Recently, my wife explained to a friend that having a newborn child was like having a dog—only except ten times more difficult. Her explanation made me think. Dog parks, pet-friendly cafes, and “dog moms” abound. When we lived in Nashville, it seemed like there were more pet services than day cares. It’s almost as if people would rather have a cat than a child.
Animal cruelty is met with scorn, while abortion is celebrated. Pets are seen as precious, but children in the womb are a different story. Having a pet? A chore, but fun. Pets are easy: they eat, sleep, play, and repeat. Having a child? Inconvenient and dangerous. How could I possibly raise a family in this world? Too much responsibility is involved, and too much uncertainty. My newborn daughter is three months old, and I can definitely say that raising an infant is inconvenient. Raising a child is like raising a dog. The dog is sometimes more entertaining! When you get your first dog, there’s some cleaning involved, but you don’t lose much sleep over it. When you have your first child, you are constantly on call.
It’s a bit cynical to think of a child as an inconvenience. Most people don’t think like this when they go to the pet store. But if you asked, how many people would say that there is barely any qualitative difference between caring for an infant and caring for a dog?
Yet there is a difference, and it is crucial: your child is a person. There was no escaping this fact when I first held my daughter in my arms. This is a new person. Who will she be? How will we shape her? What did I do to deserve her? Seeing her grow and make discoveries, I know that I could never have created my daughter alone. She was a gift. I did not decide her sex, birthday, or physical characteristics.
I call her my daughter, but I can never claim ownership over her in the same way as I do a pet. In the next two years, her will and intellect will appear more prominently. She will learn, think, and make decisions. She will become more and more interesting, expressing what was always there: her personality, her “person-ness”. Even at conception, this was on the horizon.
Pets are ours in a way that people are not. They are given to kids as rewards, something earned for good behavior. Wild animals are independent, but we can domesticate them without scruples. Animals are simply not people. Holding a puppy will never be the same as holding an infant. We never think, “How will my dog change the world? Will she become a guard dog or the president?” For pets, virtue, vice, and contemplation are impossible. They do not act but react. As long as their basic physical needs are met, they are fine.
Raising a pet is simple. We never really have to worry about animals taking over the world. We don’t have to teach our pets workplace etiquette or history. Leave a three-year old cat in a field, and it will manage. Do the same for a toddler, and he won’t last a week. When you factor in morality, things get even more complicated. Children need to be taught good from evil. They need to moderate emotions. This takes much more effort than teaching a dog new tricks.
With great effort comes great reward, however. Receiving the gift of another person is astonishing, and there is nothing quite like raising a saint. Parenting demands sleepless nights, canceled engagements, and agonizing decisions. Parents cannot get away with meeting their child’s basic physical needs and walking away. Good parents must be selfless and sacrificial; otherwise, they will be dealing with a malnourished, unhappy, and underdeveloped child. Sacrifice is a requirement, not an option. Parenting demands love.
As a new father, I understand the gravity of this statement. When I found out that my wife was pregnant, I knew I had a choice to make: sacrifice my own preferences and be a good husband and father, or live life as usual and fail to meet the needs of my family. I had to make a decision, whether I wanted to or not. On the other side of that decision was either growth or stagnation. As a new parent, you are confronted with the choice: either become the type of person who can raise a newborn to be a saint, or do not. Eternity is at stake.
This is the critical point: raising a child well demands holiness, which is why it’s so inconvenient yet so rewarding. Holiness is arduous. It demands putting yourself last. It is this arduous journey that leads to the greatest joy. Proceeding down this path means happiness, and completing it means heaven. Taking the step to sacrifice for your family means becoming more virtuous. Once we embrace a life of sacrificial love, we begin to act as God acts and see as He sees. In parenthood lived well, we gain a mature perspective, learning more about what it means to be a person and what it means to love a person.
Having a pet is simple. Make sure its basic needs are met, and everything is fine. Nothing heroic is required. You can still experience the finer things in life: a quiet evening alone, a night on the town, an extravagant vacation. But when you have to raise a child, things are different. You are forced to deny yourself and give everything for the sake of your child. It is exhausting, but if done well you can form a saint and become one yourself. It makes you realize something important. The finer things in life aren’t things: they’re people.