When it hurts to carry your child

I should have picked some other verse for 2023. Something that has to do with health and victory and success. Instead, I chose a Psalm about suffering and tribulation, and how I need to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

Be careful what you pray for. Because not two days into the first year, as I was setting down a bucket of rice, I felt something snap in my lower back and I fell down on my butt with a cry.

“Oh my God, are you OK?” my nanny exclaimed from the dining room. She had heard me crash onto the kitchen floor, and she came rushing over with Tov in her arms.

“I think I tweaked my back, is all!” I replied, getting up. I could feel the instability in my lower back, but I wasn’t in horrible pain.

“You’re doing too much. You need to sit down,” my nanny ordered.

I couldn’t sit. We had moved into an Airbnb while our house undergoes renovations, and I had just lugged two heavy bags of items from our freezer to the Airbnb that needed to be put away. The place was a mess and needed organization. Tov was running out of solid foods and I needed to make more. I haven’t had lunch yet, or even my first cup of coffee.

So I hoped and wished that it wasn’t that big a deal. I took a hot shower. I massaged my back muscles. But as the day went on, I knew I had done more to my back than a slight muscle strain. My torso was all wobbly on top of my hip, and I could feel a dull, throbbing pressure on my lower back.

Oh dear.

The very thing I had been fearful of has happened, and all because of a bucket of rice that wasn’t even 10 pounds. The last time I hurt my back about three years ago, it had taken months to recover. But I had a baby. I didn’t have several months to lay off heavy lifting. Yet each time I picked Tov up or nursed him, I could feel the grinding pressure on my vertebrae.

Hmm.

I found a chiropractor, and she took some X-rays of my back. When she sensed some intense pressure on my neck, she took X-rays of my neck as well. She showed me models of vertebrae in various stages of degeneration. “If you’re here,” she said, pointing to the second vertebrae, “I can help you back to here,” she pointed at the healthy, normal vertebrae. “But if you’re here,” she pointed at the third vertebrae, “I can’t get you back to normal. By then we can only try to prevent you from getting here,” she said, pointing to the fourth vertebrae whose disc had degenerated so much that the bones were jiggedy-jaggedy from rubbing against each other.

Uh-huh. My stubbornly optimistic self immediately assumed I can’t possibly be the third or fourth vertebrae. I expected a full recovery after a few months of recuperation. Annoying, but not a big deal.

I got my test results two days later. The chiropractor marched into the office and once again explained the various stages of disc degeneration to me. I began feeling uneasy– why is she going through this again? And then she announced, pointing at the third vertebrae: “You are here.”

Oh no. Oh no.

I felt my belly sink. She began explaining to me what happens to the disc when it goes through constant wear and tear. How the disc is supposed to act as a jelly-like shock-absorber, and how when it degenerates or oozes out, it no longer protects the spine as well, and how that affects the nerve system, how that affects everything from my thyroids to my digestive system to my wrists. She held up charts in front of me like a lecturer, and I stared blankly at them, not hearing anything she’s saying.

All I could hear was, “If you’re here, I can’t get you back to normal”– and stare at that stupid, broken third vertebrae with the decayed disc.

Turns out, I have degenerative disc disease on my neck, upper back, and lower back. A couple dics on my neck had degenerated enough that the cervical spine was curving the opposite way it’s supposed to. That was triggering the nerves down my arms, which explains why I suddenly can no longer rotate my right wrist without sharp pain. My bad neck is why my back gave out– it was over-compensating from the misalignment in my neck, which then caused a misalignment in my back and hip. It’s not technically a “disease”– everyone has degenerative discs at some point due to aging– but mine is pretty early for a 35-year-old, possibly caused by my young gymnastics/Taekwondo days, two car accidents, the physically grueling task of childbearing and child-rearing, and me constantly cracking my neck and back several times a day for years.

“You probably want to kill me for this news,” my chiropractor said. “Maybe you want to toss me out the window.”

I think she might have said a “but” afterwards with some better news about treatment plans, but I didn’t hear it because all I could hear was a loud buzz of worry– what does this mean? Will I be able to wear and carry Tov like I did before? Will I be able to have a second kid? Will I be able to lift weights again? Run? Carry heavy groceries? Travel? Will I have chronic pain for the rest of my life? Become a hunchbacked cripple?

The chiropractor asked me what I wanted: Did I want to focus on pain relief? Or try a treatment plan to correct the misalignment, though the result is not guaranteed?

“I just want to be normal again,” I said, swallowing back my tears. “I want to be able to carry my baby.”

How strange, when at that moment, every day before the diagnosis suddenly felt like the golden happy days. Post-diagnosis, the future felt bleak and gray. The chiropractor put me on a six-month, 22-treatment plan, open to adjustment if my body doesn’t respond well to it. I hate such uncertainties. I wanted to hear a confident declaration that yes, the treatment will 100 percent work, and you’ll be back to running 4 miles and doing 150-pound leg presses in no time! But I returned home with no such promises and a disheartened heart.

That weekend, David fell sick. He mostly stayed supine in bed, groaning and moaning about his pain while I moved around the house with a back brace, a wrist guard, and ice packs on my neck. Add to that a pumping device and I felt like some kind of barn animal. I had been expecting him to help out more with Tov, but now I had two babies to take care of– one small and cute, the other big and not as cute. As much as I felt sorry for David, I also seethed. Where was help when I needed it? Who’s taking care of me?

That Sunday, we had planned to go out on our first date since Tov was born. David’s cousins had offered to babysit Tov while we went out. They were busy people so we had booked this date a month in advance. Now we had to cancel, and instead of a romantic dinner out, I spent that evening watching Tov while David passed out on the couch.

“Oooh I feel like I’m dying! This is the worst pain I’ve ever felt!” David moaned.

“You’re always saying it’s always the worst pain you ever felt,” I said suspiciously as I made him some hot mint tea, while wincing from the tension around my neck and back. I grumbled to myself that if the male species ever had to go through childbirth labor pains, all of them would probably die off from the pain and go extinct. Or maybe they’ll survive, just so they can live another day to complain, as they seem to enjoy complaining. (But then, if the male species died off, what would the female species have to grumble about? Because I think secretly we women also like to complain about our men.)

Two nights later, as David lay in pain on the couch again, after I had finally put Tov to bed, after I had finished up washing up the dishes, I finally reached my end. My back and neck were killing me. I still had work to do, but how is it already almost 9 pm already?! I felt overwhelmed thinking that this might be my future for God knows how long. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I just wanted to fling my braces into the garbage disposal and destroy things. All the helplessness and anger and frustration swooshed out into hot salty tears as I gingerly tried to stretch out the knots in my back, feeling like a broken, pathetic creature.

David saw my tears and sat up, alarmed. “You need help?”

Yes. Is there a magic pill to revert my body back to a 22-year-old’s? No? Then you’re useless too!

I swallowed my bitter words. “You could have helped wash the dishes.”

“Oh! Sorry, I didn’t know.”

“I shouldn’t have to ask.”

“Sorry, I thought you were done with the dishes when I was changing Tov’s diaper.”

“My back’s killing me and I don’t feel like it’s getting any better. I feel like it got worse.”

“I’m sorry. How can I help?”

“I actually dread taking care of Tov now. Just nursing him is so uncomfortable. I hate feeling this way.”

“I think you chose a good verse for this year: Be still.”

“Yeah? Be still? Well, I can’t be still when we have a baby!”

I felt this crushing, devastating longing for those childless days when I didn’t have to constantly pour out to someone. I wanted to run. I wanted to hide. I wanted my old life back.

But then I looked at our baby cam. Tov was sleeping on his belly in his crib. I always put him down on his back, but within a minute he always flips over to his stomach. I looked at the soft, fine hair on the back of his head. The tiny side profile of his face, the sliver of eyelashes. The little fists by his side. As much as I earnestly missed the old days, I can’t imagine life without him anymore.

It must be the grace of God for parents, that as exhausted and overwhelmed as we are, every time we look at our child, we get injected with a shot of happy endorphins that help us persist one more day. And that’s all I needed– one little shot of energy to survive this moment, just one more burst of strength to carry on another day, until a new morning.

Be still, and know that I am the Lord. Stop fighting, and know that I am God.

I was fighting, constantly fighting– for control, for production, for the self-rewarding sense of fulfillment of tasks completed and well done, for a lifestyle from the old days that is no longer realistic, for security and comfort. None of those are bad things to desire, but there are times when I’m grasping for too much, too fast, all at once, and I feel like I’m always rushing and huffing after something that’s dancing and skipping away from reach.

Breathe in, breathe out. It is 9:15 pm. Soon, the day will be over, never to come back. In several hours, I will greet another new day.

Breathe in. Be still. Stop fighting. And in the half-minute it takes to breathe out, meet God. That’s all it takes, just like seeing Tov sleep is all it takes to remind me of the joy of motherhood, when motherhood feels like an utter burden.

Lord, you are God. You are the God of the universe. You are my God. I see you. You see me. You made this body that I detest right now, but for all its wear and tear, it got me through this day: I woke up. I carried and nursed Tov. I did the dishes. I finished the day. And tomorrow, it’ll get me through another day. Thank you. Amen.

Entering 2023

On New Year Day, the first day of 2023, David and I began our day with an argument.

It was Sunday, and our church had canceled church service for Christmas and New Year. David and I had found another nearby church that we could attend instead, and I had been excited to check out this church. Except we forgot something: We have a baby who scoffs at our plans.

Church service starts at 10:30. It was 10 am, and Tov decided it was nap time then. We shouldn’t have been surprised– that’s usually when he starts getting extremely fussy and tired. We put him down for a nap. And then came time to make a decision: Do we wake him up mid-nap and risk him being super loud and tired during church service? Or do we skip church and be bad Christians?

David didn’t want to risk it. The church we were visiting is a small church– maybe about 25 people. We are new, and it’s already 10:15, which means we will be late. It would be awkward, he said. What’s more, we had a full day ahead of us: We were renovating the kitchen and bathrooms, so we had to move out to an Airbnb that day, and we really needed Tov to be calm. Can’t we just worship and pray at home instead?

I wanted to go to church anyway. I didn’t care if people stared at us– we have a baby! People will understand. Who cares if we enter late with a screaming baby and people look at us? The point was to be at church. By then I had already missed several church services because of travel. I wanted– needed– spiritual fellowship.

We argued back and forth, and 10:15 became 10:20 and then 10:25. My frustration fizzled out like a shaken Coke bottle. By then, I lost all desire to attend church as well. I was feeling bitchy, being a bitch, and thinking really uncharitable things about my own husband. What’s the point in going to church now? I’ll be carrying into a sanctuary the worst attitude to worship God.

“Forget it,” I snapped. “Let’s just not do church.”

“We can pray,” David offered.

“And who’s going to pray? You?” I spat.

Then Tov woke up. He must have been stirred awake by my sharp, raised voice. And he was hungry.

I took Tov to our room to nurse him. He looked up and smiled at me, oblivious to the turmoil in my heart. I forced a smile on my face.

As I nursed him, I felt like a fraud. What a contradiction– here I was, nurturing and nourishing my child, while inside, the contents of my heart were toxic, chaotic, harsh. I was feeding my child while starving my own soul, and poisoning my husband, the father of my child. This wasn’t a one-time thing– for some time, I’ve noticed myself getting irritable over everything, and the target of my ire was often David.

Meanwhile, Tov looked up at me and smiled and smiled with such adoration.

“You have no idea who your mother is,” I whispered to Tov. He smiled, delighted that I was talking to him. Will he look at me with that same love, even when I inevitably also lose my temper with him one day? Is this the kind of mother I’m going to be to my child? Then I broke down, shaking with silent sobs, overwhelmed by the giant conflict in my soul.

Tov must have sensed something, because he was no longer smiling. He went still and nestled on my lap quietly while I hugged him and wept. “You poor thing,” I said, “You poor thing. You are innocent of all of this.”

We parents often obsess over creating a safe and secure environment for our kids. We have a baby camera. We got a baby-proof gate for the stairway. We will be getting rid of the sharp-edged coffee table once Tov becomes more mobile. Our strollers and car seats come with all these annoying but safety-minded straps and buckles. We even got a dechoker (out of a moment of weakness while watching an ad, in which crying parents thanked the dechoker for saving their baby’s life after he choked on dinner).

But if Tov grows up in a home in which his own parents don’t get along, all those physical safety measures won’t protect him from the trauma of emotional instability and unrest. David and I currently have a good marriage. We get along well and rarely argue. But I could see, if these little tiffs and irritations and flare-ups don’t get corrected along the way, we might end up in a counselor’s room five years down the road, when by then, Tov would have already sensed something is off.

All statistics say that the vast majority of couples report a steep decline in their marital relationship after the arrival of a new baby. Mothers are more likely to report dissatisfaction, often because women tend to become the “default parent.” I already feel like the default parent– and I don’t want to become part of that statistics. Marriage is meant to reflect the love of Christ and his church. I don’t want to model a skewed vision of that for Tov. I don’t want to introduce any impediments to his relationship with God.

As I held Tov and reflected on my own heart, I thought of the verse I had pinned for 2023: “Be still, and know that I am the Lord.” Well, if this isn’t confirmation that this was the right verse for me this year. I took a deep breath and tried to quiet my soul, and be still in the Lord. I kissed Tov’s forehead, and thought of God kissing my own forehead. I caressed Tov’s brow, and thought of how I used to caress David’s brow. I looked at Tov’s handsome face, and remembered how handsome I think my own husband is, how beautiful and perfect a creature we created together.

And then I got up and sat next to David on the couch.

While I had my moment with God, David had his, and his eyes were red and wet as well. He had just read Psalm 51. He turned on some soft instrumental worship music his mother used to love. He shared what he heard from God, and I shared mine. We apologized to each other, and then we hugged and kissed– a group hug between David, Tov, and me.

Tov, crushed between us, squealed and giggled. Even at 7 months old, I notice that Tov loves it when David and I are together, when we show affection to each other. It’s incredible and awe-striking, what an infant can sense at a time when he can barely express himself. Truly, God’s design for marriage and family is real and beautiful. And it’s amazing that He uses a little 7-month-old to remind me of that.

I hope Tov remembers me

It’s Day 10 of my trip to Ukraine. Day 10 away from Tov. It’s the longest I’ve been away from him.

Every day has been busy. My mind has been busy. The stories I hear, the sights I see, the faces I’ve come to know– all of those things have kept my mind and heart full. And still– even in my busiest moments, with all that’s happening, with the constant booms of Russian artillery in the near distance, with my fingers as cold and stiff as frozen french fries, there was always a tugging on my heart.

One night, I had a terrible dream. I dreamed that I returned home from my trip, and I acted like I would normally do before I became a mother: I threw off my shoes, puttered around the kitchen, went grocery shopping for snacks, took a nice nap, made some milky coffee, read some books…and then I jolted upright with a start: “Oh shoot! Where’s Tov?” It was like my brain, in the subterranean dreamworld, so accustomed to 34 years of childlessness, had forgotten I had a son.

I remember in my dream running to Tov’s room. I found him lying alone on his crib, busy kicking his feet as he always does. “Hi Tov!” I exclaimed, reaching for him. “Omma’s back! I missed you!” All the while, I felt massive guilt for forgetting he even existed.

In my dream I picked him up and held him. I missed him and longed for him even as I held him. My new motherhood sentiments flooded in like a tsunami. I kissed and cuddled him. And then I looked at his eyes, and his big eyes looked up at me without recognition. My son stared at my face with interest, as though meeting me for the first time. He looked at me like he looked at a stranger, and at that moment I realized, with a dark, sinking feeling, He does not know me.

Oh Tov! Oh Tov, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I wept and wept and wept with inexpressible disappointment and sorrow. My heart felt hollow and rank, like a hole sinking into the deepest, dankest sewage tunnel. I cried so much I woke myself awake, and was surprised that I hadn’t drenched my pillow with real tears.

I awoke still feeling that sorrow that my seven-month-old son has forgotten his mother. And even now as I write this, my eyes sting with tears. It is strange, this feeling. Before I left for Ukraine, my abba told me to hurry back, because my son needs me. But my son seems fine. He has David, and my mother, and our nanny taking care of his every need. So it feels like rather than my son needing me, I’m the one who needs him.

Tov, if you ever one day read this, I hope you understand this heart. When I fail you, when I lose my temper with you, when I vex you, I hope you remember my heart. I don’t know what kind of mother I’ll be, but know that when I became a mother, I gained love as I’ve never had before, fears as I’ve never experienced before, and sorrows that I’ve never felt before. I will never be perfect for you. And you will never fully understand me, as all children never fully understand their parents.

But I hope you’ll at least understand that my heart is for you. That you have changed my world, and that that world belongs to you even when I’m halfway across the world. As it should be. Because that’s how God created it. He created a parent’s heart to reflect His heart for us. And if you don’t understand my heart, I hope you’ll at least understand His, this desire to be known by you.

Dear Tov. I’ll be back soon. Because this omma needs you.

First international work trip as a mother

I am currently in Warsaw, Poland, at a hotel as I type this. I had planned to wake up at 7 am so I can take advantage of their superb free breakfast, but I was so zonked out that I slept almost 10 hours and woke up right as the hotel breakfast time ended. It was the first time I got to sleep more than six hours straight since Tov was born.

I was in this same exact hotel nine months ago. It feels like a lifetime ago. How different life is now. How different I am now.

Nine months ago, I was six months pregnant. I woke up multiple times during the night because I either had to shuffle to the bathroom or had to shift positions due to a bulging belly. Last night, I woke up several times throughout the night not just because of physical discomfort (oh, the joys of breastfeeding), but because my subconsciousness woke me up to check the baby camera app, just to make sure Tov is sleeping through the night. I wasn’t worried about Tov. I was more worried that David would get no sleep.

He got no sleep. The baby cam app alerted me that Tov was crying in his crib at 2 in the morning. I watched as David lumbered into Tov’s room and stuck the pacifier into his mouth. An hour later, Tov wailed again. Again, the pacifier. Then he cried again. And again.

Poor David. Poor Tov.

There are times when I miss being a single, independent woman, because then, I was free of such relations, in which I am beholden to others and others are beholden to me. I could go on a two-month work trip without worrying about inconveniencing anyone except myself.

This time round, on my first international work trip since I became a mother, my travels affect not just me but my husband, my almost 7-month-old baby, my mother– who flew to LA to help take care of Tov– and my father, who lost his companion. I have new worries now: I have to make sure I keep my milk supply up while on long flights and train rides and drives; I have to hurry back home as soon as possible so I’m not gone too long from the family; I wonder how my long absence will affect Tov’s stability and happiness.

And also, how I miss that babe. On the plane, a couple in front of me had a baby about Tov’s age. Pre-Tov me would have inwardly groaned, dreading being stuck on a long flight with a crying baby. Post-Tov me smiled at the little round head of this baby and longed to stroke the back of Tov’s head. In Warsaw, as I walked the streets, all I saw were babies– babies sleeping on strollers, babies in their parents’ arms, toddlers wobbling on little feet– and each time, I missed Tov. I missed his stubborn tuft of hair. I missed his sweet milky scent. I missed his tiny fingers wrapped around my thumb. I missed his smiles and yawns and giggles and coos. Heck, I even missed his screams and cries.

The day I left the country, I wanted both David and Tov to drop me off at the Dulles airport, though my parents offered to watch Tov. I wanted to be with Tov till the last minute. He fell asleep while we drove to the airport, with his fingers clutching my finger. At the airport, I tried to say goodbye to Tov, but he had his eyes firmly closed, his mouth busy sucking at a pacifier.

“Tov, Tov. Open your eyes. Look at omma. Tov,” I begged, but he let out a cry of protest, eyes still closed. I kissed his head, kissed David goodbye, and walked into the airport with my luggage, heart full of thoughts and emotions.

This is my first time entering a country at war. Every news coming out of Ukraine was no good: Russian missiles are striking cities and villages, pummeling Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Last week, even Kyiv lost power for days, and millions in Ukraine still don’t have electricity or running water. Meanwhile, the weather is below freezing, and nighttime falls by 4 pm. I am most certainly going to freeze my ass off. I’m not even sure how I’ll get out of the country once I figure out my return date.

Of course, I didn’t have to go to Ukraine. But I am. Because pre-Tov me would have. Because there’s a war going on in Ukraine, and there are stories there that I want to cover. Because even as a new mother, I don’t want to lose certain parts of me, though I suppose that’s a very modern, individualistic sort of mindset that would be foreign to non-western women a hundred years ago.

But I did lose some things. I’ve lost hours of productivity at work that I now give to a very needy human being. I’ve lost the ability to be spontaneous and carefree. I’ve lost the liberated sense of being a rootless nomad, where home is where I hang my hat. I’ve lost the freedom of being able to travel without something tugging at my heart.

And you know, I am fine with it. Because that tugging of my heart means somebody is waiting for me. That I have a home now. That I now have a family– people who are beholden to me, and I to them; people who miss me, and I them. I miss, because I have. And for that, I am grateful.

A baby’s smile

I have a love/hate relationship with those developmental milestone charts.

On the one hand, they’re helpful in keeping track with your baby’s developmental progress. You know what to anticipate so you don’t get freaked out when the baby suddenly regresses on sleep, for example, or don’t think your baby’s hungry every time he sucks on his fingers. On the other hand, when your baby is developmentally behind, like mine is, those charts get rather annoying.

One milestone I had been eagerly awaiting, ever since we brought him home from the hospital, is Tov’s first genuine smile. He’s been “smiling” since he was a newborn, but those little smirks were not genuine smiles, but baby reflexes, almost always while he’s asleep, or when I touch his cheek. So as cute as those smirks were, they weren’t all that special. I couldn’t wait to see Tov smile for real– for him to look me in the eyes, and then intentionally stretch his mouth upwards into a smile, just for me.

According to those charts, a baby’s first social smile happens around eight weeks, or between six and 12 weeks. Well, six weeks passed. Then eight. Then 10. Twelve weeks. And Tov still wasn’t really smiling. There would be little flickers of sorta kinda smiles, but those smiles were gone in an instant, making me think they weren’t really smiles but random muscle reflexes. Plus, he wasn’t even looking at me when he “smiled.” So I continued to wait. And wait. And wait. Three months. 13 weeks. 14 weeks. No smile.

The pediatrician had told me that because Tov is a premie, he might be a little behind. He might take a year to catch up to the median weight. I was fine with him being a little small– I now understand why so many parents mourn that their kids are growing up too fast. I love Tov being small. It’s good for both my back and my soul that I can still cradle him in one arm. But damn it, I really wanted him to smile soon!

So I tried to hurry his progress along. I looked him in the eye and talked to him, in both Korean and English. He mostly looked away. Stared at the ceiling fan, the wall, the sofa, everything except my eyes. I sat him on his bouncer and read to him. I read him a children’s bible, but he yawned, that little heathen. So I read him a book about choo choo trains, using sound effects and everything, and he seemed a little bit more interested and looked at the book for a few seconds, but didn’t smile, didn’t last more than five seconds before reverting his gaze back to the ceiling fan.

Desperation calls for self-humiliation. I sang. I danced. I sang about hopping rabbits while hopping on all fours. I sang “Jesus loves me” and made hand motions by crossing my fingers and making finger hearts. I sang nonsense– “boop boop boop, la la la, kkaa reeee reeee reee!”– while swaying my hips and flapping my arms like a mad monkey.

All the while, my child looked bored and even…judgmental. This was his expression as his mother sang and danced and made a fool of herself just for the sake of a smile:

That little brat. That little judgy brat. Fine. You don’t want to smile? No smile for you!

But…I can’t help it. I look at that face and my mouth naturally smiles. My mouth naturally wants to kiss him all over. My adoration for him just burbles and froths like a soda fountain, and my child just sips at it, because he is saturated to the tip of his hair strands with his mother’s love, and he doesn’t even know what life is like without it.

Not even four months into motherhood, and I am taken for granted. Woe is me.

Then one evening, we went to a party. It was David’s cousin’s 50th birthday, and they invited us to their house for a birthday dinner. It was the first large gathering we attended altogether since Tov was born. I dressed him up in his cutest outfit, but he pooped all over it– twice– so I changed him into his second nicest outfit. No matter– at least in my eyes, he can wear a poop-stained farty sack and still be the most adorable living creature on earth. I was grateful that others also found him lovable, and Tov received so much love at the party. Aunts and cousins held him, cooed over him, bounced him, cuddled him.

And guess what. That boy SMILED. Not once, not twice, but many times! He smiled and smiled! At other people— while his mother, the woman who carried him in her womb for 35 weeks, who suffered all the aches and indignities and agony of pregnancy and labor, whose shirts are permanently stained with milk, who has aged 10 years and frightens herself every time she looks in the mirror– that mother who sacrificed so much for this child! She! That mother! She sat right next to him watching her baby smile at literally everyone except her.

Oh that little…

Then the next morning. Guess who he smiled at?

Oh no. Not me. Not his poor pitiful mother. He smiled at his father. David was sitting him on his lap, when Tov peered into his eyes and presented him with a wide smile.

“He’s smiling!” David exclaimed.

“What!” I yelped from the kitchen, and rushed over. Tov took one look at me and stopped smiling.

I went back to the kitchen.

“He’s smiling again!” David shouted.

“Oh my God!” I rushed back, and Tov stared at me with no smile.

I did finally see him smile for myself. Why? Because I hid behind the house plants while Tov smiled at my delighted husband. Why are babies such jerks?

I knew that to Tov, he and I are one. He spends more time skin-on-skin on me than with anyone else, and he’s still too young to separate his identity from mine. So I wasn’t hurt. Just majorly annoyed, that’s all. Just like I’ll be majorly annoyed if he says “abba” before “omma” and David is certain to gloat about it.

The next morning, I was nursing Tov while looking at his darling round-cheeked face, when I thought, “Why not pray about this?” It just seemed like such a trivial silly prayer request. But the Bible did say “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” In every situation, the Bible says. Not just with serious critical situations, the Bible implies.

OK then. So that morning, I prayed, feeling a little silly, “God, let Tov give me one smile, just for me!”

Tov finished feeding. I burped him. Sat him on my lap facing me. Talked nonsense to him. He stared at me. Then, to my great amazement, he SMILED! Not just a little side smirk, but a full-on eye-crinkle smile!

I almost fell off my chair. “Oh my God! Tov! Did you just smile at omma?” I exclaimed.

And then…he smiled AGAIN! A wide mouth grin! A smile so pure, so guileless, so rich and sweet! All the while looking at ME! Not at the aunties, not at my husband, not the ceiling fan, but at ME! I was so thrilled I smothered him with kisses, to which he responded by turning his head with a grimace. We’ll work on that (or I should probably get used to it), but HALLELUJAH praise the Lord! My child smiled at me!

Since then, Tov has been smiling more and more, and although I’ve collected dozens of smiles by now, every smile is still a heavenly gift, like a kiss from an angel. I waited exactly 100 days for Tov’s smile, and the wait was worth every ridiculous dance, nerve-scratching baby voices, and reading the same boring choo-choo train book over and over.

It’s interesting, that a human being is born crying from the womb, but it takes weeks for the child to learn how to smile. Tov knew how to cry from the moment he arrived, but he needed another human being to learn how to smile, and even then, it can take some coaxing, with lots of eye-to-eye interaction and communication.

I think a lot about the Lord’s joy in us as I experience a parent’s joy over her child’s joy, and how that joy is so interpersonal and communal. I’ve always loved that verse in Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

What a tender, joyful way of expressing the Lord’s heart towards us! Just like I sit Tov on my lap and sing to him, joy burbling as I sense his own joy, smiling a hundred times more at the sight of his one smile, the Lord rejoices over us with gladness and loud singing. We need His joy to learn joy, we share that joy with one another, and we need each other to express that joy.