Penelope turns two in December. Whenever we go for a walk, there are three things she loves to point out: Doggy! Kids! Baby!
She particularly loves babies. She’s got a keen eye for them, and when she spots one she’ll sprint over to it shouting: Baby! Baby! Just as I am ready to throw myself between her and some stranger’s infant, her whole demeanor will change and she’ll whisper softly: bay-bee. She’ll ever-so-gently stroke the baby, melting all hearts within a hundred-foot radius.
Penelope has a baby doll of her own. She takes it for walks, rocks it to sleep, offers it milk. We forgot baby at Penelope’s grandmother’s, and she misses it terribly. We keep talking about getting a new baby but there’s something about this that doesn’t quite feel right. Baby was a hand-me-down from Penelope’s cousins. Maybe it’s easier to care for someone who has been cared for before.
The other day I was having a tough time and started crying. It was one of those full-body cries and I sat on the floor letting it all out. Penelope came up to me, she’s about my height when I’m sitting, and put her hand on my shoulder. Daddy, she said gently. And stroked my arm.
The care that Penelope and many other kids her age show is a bit hard to explain. Developmental psychology tells us that Penelope is only now becoming self-aware, and that empathy is a long ways off. An analyst might say that Penelope is performing care, mirroring what she’s received from her mom and dad.
Those explanations don’t quite do it for me. There is something awesome about the way Penelope cares: pure, complete, neither partly-formed nor derived. Hers is naked care. Care without an object, and thereby capable of taking on any object.
Here’s one of the countless ironies of parenting: seeing Penelope’s wide-open caring makes me painfully feel my own care narrowing. Fatherhood has kicked into gear a feeling of obligation, something like: I would do anything for my family. Implicit in that is a word-splitting mandate of care: family is that which I must care about at all costs; not-family is that which I must not care about.
Penelope has no such filters. She is a radiant sun of care, shining her light in all directions, but especially toward dogs, kids, and babies.
She shows me how to care. Reminds me that caring is who I am.