I don’t love my children the same way.
At least, I don’t if “love” is more often an action than it is a feeling. (And I truly believe that’s the case.)
I love—the feeling—both my children fiercely and deeply in equal measure, if a mother’s love is something that can actually be measured.
But I do not love—the action—my children in the same way, because love has to look and sound like something to the person being loved, and my two children see and hear love in different ways.
Not long ago, my teenager taught me some new ways to love.
Loving my first baby through the teenage years did not really prepare me for walking through those years with her younger sister. My older daughter is my pleaser, my child who has me listed as “mommy” on her phone and jokes we won’t have to worry about her coming home for Christmas when she’s an adult because she’s never going to have left in the first place.
My second and last baby is my strong-spirited child who often prefers quick side hugs and who’s called me “mom” for a long time. She’s fascinating and intricate and determined and so insightful. She’s a complex puzzle worth putting together and a dance worth every tricky step.
But parenting her has been an intense experience.
With her, I needed to find ways to love a child I wasn’t always sure even liked me. I needed to learn how to give out love that was not always obviously given back.
This was love the choice, the decision, the action, and I had to learn how to do it as I went along.
I learned to still say the words “I love you.” I learned to say them even when I didn’t feel like saying them. I learned to say them when they were only returned with a mumbled “love you” as my daughter bolted out of the car in the school drop-off line. I learned to say them when they were not returned or acknowledged at all. I learned to still say them, because no matter what, they were (and are) still true.
I learned to speak love in other languages. I learned to speak it in the dialects of small gifts and acts of service. I spoke it by stocking up on the protein bars my high-schooler took for lunch every day and by washing her dance clothes, babying them along on the gentle cycle and pulling them out of the load before it got thrown into the dryer. And sometimes, I spoke love by forcing myself not to say anything at all.
I learned to show love by showing up. My daughter was stoic and stone-faced and made no eye contact when she filed past me sitting in the stands at her marching band competitions. She did not get out of line to come give me a hug or even say hello when I handed out third-quarter snacks to her bandmates after they played their halftime show.
At her awards ceremonies, there was no option of a photo-op with her smiling proudly, standing between her dad and me and displaying the certificate we added to the collection we’d started in kindergarten. But I kept showing up for those things anyway, because love shows up. I kept showing up because whether or not it mattered to her that I was there, it mattered to me that she knew I was there. And I kept showing up because there is power in presence.
I learned to love by taking what I could get with gratitude. One early morning, when my daughter got in the car for the ride to school, she surprised me by enthusiastically asking, “Did you smell the air? Did you smell the Froot Loops?” (We live near Battle Creek, Michigan, the Cereal Capital of the World, where the air some mornings does, in fact, smell like Froot Loops.)
Her question caught me off guard that day because morning conversations were usually limited to me asking when she needed to be picked up and her responding with the fewest number of words necessary for communicating information that would keep her life on track. That day, I could have answered her tersely, as she often did when I ask her about something. I could have reigned in my response in anticipation of being rebuffed. But instead, I made myself take the moment for what it was.
By grace, I matched her enthusiasm and told her, “Yes! I did! Isn’t it great that we live in a place where this is what we get to smell in the mornings?” I learned to receive gifts of interaction and connection as they were offered, not because I was groveling but because I was trying to be grateful.
I learned to love by reinforcing the good. At the last home football game of her last marching band season, my drum line girl was in a familiar funk. Also familiar: I had no idea what the problem was. I asked if she was okay even though the answer was obvious, and she muttered something about a cramp and wandered off. We picked her up at the end of the night, and her ear buds immediately went in as usual, but when we got home and were walking into the house, she said, “Oh, Mom, I wanted to let you know that I did have that weird cramp and I thought the rest of the night was going to be miserable, but I ended up laughing with my friends and having a really good time.”
“I’m so glad to know that,” I told her. “Thank you for telling me.” In that particular season, there was much I wanted from my daughter that I didn’t get. So when she gave me something I wanted more of, I learned to put an exclamation point on it.
Loving my incredibly wonderful but sometimes prickly teen was tough sledding at times. Even now, I’m still never quite sure how things are going to play out. But here again—as in all of parenting and, well, in all of life—I have to remind myself that my job is not the outcome; my job is the input.
So, I’ll remember these lessons from the past and carry them into the present and future. I’ll keep trying to learn how to love in new ways. I’ll keep inputting love while I hold fiercely to hope that the outcome will be love received and love given back.
by Elizabeth Spencer