The Enduring Miracle

I

Two o’clock in the morning . . . lights . . . doctor and nurse talking in low tones . . . pain ... a voice moaning — my own. ... A mental resolution to do without scopolamine if there should be a next time, since it breaks down all decent mental reserves without, so far as I can see, lessening the pain by one iota. . . . There is no longer time to brace myself against the furious assaults on nerves and muscles. . . . Pain, like a tiger shaking and grinding. . . . The doctor’s voice giving directions. . . . Numbness in my arms — a curious contrast to the live agony of the rest of me. . . . One part of my mind still holds fast to the conviction that this is a small price to pay if only the baby is a girl — but my body no longer cares. . . . Pain in a sudden white blaze. . . . Instant oblivion. . . .

Slowly I float through the infinite night of space. The scattered atoms of consciousness collect and fuse, and I grow gradually aware of myself as an entity. . . . How can death be other than this which I have just experienced — this scattering of consciousness, this complete shattering of individuality, permanent instead of temporary? . . . Then I realize that pain is over and birth accomplished. ... I am afraid to ask whether the baby is a girl, and gradually the conviction steals over me that it is a boy. . . .

This conviction proves to be well-founded. The baby is a boy weighing seven pounds and eleven ounces — ‘a fine, strong boy,’ the nurse says, with a heartiness which leaves me completely cold, for I already have three fine, strong boys, and the hearts of all of us were set upon a girl to fill the gap left by the death eighteen months ago of our only little daughter. In spite of my disappointment I have the grace to be thankful that the baby is completely unaware of the lack of enthusiasm that has greeted his advent. The welcome which would have greeted a little girl must be put aside — forever?

Lying here in this pleasant, spotless hospital room, surrounded with all the equipment which modern science considers necessary to the adequate carrying out of this immemorial process, I ponder the enduring miracle, — the only one the scientists have left us, — the miracle of reproduction. We may and do understand every step of the process, but the sum total is still a miracle which remains ever fresh even to the most hard-boiled obstetrician and to the flightiest little nurse. The entire matter is miraculous — the potentialities that lie in the infinitesimal germ; the growth of the fœtus, repeating the various evolutionary stages of its remotest ancestors, in nine months accomplishing in embryo what it required nine million ages to accomplish in evolving man; and finally the miracle transcending all the rest — the almost instantaneous change from the unconscious to the conscious, from darkness to light.

For a moment I wonder how, after considering the transfiguration of birth, it is possible to despair over death. Is the survival of a personality after death more incredible than that personality’s nine months’ accretion of a human habitation? Is the transition from life to death more utter or more violent than the change from the dark, still warmth of the womb to the unresting brilliance of the outer world? Science, which in the last few years has answered so many erstwhile insoluble questions, has as yet no satisfactory answer for these.

II

Begetting . . . bearing . . . burying. ... As they were in the beginning, are now — and ever shall be? These three immemorial processes on which our world is founded are as yet fundamentally unchanged. That is to say that, although man has learned to some extent to regulate the first two, and to postpone the last, the processes themselves remain the same. And since the memory of the whirlwind of pain which I have lately encountered is still vivid, I cannot but wonder whether man’s regulation has not somehow thrown a monkey wrench into Nature’s machinery. Physically, at least, I am a strong woman. The doctor and the nurses are surprised because I am able, unaided, to sit up on the second day after the baby’s birth; but I imagine that, compared to the Russian peasant or the Indian squaw, I make a poor showing. I imagine, too, that, except in times of great natural catastrophe, the death rate among the untutored savages was not much higher than is our own. I believe that, as long as Nature had complete charge of affairs, birth, though a more complicated performance than begetting or dying, was still much simpler and easier than it is to-day. What mother of human babies has not envied a cat or a dog mother the comparative ease and painlessness, and above all the rapidity, with which her babies arrive? When man was merely the highest of the mammals instead of a being little lower than the angels, birth was probably as simple for woman.

But the complexities of civilization — particularly, I suppose, of clothing — gradually increased the complexities and rigors of childbirth until having a baby was for the mother almost as dangerous as going to war was for the father. Then it dawned upon man that his methods, in respect at least to birth, seemed to be no improvement on Nature’s, and he set to work to remedy the trouble. Obstetrics became a science instead of a side issue, and by dint of perfect sterilization, innumerable appliances, and a great advance in technique and prenatal care, childbirth is now as safe as — or perhaps safer than — it was in the time of the cave man. I maintain, however, that even yet it is more painful, and in this belief I am borne out by the doctors whom I have consulted on this point. Birth is, if we stop to consider, almost the only natural function that is painful, and that fact alone seems to indicate that somewhere down the ages a monkey wrench jammed the machinery so badly that not all the ingenuity of the medical profession has as yet been able to straighten things completely out.

Physicians have, however, done a great deal to remedy matters, and would probably have done more if they had been able earlier to rid themselves of the inhuman belief that the suffering incident to childbearing was Eve’s just punishment for her tempting of Adam, and that in any way to lessen it would be to run counter to the will of God. It is probable that in a few more years some method will have been worked out which will render birth almost completely painless. If that day ever comes, it will be interesting to see what effect it has on the birth rate. I may be mistaken, but I am inclined to believe that if women could be absolutely sure of painless birth they would, particularly among the sheltered classes, be more ready to put up with the discomfort of the preceding months.

Birth, besides being the most painful, is certainly the most distorted of the natural processes. A modern delivery room, with its astounding array of implements, its blaze of light, whiter and far more intense than that of the sun, its huge mirrors, its masked and hooded attendants, and the concentrated essence of suffering that seems to permeate its white-tiled efficiency, is as impossibly nightmarish as any scene from one of Wells’s earlier novels. But while I believe it would, on the whole, be an excellent thing if the pain of childbearing could be done away with, I must nevertheless admit that that very suffering does considerably enhance the ultimate beauty of the miracle. The old theologians showed insight when they spoke of the cleansing power of pain. After the agony is over, one does most literally feel washed out — cleansed within and without. For an all too brief space the mistakes and follies of the past are dimmed and one’s own life seems to start afresh with the baby’s.

III

Where can you find a greater miracle than the concrete presence, the infinitely delicate flesh and blood of a baby? It almost seems easier to bring the dead to life than out of a single tiny germ to create a whole new being — new in the most absolute sense of the term, since never before has just this congeries of potentialities been gathered into one small bundle of humanity. And what other miracle has the instant universal appeal of the miracle of birth? Wise indeed were the fathers of the early Christian Church who chose the Infant Jesus as the symbol of their religion. What other part of the New Testament drives as straight to the heart as does the picture of the worshipers around the Baby — a scene which every day is countlessly repeated?

New babies are perhaps not beautiful, but the fact of their existence is; and so, taken separately, are many of their features. All my babies have had hair, — lovely silken floss, — which not all new babies do. But all babies have their tiny perfections: infinitesimal finger nails and toenails, ears as absurdly lovable as those of kittens, skin unbelievably fine and soft, and, when they are kept as they should be, a warm and delicate fragrance. Then there are their little cat sneezes, their sudden cavernous yawns (which they always seem to consider a tremendous personal achievement), their Indiarubber mouths, their mutable noses, and an utter dependence on the good will of humanity that wrenches the heart. There are also the resemblances to various relatives and ancestors that constantly cross their tiny faces. Some days the baby looks like an aunt, sometimes like the picture of its great-grandfather, sometimes like a brother or a sister, and finally, as one grows more accustomed to it, like itself.

There is, however, more to a baby than its flcsh-and-blood perfections, satisfying though these are. There are the individualities which from its earliest advent mark it out as different from any other personality under the sun. Anyone who has had much to do with small babies will tell you that the lay idea that all new babies are alike is as fallacious as the idea that all Negroes are alike, or all Chinese. There are, of course, certain resemblances. New babies are all toothless, all more or less mottled and wrinkled, all have baby-colored blue eyes without vision, but their individualities are as marked as their resemblances. Even though they spend practically their entire time in slumber, there are decided differences in the way they sleep. Some prefer to sleep on their faces, some on their backs, some with their arms flung up above their heads, some with their fists clenched, some with their hands folded, and one at least — Powel, latest of miracles — with his tiny, long-fingered hands clasped over his eyes as if to shut out a world he regrets having entered. Perhaps some day psychologists will determine the character of the adult by watching the baby’s habits of sleep.

There is individuality in the way a baby kicks and in the way it cries. I was once in a ward in a big New York hospital where there were twenty mothers and twenty babies. The ward nurse told me that by the end of the second day any ordinary mother could distinguish between her baby’s cry and that of any or all of the other nineteen, which I can readily believe.

IV

To appreciate the fullness of the miracle, one must take care of the baby one’s self. Other people can look after the house, but it is, I think, a mistake to surrender the privilege of caring for the baby. He will probably do very well under the ministrations of a nurse, but his mother is missing one of life’s most poignant experiences. For unless she looks after the baby herself, she misses the day-to-day development, the growth and the unfolding which make looking after a baby one of the most fascinating of occupations. Then, too, she does not satisfy at the right time that feeling of complete possession which is a deep primordial instinct. A baby is intimately your own as is no other object in all the world. But it is only in babyhood that he is thus entirely yours, and I believe that too many mothers relinquish their babies to others during the only period when they can justifiably absorb them. Then later, when they should be relinquishing their children to themselves, such mothers allow their feeling of possession full and detrimental sway.

Looking after a baby is not the sentence to hard labor that the average doctor’s manual or advertiser in the woman’s journals would imply. In one book that 1 recently read the equipment for bathing one small baby took up three pages of description and would require a separate shelf in the bathroom to hold it all — which seemed to me more than a little ridiculous. Under ordinary conditions the equipment necessary for a baby’s bath is only slightly more elaborate than that required for the average adult, and the bath itself is a simple and pleasing rite. It is the time when the baby is at his fascinating best, and his development — both mental and bodily — is most marked. No matter what of his care I leave to somebody else, I always give him his bath myself. If I do not, I feel that I am missing half the pleasure of having a baby. It does not take long. Indeed, as a rule, two hours a day properly distributed amply cover the time required for his actual care; and if anyone knows of a better or pleasanter way to spend two hours, I should like to hear of it.

Babies ought to be fun, and that they are not generally so considered is due, I think, to the doctors, who, in their eagerness to correct the hit-ormiss methods by which children used to be brought up, have now transformed the care of them into a duty to be performed with the meticulous exactness accorded to a laboratory experimentAs usual, the golden mean lies between the extremes. Babies need cleanliness, proper food, and a regular routine, but they do not as a rule need constant sterilization of everything that approaches them, complicated formulas, or absolute rigidity as regards times and seasons. There is no reason why the advent of a new baby should entirely dislocate family life; the sooner he adapts himself to the family, as he will, if given a chance, the better for all concerned.

Billy and Francis, and particularly John Robert, are eagerly anticipating the time when they can have our baby at home and show him to their friends. Their exclamations of delight as he curls his little long fingers around a nonc-too-clean boyish thumb, or of wonder at the softness of his cheek as a brown hand gently brushes its incredibly fine satin, absurdly bring the tears to my eyes. When Billy says, ‘Hey, Mommy, the guy’s making faces at me; he’s giving me the razz’; when Francis says, ‘The puppies were cute, and so are the kittens, but I think a little baby like this is the cutest thing I ever saw’; when John Robert is for once speechless before the perfection of tiny hands and feet, I realize that in their different ways they are all manifesting a really active pleasure in our miracle — a pleasure that will cease to be active if the baby at home lives in the scientific vacuum which seems to be the medical ideal.

V

A question which I had long ago discarded as solved rises up to haunt me as I lie here with little to do but think. All my adult life I have been an ardent upholder of the theory of birth control, and I still feel, as it seems to me every sensible person must, that unlimited procreation is a bad thing. But, the longer I live, the greater my wonder whether there is not more to be said for Nature’s way of doing things than man in his wisdom is willing to concede. Certainly there are valid arguments against birth control, though the omniscient Mr. Brisbane’s hoary chestnut is not one of them. For although it may well be true, as Mr. Brisbane ever and anon reminds us, that under an adequately organized system of birth control neither Napoleon nor Abraham Lincoln would ever have been born, yet it is more than possible to believe that Napoleon’s eternal relegation to limbo would have been no detriment to the world, and it is equally possible to imagine that the loss which the world undoubtedly would have sustained had Lincoln never lived might have been amply compensated for by the scarcity of the Jukes and others of their kind.

To my mind the principal argument in favor of birth control is a general one — namely, that in time it will do away with hereditary disease and eventually, perhaps, will help to solve the slum problems in the great cities. My principal argument against it is a purely personal one — that under its benevolent tutelage Billy, Francis, John Robert, and Powel would never have existed. (It is all very well for the upholders of birth control to say that every child has a right to be wanted, but I should like to know what proportion of even the best-loved children were wanted in the sense of being deliberately planned for; what proportion were neither wanted nor unwanted, coming, so to speak, of their own volition; and finally, what proportion came contrary to wishes, hopes, and expectations. I venture to assert that the last group would equal either of the other two, if not both of them together. And even those children who are definitely not wanted win their way into the group of the most dearly loved.) For my own part, I am free to confess that not one of my children was ‘wanted.’ Not one of them was justified from the economic point of view (which of course is the sole criterion to the worldly wise), and yet there is not one of them who has not immeasurably enriched and deepened my life, and for whom I am not profoundly grateful. Perhaps Nature or Providence, or whatever gods may be, knew better what was good for me than did I, since I now find in my children my chief justification for existence.

I am, in fact, beginning to subscribe to a belief which I had hitherto been inclined to consider a relic of Victorian sentimentality — that children, more than anything else, represent the complete fulfillment of the normal individual. So much so, indeed, that perhaps we are wrong to desire a more thoroughgoing survival of personality than that of us which continues in our children and in our children’s children. If we are sufficiently interested, we may thus ensure that the best of us, at least, lives on, while the unworthy perishes with the flesh. Rupert Brooke’s wellknown line, ‘Their sons they gave, their immortality,’ may be the expression of a truth more clearly recognized by the coming generation than by the preceding one.

I know a young man who has just completed his third year at a great state university. At twenty he has the pleasant poise that comes from an unforced and thoroughly adequate adjustment to the conditions of his life. Taken all the way round, he is the type described by his contemporaries as ‘ smooth ’ — which means that he somewhat more than lives up to the university ideals of good-fellowship without at the same time too much sacrificing his scholastic standards. In spite of his youth and his membership in the group type which ordinarily skims most lightly over the surface of the universe, he has always been interested in the things of the spirit, and is a young man to whom some form of spiritual life is of real importance. That the form alters from time to time is inevitable, but that the spiritual maintains its place in his cosmos is significant. Through his study of anthropology he has come to share the conviction that our only continuation of personality is through our children — a form of survival which he finds sufficient for himself, since he has no strong desire to continue his individual existence. I think he shows a mature point of view for twenty when he says he considers that the greatest contribution he can make to the world will be his children — that to bring up children who improve on their forbears will do more for the race as a whole than will any purely personal achievement. In other words, he believes that his children will represent his justification for existence and its only continuation.

Taking his fraternity as a typical university group, he tells me that only about a fifth of the men apparently give any thought to such matters, but that a good three fourths of the ones who do think about them share his views. If he is right, perhaps in time the low birth rate among the so-called educated classes may take an upward turn.

VI

There is still another reason for believing that the next few years are going to show an increased birth rate among the university group. It seems to me that the pendulum has passed the middle of its swing and is definitely toward the right, so that the women who fifteen years ago wanted to ‘express themselves’ in any way, so long as it was not through children, have been superseded by girls who show less interest in expressing themselves and more in — miracles. At all events, I have been somewhat surprised to find that the young people I know best show a real intention to establish families, and I have been astonished to find that, in spite of the depression, men and women alike are hoping for comparatively large ones.

I do not know whether this desire is Nature working through instinct to replenish a gap left by the war, or whether it is the result of loneliness in childhood, for members of the present college generation are rather apt to have been ‘only’ children, or else they come from very small families with a considerable interval between additions to it. At all events, the idea is a good one, for not only is the larger family group better for the children, — who are not so apt to be handicapped by an over-concentration of attention on the part of the parents, — but it is also better for the parents themselves. Having one or two children only is putting all your eggs in one basket. If anything happens to your one or two, your entire life is dislocated. If your family is larger, no matter how deep your grief, your life still maintains its continuity and direction. Its sheer momentum will carry you over the worst and support you until your daily living is no longer purely mechanical, and something of your old zest comes back to you. . . .

I wonder if there are other miracles which should have been mine — if in limbo there are still spirits which through the centuries have waited for me to evoke them. If I had left matters to Nature, perhaps the little girl for which my heart so yearns would even now be a member of our family. It is more difficult to evade Nature than Death. Death is sometimes cheated, but Nature never. Run counter to her, and sooner or later you pay a penalty. Perhaps my daughterlessness is the price I am paying. And yet, in this day and time, how is it possible to give Nature full and unlimited sway? It surely must be better to leave some spirits in limbo than to bring them into the world handicapped by heredity or by some grave deficiencies that are the result of one fundamental deficiency — the lack of money. Yet when I look at the baby, so wonderfully perfect, so fresh and sweet from the dawns of Paradise, I feel that one could never have too many of such miracles.

I look once again at the sleeping baby, miraculously compact of infinite possibilities, and my mind drifts toward the future. What does it hold for him? Sorrow and pain, I know. A fair measure of happiness, I hope. O years, be kind to him; he is so small, and so pitifully short the time during which I can protect him from life. To-day so tiny, so new a miracle, hardly later than to-morrow he will have grown a boy, and I must let him go as I am even now letting go his brothers, who already have their own friends, of whom I do not always approve; their own opinions, which often run counter to mine; and their own interests, about which I hear but in which I cannot share. The world of my love is already too small for their exclusive habiting, though I trust that they feel it as the secure background of their lives. But at present the baby is all mine, and for him, at least, I utterly suffice.