure…

For there are further powers wrapped up in that small human person swinging so sedately over there on the swing, supernatural powers which are waiting for the ordinary human development of his mind and will to be ready for exercise and growth.

Because of his Baptism, this little boy will be capable not only of human action, but of Christian action. He will be able to make choices not only in the light of right reason, but in the light of faith. He will be able to act on his choices not only by the power of his own will, but with the power of God’s Own Love, Charity. He will be able not only to know himself and his capabilities and weaknesses, but to know himself in the light of God’s mercy and to hope in it.

And, with God’s help, the grace given him at Baptism and its wonderful powers will prove the fruitful seed of life everlasting, of sharing God’s Own Happiness, of seeing and loving God Himself for all eternity.

All this present existence of playing with toys, getting in and out of boxes, falling down and swinging, learning not to do what Mummy says not to do and to do what she says to do–all the unimportant attempts and achievements and tragedies which make up a small boy’s life–are the first steps towards future actions which can affect the whole world, the actions of a Christian, a member of the Mystical Body of Christ, whose every work and deed and suffering and joy can be intelligently and lovingly and willingly united to Christ’s and so help to save his own soul and those of his fellow-men for the glorious life of eternity.

And Mummy, who feels so sorry for herself so often, is really in the amazing position of assistant coach, helping the future athlete of Christ in his first exercises–assistant to the Holy Spirit, the Trainer and Sanctifier of Christians!

Mummy has the job of helping little Thomas to develop human habits of right and loving action which the Holy Spirit will transform with those supernatural habits of faith, hope and charity, of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, already rooted in little Thomas’ faculties by Baptism, flowing forth from the divine life then given to his soul.

By helping little Thomas to find out how to eat with a spoon, how to swing on a swing, how to climb up and down stairs, how to take a tumble with a smile, Mummy is helping to make him ready to cooperate to his fullest human capacity with the Gifts which the Holy Spirit will give him in fullness at his Confirmation, which will make him easy and skillful in the super-human actions of the Christian life.

Surely, then, even in the seemingly endless and wearing and humble job of helping a little boy to gain the simple physical habits and skills of ordinary human living, the light and grace of the Holy Spirit will not be lacking to his imperfect and unskilled assistants, Thomas Edmund’s parents.

Thomas Edmund is tired of his swing. He slips off it without a bump and looks at me expectantly. “Heavens, yes, Thomas Edmund, look at the time! Come on, we have to pick up your toys first. Throw them all in, that’s the spirit.”

The future co-worker with Christ is perfectly willing, for the moment, to be a co-worker with Mummy. “Look, there’s that woolly lamb over there, get him too. All right, shut the lid. Now let’s get to work on your bath!”

“You will never have this day with your children again – tomorrow they’ll be a little older than they are today. Today is a gift, breathe and notice, smile and hold them, study their faces and pay attention. Enjoy today, Mama- it will be over before you know it. Relish the charms of the present.” – Anne Joachim

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