Query the internet for advice on sleep-training an infant, and you’ll learn that both deciding to sleep-train and deciding not to sleep-train are virtually indictable offenses.
You have to—don’t you realize that you are responsible for teaching your child to sleep?
You simply can’t—don’t you realize you are torturing your child?
To be fair, the internet reliably produces similarly contradictory results for seemingly every parental inquiry. But the sleep-training results are a bit more earnest, fiercer—like a baby’s cries after having been left alone for twenty minutes. Or, for that matter, like the cries of an overtired baby.
My wife and I are new to parenthood. Every day now we have a child older than we’ve ever had before, yet the fact that we have a child at all has barely settled in. Nor does the verb have seem quite right. A few weeks into my son’s existence, I said to my wife: “It’s funny that he lives here now.” That sentiment now seems more appropriate to me than the possessive verb have. We do not have a son, in the sense that we have a laptop. There are obvious differences: he didn’t arrive with free two-day shipping, he didn’t come with a warranty, he doesn’t recharge electrically, nor does he have a mute button. The laptop does, more or less, what I tell it to and nothing more. I don’t expect to be surprised by my laptop. When I put it down, it goes to sleep. When I want to, I wake it up. Not so with our son. Our son is ours in the sense that he is our responsibility. We take care of him, and we love him. But, at the tender age of just a few months old, he is already his own person. And he is making his presence known.
Sometimes, we wake up because we think we hear him cry even when he’s not crying.
I’ve taught several introductory philosophy classes at several Christian universities, so I’m used to students asking me how there could be a God if there’s evil in the world. I think my best answer so far has been: it doesn’t make much sense, does it?
In surveying historical responses to that question, I often show them what Thomas Aquinas says in his Summa Theologiae, in one of his replies to an objection to the existence of God. There, he quotes and endorses St. Augustine: “Since God is the highest good, he would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” When I read this to my students, their dissatisfaction is palpable. No college student I’ve taught is ready to make this deal: we’ll tolerate evil and suffering, so long as we get some good out of it. Instead, they’re often much more willing to say: take away my freedom if you have to—just stop allowing evil and suffering.
To assuage them, and to be honest, I tell my students that I consistently find this response dissatisfying myself. Sometimes, we go on to discuss other ways of understanding this response, or other ways of responding to the problem. But discussion of the ostensibly undeserved suffering of the innocent rarely leaves us comforted, even when students feel as though they have made their tenuous peace with the problem.
I don’t have a God’s eye view of my son. When he finally falls to sleep, exhausted, puffy-eyed, after crying for forty minutes straight on his second night of sleep-training, I am still on edge, worried that he’ll wake up, that he’ll hate me in the morning, that he’s not actually learning from the experience, and so will do the same thing again tomorrow night. He seems to suffer, and to suffer at my hands. Or, rather, at the lack of my intervention. I could hold him, soothe him, sing to him. He could sleep in my arms.
But we’re allowing him to work this difficulty out. We see the good that it is to be brought out of his temporary discomfort. Several days later, when my wife and I awake at seven in the morning with the realization that the night has passed and our son is still asleep, we breathe tentative sighs of relief. We wonder whether we would have only made sleep more difficult for him had we intervened, had we kept him from this difficulty.
The analogy here is a loose one, but the experience is softening, or reframing, my understanding of St. Thomas’s response. I see a little more clearly now how the allowance of suffering need not be thought of as an aloof and passive response, but as a loving and chosen one. That the response need not be construed as offering justification for suffering, but rather the redemption of it. I lament suffering, and the discomfort of sleep-training, no less. But I am a little less dissatisfied with St. Thomas’s response than before. I certainly don’t have a God’s eye view. But I’m starting to have a father’s.
Weeks later, my wife and I still occasionally awaken thinking that we have heard our son crying even when he is not. But more often, we find ourselves eagerly awaiting his waking. Now, when he awakes, well-rested, we go into his room to see him. He looks up at us, kicks his legs, stretches his back, and smiles.
Drew Alexander is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Boston College, and adjunct faculty in the philosophy department at Assumption College. He lives in Boston with his wife and son.
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