The Weight of my Child’s Gaze

Correggio, "The Adoration of the Shepherds/The Holy Night," 1522

My nine month old* son doesn’t weigh too much. Twenty-one pounds at his last doctor’s appointment, which is well close to triple his birth-weight. I’ve begun to sense a hint of fatigue in my arms after holding him for a while. But then again, I most often lift him at will, hold him close, often without even noting his weight. All said, twenty-one pounds is not all that much weight. But his body is not the only weight that I encounter when I am holding him. For weight, of course, is a relative measurement that, unlike mass, changes depending on factors like gravity… or perhaps love.

St. Augustine, a man always restlessly searching for the strength to love God as he knew he ought to love God, wrote in his Confessions, My love is my weight.” Weight, for the fifth century theologian bishop, was the force immanent to each thing that moves it to its proper place: a heavy rock falls downward and fire yearns upward. Spiritually and morally, weight both directs us to, and provides the momentum that carries us along toward, our deepest loves. These loves become the criteria by which we judge everything else and through which we ascribe meaning and value. In the words of Pedro Arrupe, S.J., they decide “what breaks your heart and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.” Our decisions and actions are oriented by our loves. Where goes our love, so we follow.

And the force of my son’s weight on my heart has become a new gravitational pull in my life. He looks at me. While he’s drinking from his bottle and opening his mouth for a spoonful of pureed vegetables. When he’s lying on the changing table or in his crib, awakening from a nap. As he’s trying to walk and as he’s giggling in excitement. As I had heard that becoming a parent is transformative, I anticipated much. But I hadn’t the slightest inclination about the power of his gaze. Two blue eyes. Eyes that, for the first weeks, could hardly focus; but come my first real eye contact with him, my love was redirected and I was remade.

But as he continues to gaze at me I’ve found that part of me actually wants to look away. It’s that deficient and inarticulate part of me that is frightened I will not have the strength to bear his gaze and bear all it demands of me. I’m reminded of the words of French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion, who asks, “Why is it that he, or she, whose gaze weighs upon me, why is it that this gaze has become the constituting moment of my life? The constituting moment of my life is new, and the whole of my life is re-aligning itself with respect to the weight of his gaze. And that gaze—if I dare bear it—calls me out of myself. I find that my understanding of who I am is being slowly redefined in light of those two big blue eyes.

The weight of love draws me with its relentless gravity, and I find, almost daily, that moving along into that very pull paradoxically strengthens me for an unfamiliar but refreshing resistance. American theologian David Tracy observes that,The most powerful acts of resistance are often those where the first lesson is to resist oneself.” And that’s just it—I am now more able to resist those distractions that, until his birth, occupied so much of my attention. He has reoriented my love. My love for him carries with it a new concrete desire to be a father who brings to him joy, comfort, and an excitement about all things holy. And this desire necessitates something else: that I look at myself more honestly. I am slowly learning to see and abandon all those little pleasures with which I used to cling to: rest, ambition, and the liberty to do what I want when I want. Though not problematic in and of themselves, the relish with which I reveled in liberty and the aggressiveness with which I sought it run counter to being a good and loving father.

And I now want to abandon these insignificant pesky things. His gaze invites me in a new direction. I now would rather be up in the middle of the night when he needs me than have energy the following day. I would rather be at the table with him and—repeatedly, again and again, and replicated—pick up the sippy cup he has cast to the floor than have the precious me time that has, up until recent months, given me calm. I am even coming to grips with the reality that the dissertation that I am currently writing will most likely be missing something in the end, a certain je ne sais quoi lost in yet another diaper change.

But it is slowly—and admittedly with some difficulty—becoming easier to be good. Easier to be good. Easier to love. Very little else in my life does that for me. Less still can also attract me to that goodness with such clarity. Who I am is now and forever significantly determined by his gaze, a gaze that gives new strength and love in an almost profligate manner. And insofar as it is a choice to love him (for the greatest freedoms in life may well be characterized by how little intentional deliberation is required for us to choose what we ought to do) I find myself wanting to want this new love to redirect, reform, and renew my life.

Twenty-one pounds is not all that much weight. But the weight of his gaze—the invitation to move away from the insignificant and pesky things that occupy my attention and move toward him in love—has pulled me in. And I am amazed with joy and gratitude.


* I wrote the draft of this reflection some time ago, and my son is now much older. But the weight has, if anything, only increased since then.