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.
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.
I was about six or seven years old. School had ended, and I was on the school bus, on my way back home. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking, but I remember I was quiet, withdrawn from the chatter in the bus. I had not been feeling well that day at all, but I didn’t really know that I was feeling sick, nor did I tell anyone that I felt unwell.
The school bus dropped me off. As I walked towards home, I spotted both my parents standing in front of the door, waiting for me. Their faces lit up when they saw me, and they opened their arms with bright smiles. I don’t remember what they said. All I remember is their smiles– the warmth, the love, the familiarity. I was home. I was safe. And all of a sudden, I burst into tears. And as my parents opened their mouths in alarm, as they ran forward to hug me and ask me what’s wrong, I realized then that I needed their presence to finally feel safe to cry, to express in my childlike way that I am not well.
For some reason, this memory came to me as I sat at the waiting room for my optometrist. I was running out of contact lenses and needed a new prescription to renew them. Before the appointment, I had managed to put Tov down for a nap, and I had expected to be back within an hour, but the optometrist was late for my appointment– very late. I had to wait 45 minutes to finally see the optometrist. While waiting, I checked the nursery camera on my iPhone– oh no. Tov is up! He’s wiggling and wailing in his crib!
So there I was, waiting for the optometrist, while David was downstairs in his office stuck in a meeting, and Tov was just crying and crying with nobody to respond to him. My gosh, how that wrung my heart! I wanted to scream at the optometrist for making me wait for that long, jump into my car, zoom back home, and scoop Tov into my arms.
I used to hate the sound of babies crying. I found them as annoying as the sound of forks scraping the surface of a dish. Whenever I heard a baby wailing at the store, or on the plane, I felt my ears bleeding from the noises raking at my eardrums. But something incredible happened when my own baby cried– my heart swelled. My love for him doubled, tripled whenever he cried. It’s not like my baby’s wails are any less loud or shrill than other babies’. It’s just that…he’s my baby, and he needs me.
Often Tov cries for no apparent reason at all, other than simply reminding us that he exists. He’s been fed, burped, changed, played with, cuddled with, and he will still let out a cry, just because he can…and just because he knows we will respond, even if it’s in the middle of the night. Because as young and helpless as he is, he knows the power of his cries in the ears of his parents. He knows. Just as the seven-year-old me subconsciously withheld my tears until I saw my parents, because I knew nobody would respond as warmly and lovingly as my own parents could, two-month-old Tov intuitively knows that when he cries, my heart instantly wrings and swells.
I think about how God called David a man after his own heart. That is one of the most tremendous statements in the Bible, that God, who hates unrighteousness and injustice, would call David– a murderer, an adulterer, a rapist, and a failed father– a man after his own heart. But as I read the songs that David composed in Psalms, I wonder…perhaps God calling David a man after his own heart isn’t based on David’s qualifications, but on David’s ability to cry and wail to God with full confidence and assurance that God listens and responds. God called David a man after his own heart because David understood the heart of God– that His is a heart that wrings and swells when we cry out to Him. Calling David a man after God’s own heart isn’t a testament to David– it’s a testament to God– to His goodness and compassion and steadfast love. It is a praise to God, not David.
Just read out Psalm 62, in which David wrote: “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.”
And Psalm 42, one of my favorite passages: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
What I sense in these psalms is that David knew deep into his marrows that he is beloved by God. So when he is downcast, he pours out his soul to God. When he is happy, he pours out his soul to God. To pour out your soul is to be fully vulnerable and authentic, to reveal every part of yourself, to express every emotion and thoughts, to be boldly free and naked before someone without shame, regrets, or fear.
I love that. God, I love that. Even as an infant, we are born wailing needing so much love, more love than even our parents can ever satisfy, more love than we as parents can ever provide. We were born to be loved, because God created us out of love, and anyone who understands that is a person after his own heart.
I write this as my son is snug and secure in a wrap around me. These days, he refuses to nap unless he’s literally stuck skin-to-skin to me. I’ve tried multiple times to lay him in his crib, but each time, he spits out his pacifier, wiggles and squirms in his swaddle like a little Houdini, and yeowls like a wet cat until I pick him up and hold him close to me.
So I hold him tight. Even though it’s inconvenient, there’s also a part of me that delights that he cries for me, that he knows he’s safe with me. So I lay his little head on top of my beating heart, a heart that keeps growing in love for him by the day. He settles down, closes his teary eyes, and rests in peace. I kiss the top of his head, breathe in that newborn fragrance, and think, “If I can love my son this much, how much more my God, my creator?” And so my soul pours out to God– with praise, thanksgiving, joy, love– for I am beloved by the one who is love.
My parents flew from Virginia to Los Angeles to meet Tov in late May.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m an extremely independent person. I think I wear my independence like an envelope– it’s how I present and package myself. I like being independent, and I like being known as independent. So I assumed a lot of things about what postpartum will be like for me– I assumed I wouldn’t want any visitors at the hospital, no visitors at home, no advice or gifts or meals, just everyone, please leave me alone to figure this parenting thing out on my own. That included my parents: I assumed I wouldn’t really need them that much.
I assumed wrong. The day we got discharged, as a hospital escort wheeled me out to the parking lot, she exclaimed, “You guys just seem so chill! Most of the other parents I’ve escorted always look so terrified and anxious. But you guys don’t look anxious at all!”
That wasn’t true. There were plenty to be anxious about; we just didn’t show it, because everything had happened so fast, so soon, that we were suffering from whiplash and had no mental space to even feel anxiety. Right before we were discharged, the pediatrician told us Tov showed concerningly elevated levels of jaundice, and recommended we take him to the ER the next morning for another blood test. That day, Tov was so drugged out from his circumcision that he could barely sip 10 ml of milk, even though it had been more than four hours since his last feeding, and the lactation consultant had told me he really should be drinking at least 40 ml every two to three hours. The kid was so tiny at less than 5 lbs, fresh out of the NICU, looking a little orangey-yellow in the face, and he was coming home alone with clueless parents who didn’t even know how to buckle him into the car seat, how to burp or swaddle him. I wanted to borrow a couple nurses and take them home with me, because I had questions about questions I didn’t know. When we got home and parked the car in the garage, David and I looked at Tov and then at each other: OK. What now?
That was when I really, really wanted my abba and omma. It wasn’t even about asking them for help with the baby. I just wanted their presence, to feel safe and secure at a time when I suddenly had to provide safety and security to a fragile child of my own.
My parents arrived late at night on a Monday, while Tov was sleeping soundly. David picked them up at the airport and brought them home to meet Tov. Concerned about bringing germs and viruses, parents had said they would keep their N-95 masks on and just look at the baby in the crib. But once they saw Tov sleeping, at times puckering his lips and wrinkling his little forehead, they simply couldn’t help themselves– they gasped; they laughed in wonder; their hands naturally reached out to stroke his cheeks, his hair, his little bundled body.
And I didn’t care at all. I wanted them to touch my son, to embrace and kiss him, because I wanted Tov to receive all the love I’ve always received from my parents from birth till now. Because Tov needs his grandparents’ love. And because a mother also needs her mother.
The next morning, my parents came to our house with three huge boxes full of ingredients they had bought from the Korean market. They bought so much stuff that my fridge could barely stay shut.
Only parents would eagerly fly across the country to physically labor in their grown-up children’s house. I may be almost 35, but in my parents’ eyes, I need as much care and nurturing as Tov. As soon as they walked into the house, my mother was already tying an apron around her waist. Every day, all day she pottered around the kitchen, soaking and stir-frying seaweed for seaweed soup, marinating sesame seed leaves and cucumbers for kimchi, brewing dates for date tea, stewing pork ribs with spices for bak kut teh– all “warm” foods that’s supposed to help me recover postpartum. My father helped mince onions and garlic, vacuumed the whole house, watered and pruned all the plants in the house. Every evening before dinner, he prepared a devotion and prayed earnestly for 15 minutes while the food my mother prepared turned cold.
My parents came to our home with hearts full of love and arms full of blessings. And yes, they also came with fistfuls of unsolicited advice. Like all Asian parents, they were obsessed with avoiding anything cold.
“Aigo! Aren’t your feet cold?” omma exclaimed when she saw my bare feet.
“I just showered and didn’t have time to put on socks,” I said.
“Aigo!” abba exclaimed when he saw my feet: “You should put on some socks!”
“I will, soon!”
A few minutes later, omma: “Ommoh, it’s so chilly in this house! Hurry. Better put on some socks!” (It was 72 degrees inside.)
A minute later, abba: “Are you going to put on socks?”
Me: “Oh my God! I already said I will!”
This obsession with keeping the body warm went on the entire time they were with us. Just as they worried about my cold feet, they worried about Tov being cold. They closed the window when we opened it. They closed it again when we opened it again. Any time there was a slight breeze wafting into the house, they slammed the windows shut. They insisted on wrapping Tov in a blanket, even though we told them he easily overheats. They snuck an extra blanket over him when we weren’t looking. They exclaimed, “Aigo, I think he’s cold!” every time Tov sneezed, or grunted, or wailed, or fidgeted. My mother herself wore two layers of pants and woolly socks all day. And they both completely freaked out when they found out we fed Tov breastmilk straight from the fridge.
“Shocking!” abba muttered, wrapping his arms extra-tight around his grandson as though to protect him from any future cold beverages: “Unthinkable! We could never imagine ever feeding a baby cold milk!”
I expected all this to happen. I expected myself to get annoyed, and I did. Yet I also enjoyed every moment with them, because even their unsolicited advice and nagging were, in a way, loud proclamations of their love.
Abba left earlier on Saturday to preach on Sunday, while omma stayed an extra week with us. Every single day, any time he could, abba held Tov in his arms. When Tov made a noise in his crib, abba would zoom right over and scoop him up. He’d plop Tov (bundled in extra blankets, of course) on his round belly and just stare at him for hours while munching on glutinous corn on a chopstick, praying silently, or sometimes dozing off himself. Tov never napped as well as he did in his grandpa’s arms. He just melted right into his grandpa’s warm embrace, sleeping without stirring for three hours.
My omma, too, loved watching Tov. When the boy was especially fussy during the evenings, omma would prop him on her lap and sing to him– fun, silly Korean lullabies about fat papa bears and playful mountain rabbits, and the classic “Jesus loves me” hymn. Sometimes, she sang her own prayers for Tov in Korean and Mandarin to the tune of “Jesus loves me.” As she sang, “God, raise this child to be like his name, that he would enjoy your tov, and be tov and blessing to all!” Tov stopped fussing and just stared at his grandma with wide, bright eyes.
Oh, how full my heart was during those moments! Tov felt like the biggest gift I could give my parents– the joy of holding and loving the child of their child, the fresh marvel and joy of being grandparents. How powerful is this parental love, that it keeps flowing down from generation to generation without losing its purity and radiance. I want Tov to soak up all his grandparents’ love, all the way to his marrows. I want my parents’ prayers for Tov to move the hearts of every angel in heaven to keep and protect him from evil and brokenness. I want Tov to remember the scent and warmth from his grandparents, even if he won’t yet remember their faces and snuggles and coos. Few other things warm a mother’s heart like seeing her child be loved by others.
The day I dropped omma off at the airport, I felt a deep loss. David too said he felt weirdly sad saying goodbye to my parents. It wasn’t just about the convenience of having two extra pair of hands in the house. It was the security and comfort of having our own parents with us, like the coziness of a weighted blanket on a cold winter night, because every parent needs their parents, whether they’re five weeks old or 50. While taking care of my child, I– this proud, stubbornly independent, grown-ass woman– ached to also be cared for by my own parents, to once again be somebody else’s baby.
When we become parents, we see our own parents with new eyes. While my parents were here, abba and I talked about the way my brother and I were raised. I have my own minor grievances about the way I was raised, and I shared some of the instances when I felt my parents had wronged me, or misunderstood me.
Before Tov, some of those grievances still felt a little sore. But I was surprised to discover that the rawness of those childhood memories had faded away. Instead, new healthy skin had formed over that wound– the skin of empathy and compassion for my parents who were once in the same position as me: clueless, fumbling, clumsy, and fallen, but doing the best they can with the best love I could ever receive from a flawed human here on earth. Nobody loved me as fiercely and brokenly as my parents– and nobody loved me as well as they did.
My parents were raised very differently in a very different culture, and that generational and cultural gap will always be there between us, but this new unity of parenthood has unfolded a bridge between our two worlds.
Tov is five weeks old today. He’s chubbier and slowly growing out of his hospital blanket. His needs are more urgent, at least from the way he expresses it. At times, when his needs are not immediately met– (really, because this boy cannot speak! He just scrunches his face and wails! How is a mother to know if he can’t speak his mind. Speak, boy, speak!)– he gets particularly agitated, his hands clenched into little golf ball-sized fists, his legs kicking, his face all wrinkly and red.
It doesn’t matter to him that I’m holding him in my arms, showering him with kisses, showing him in every way possible that I love him. It doesn’t matter to him that I’m exhausted, that I haven’t had more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep for five weeks, that I lost the thing that was most important to me– my freedom– to him. He doesn’t appreciate this love, not yet– he just takes and takes as though receiving love is the most natural and expected thing in the world. Right now, he’s still very young, but one day, I’ll disappoint him even more. I’ll snap at him, dismiss his feelings, misunderstand him, force things on him– all the things parents do when they’re busy or selfish or tired or anxious, or simply loving their kids as best as they can with all their shortcomings.
Perhaps, one clear indication of maturity is when the child can look at all the mistakes of her parents, and respond with compassion and empathy. I hope one day Tov will do that for me– and if I’m lucky, I won’t have to wait till he has a child of his own.
He hates it especially when it’s in the middle of the night, when he’s half-asleep, drowsy from feeding, and I place him on his changing pad and tug off his soiled diaper. The moment he hears that diaper tape stripping off, he yowls. His mouth opens wide, tiny teardrops squeeze out of his scrunched eyes, and a howl bursts out of his tiny lungs, surprisingly loud and strong for someone who’s barely 5 lbs. He flails his twiggy arms, kicks his little pink feet, wiggles and squirms and wrestles as I try to put a fresh diaper on him. You would think I had strapped him onto one of those medieval torture boards. One time, he screamed so loud and so pitifully that David jumped awake and scampered out of his room in alarm (he must have sleep-walked, because he says he doesn’t remember this).
Sometimes I laugh out loud, because Tov looks so piteous and pathetic as he spreads his arms out as though crucified on the cross, wailing and yipping. Other times, even though I know changing diapers is for his own good and not in the least bit harmful, my heart breaks, because he’s clearly distressed about being laid bare and naked on a cold changing pad, the water wipes frigid and startling on his warm skin. I may know better, but I’m still his mother, and a mother hates seeing her child cry so miserably, even if it’s for the silliest reason. So whenever Tov expresses his displeasure during these diaper changes, I try to calm the guy by repeating, “You’re good, Tov. You’re good! Everything’s good.”
I’ve heard many mothers say their heart breaks as they watch their newborn. I didn’t really get that. Why would your heart break? I thought you were supposed to be overjoyed or something, but certainly not heartbroken. What a strange way to describe your feelings as you meet your newborn baby.
But I think I kind of get it now. Tov is so tiny that I can hold him in the crook of one arm. As I watch him sleep in his crib, a small figure dwarfed by a 52 by 27 inch mattress, his eyes shut in downward slits, his little chest lifting up and down with each feathery breath, my heart breaks. As I feed him, my thumb and middle finger supporting his head so it doesn’t loll about, as I watch his toothless mouth blindly root for food, my heart breaks. I don’t know how else to describe this feeling– it’s a love so wide and so deep and so tender and so mysterious that it breaks my heart.
My heart doesn’t break because it’s sad. It breaks– instinctively, naturally– because I’m gazing at the purest form of vulnerability in humanity. I can’t think of anything more vulnerable than a newborn babe. They’re utterly helpless, wholly fragile, yet radiating so many primal needs– not just for food, sleep, and shelter, but for love, for contact with another human being. From the moment he was born, Tov needs human touch like he needs air. I sense it, and I instinctively give it: I can’t help but kiss him all over every time I see him, even when he’s wailing (and mind you, I HATE the cry of babies) because his vulnerability triggers a tenderness inside me that is so wonderfully human yet so gloriously sacred.
Those instinctive kisses, that tender ache, are the sound of my heart breaking– or rather, it’s the loosening and softening of the rigid fibers of my “grown up” heart, so immunized to the harshness of this world, so desensitized to the sanctity of human life, so cynical to the condition of mankind. That’s the moment when I think about the day God created man and woman in His image. He glued together the whole universe for the pleasure of us humans, and declared, “It is good”– or in Old Testament Hebrew: “It is tov.”
We named our son “Tov” at a time when things weren’t “good.” David had just lost his mother to a car accident. She was a healthy, vibrant 64-year-old woman with at least 20 more healthy, vibrant years to live. One second she was on a walk she’s been on for years, and another second, she was gone. A month before, she was visiting us in Los Angeles, meeting my parents for the first time, learning to make kimbap from my mother, and beaming proudly next to David during our belated wedding pictures. Tragedies like this one remind us of how little control we have over our lives, how quickly life extinguishes, like flame on a matchstick. There’s grief, and there’s shock– shock that we had dared to forget about Death that awaits all of us.
On a lesser scale, things weren’t all that “good” for me career-wise. I was in the midst of an uncertain job transition. For someone whose identity is so wrapped around my career, it was an incredibly stressful time, in addition to dealing with losing my mother-in-law so suddenly, and dealing with the constant grief of my husband as we experienced our first Thanksgiving and Christmas without his mother. I too was reflecting on the fragility and vanity of life, but also the fragility and vanity of my own ego, identity, and self-worth.
Yet in the midst of this all, even at times when God felt far away, when “good” things seemed absent from our life, when I felt insecure and destabilized and unsure, I felt God’s presence. He was there, with us. He is here, with us. And His presence feels…good. Like Psalm 23 says, His goodness (tov) and mercy followed us every moment; His rod and staff comforted us. I sensed God’s goodness during the quiet still times, as well as during those tumultuous moments when an internal war raged inside me. Things suck majorly, but He is good. He was and is always good.
“Tov” has different shades of meaning. It means “good,” but not just in the simplistic English sense of “good.” In Hebrew, the definition of “tov” is rich and expansive. That word “tov” is used hundreds of times in the Old Testament to describe God’s goodness, His creation, our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, the community of believers. “Tov” refers to how things were meant to be, the way God created and intended, when heaven and earth marries into one. As such, “tov” is God in His whole perfection– perfect harmony, perfect righteousness, perfect justice, perfect peace, perfect love, mercy, patience, and grace.
This world we experience right now is not what it was meant to be. Death was not meant to be. Pain was not meant to be. Loss was not meant to be. Pride, ego, strife, bitterness, rage, jealousy was not meant to be. I know this truth deep in my soul, that something was not right with our world, but we also have hope, because we know God is in the midst of restoring this world. We see glimpses of tov– that wholeness, that goodness– in this world: through the mysterious peace and comfort in our soul; through the supernatural kindness and love of others; through moments like Tov’s birth, when we experienced God’s pleasure and delight in His creation.
My relationship with God has softened a lot over the years as I get to know Him more. As a child, I would sing “Jesus loves me, yes I know,” yet the image I had of God was a stern father with his arms crossed, shaking his head in disappointment each time I messed up. I would imagine him saying to me, “I love you, but…” Always a “but.” “I love you, but why did you do this and that?” “I love you, but you’re still not there yet.” “I love you, but it would be better if you did this and that.” I may be secure in God’s existence, presence, and salvation, but that mental picture of a disappointed, head-shaking father doesn’t exactly entice me to run to him for comfort and encouragement, or fall in love with him.
In the past several years, I’ve been reworking some of my twisted perceptions of God’s heart towards me, and especially so in the last three weeks as I hold my son in my arms, heart breaking at his utter vulnerability. There are many things I wish Tov would do– I wish he would gain weight faster, nap longer, eat more in one feeding, fuss less in the middle of the night. But whether he meets these wishes or not, I look at him, dirty diaper and wailing and all, and I think with fullness of heart, “I love you”– full stop, period. No buts.
The more I read the Bible and understand the Gospel, the more I reflect and experience who God is through the valleys and the green pastures, the more I realize that when God sees me, He smiles and says, “You are tov.” Despite all my sin and shame, He sees me through the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and sees tov restored in me. During those moments when I struggle and suffer and strive, I think God looks at us the way I look at the naked vulnerability of my son, and just as my heart breaks, His heart breaks.
That’s why we named our son Tov: Because not only is he just the most perfect creation ever, not only did he bring so much good into our life, but because he is the living reminder of God’s goodness, an imprint of God’s thumb, the warm, aching beat of God’s heart towards us: Tov.
He is Tov, and my prayer for my son, for as long as I live, is that he will be tov to everyone in his life, and spread the goodness of God to all. You are tov, Tov.