Tag: motherhood

How Do I Love Thee: On Comparing Relationships

Sepia historical photograph of a woman dressed as cupid next to a lion for Post How Do You Love Me by Malin James

Woman with Lion, courtesy of the Getty Museum

Every so often, my daughter asks me if I love her best.**

This is a tricky moment as a parent, because my impulse is to say, Yes! Of course, I love you best. It’s the answer she’s looking for and by far the simplest to give. But as much as my love for her is one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever felt, to say that I love her best does something that I’m not quite comfortable with – it accidentally reinforces a way of thinking about love that can lead to insecurity later on.

I realize that I might be overthinking this. Is there really any harm in telling her that I love her best?  There are so many things I don’t bother worrying about, like Santa’s existence or whether or not she believes in god. But reinforcing emotional comparisons feels oddly dangerous to me. It implies that love is a zero-sum game.

Love, like so many things, is contextually unique. For example, a person’s love for their child can be catastrophically powerful, but what if you have two or more children? Who do you love best then? That question is almost impossible to answer (without screwing up one of more of your kids), which is why “I love you all differently” is such a great response. It reinforces the love while avoiding the comparison.

Why is avoiding comparison important for all relationships (not just those involving multiple kids)? Because when you start to comparing the different loves you feel, you risk diminishing all of them. Love isn’t measurable or quantifiable, but comparing relationships with the intention of weighing who is loved best imposes finite limits on an emotion that is naturally infinite.

The real question is what underlies the comparison. Not to get all cold and pragmatic about it, but what it really comes down to is resource distribution. We’re a fundamentally competitive species because our survival depends on it. We commodify resources because resources, whether emotional or physical, have a value rooted in survival. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

So where does love fit into that? Love is a resource too, or rather, the safety love signifies is. As a species, we evolved through dark nights full of predators that wanted to eat us. Abandonment = death. We are literally hardwired to fear being cast aside, and one of the best guarantors of that not happening is love.

When my daughter asks me if I love her best, she’s expressing a really basic concern: If a lion grabbed Daddy and me, would you save me, even if it meant not saving Daddy? (For what it’s worth, the answer is yes. Her dad’s okay with that). The anxiety that underlies the question is instinctively human – so much so that it shows up in all kinds of relationships, not just those between a parent and child, but friendships, business partnerships and romantic relationships.

While love is definitely not a zero-sum game, survival is, and at a very basic level, we have tied security to love and pain to exclusion. That’s why, in poly relationships, it’s important to be patient with a partner’s fears and insecurities. That sort of status anxiety is hardwired into us and, for most people, it takes a bit of effort to work through.

The impulse to compare is an instinctive attempt to see if our position in the relationship is safe. Unfortunately, it’s also a great way to torture yourself into fearing that it’s not. In the end, it’s about security. The surest way to avoid the trap of comparison is to address the underlying concern. If a person is secure in your love for them, they are less likely to be worried about your love for others.

In the end, it’s not about who is loved best, but how you are loved. Are you  loved well? Is your person’s love a revelation? A homecoming? A whetstone? Is it a soft blanket on a rainy night or a delicate porcelain vase? The how says so much more than any comparison could. The how is about the two of you. The how is solid ground.

**NB: Chunks of Browning’s Sonnet 43 are the answer I give my daughter when she asks me how I love her…that and “I love you bigger than the galaxy and 9 million stars”, which is really pretty big. 

 

A Girl’s Guide to Growing Up

Mother and daughter by Pascal Campion

Image by Pascal Campion

Today is my daughter’s 4th birthday. It’s an unabashedly happy day, but for me, deep down, there’s also a little edge of melancholy to it… or, if not melancholy, contemplation.

When I look at her now, I see only a shadow of the moon-faced baby I had four years ago. She’s left that phase and has enthusiastically assumed the role of little girl. Of course, the irrational part of me wants to fill my arms with her while I can, because I know it’s only a matter of time before I look at her and see only a shadow of the little girl she is now. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m indulging that irrational impulse. I’m kissing and swinging her and holding her hand like it’s the most natural thing in the world because, right now, it is.

That irrational part of me wants to keep her a girl forever. But the rest of me knows that, for all that I love and protect her, the best thing I can do is to teach her how to love and protect herself. Right now, I’m reveling in the fact that she’s mine, but that’s temporary. My claim on her will last only as long as it takes her to grow up and claim herself. My most bittersweet job is to her develop the skills and self-possession she’ll need to navigate the world on her own.

That means being open to things that are, quite frankly, frightening and complicated from a parental perspective. The irrational part of me would love to keep her sheltered and unquestioning, but that would do her a massive disservice. I grew up in a family that never talked about sex (or mental health or anything unpleasant or difficult). I know how damaging that can be, even in the most loving household.

So now, while she’s little, I’m making a list of things I want to talk to her about as she grows up. It’s not comprehensive, nor do I think it ever could be. If nothing else, it’s a blueprint, one that I know will get altered by improvisation depending on what’s relevant to her at any given time. In my head, I think of it as a sort of guide to growing up, but one that will grow with her.

Right now, the list is full of things I wish I could have talked through with my mom; things to do with sex, identity, body image and shame; things that I figured out on my own, sometimes at great cost. If I do it right though, the list will stop reflecting my own experiences and become entirely defined by hers. In the end, it is not about me. It’s about her and what she needs at any given time. That said, the list as it exists is massive. It has bullet points covering everything to sex to science – way too much to reproduce here. So instead of trying to get it all in, I’ll leave you with…

A Very Partial List of Things I Want to Tell My Daughter in Completely Random Order

  1.  Masturbation is good, healthy and wonderful. It is nothing to be ashamed of. If and when you want your first vibrator, I’ll be thrilled to take you to buy one. But one word of advice – vibrators are awesome, but it’s easy to get dependent on them. Try to learn your body without one first.
  2. Learn to how to please yourself. Even more importantly, communicate what you like to your partners so they can please you too. Try not to fake your orgasms. Try to voice your needs instead.
  3. Virginity is important, but not in the traditional way. As a symbol of goodness, it’s useless – goodness is better measured by what you do and how you treat people, not by the state of your hymen. That said, your first time (whether it’s oral, penetrative or anything else) is important. It sets a tone. Inexperience isn’t a hindrance to be thrown away.
  4. Sex can be complicated. It can be so complicated that even adults struggle and get tangled up. You don’t need to fear sex. In fact, you shouldn’t. Just choose when to have it and respect the complications it could bring.
  5. Sex isn’t love. It’s sex. While sex is a great way to communicate love, never conflate the two. You can’t barter one for the other.
  6. Porn is not a how-to manual. Neither is erotica or tumblr. They are entertainment and, as entertainment, they’re a great way to explore your fantasies. But if you want to know how to do something, nonfiction is more reliable than fiction.
  7. Take the opinions / advice of your peers with a grain of salt. They’re still figuring it out too.
  8. Sexuality is neither simple nor static. Same with gender identity. Labels are useful but, ultimately, you are you – not a straight person, a bi person, a gay person, a trans person, a slut, a good girl, a feminist or anything else. Labels can define you in ways that miss the whole person. Be the whole of you.
  9. Know your boundaries. They may change over time but always know them. Advocate for yourself. Never, ever be afraid to say no.
  10. I know you’re going to have sex. You’re going to love, hate, be heart-broken and break hearts. Do these things. Live your life. Live it on terms that you choose and do so without shame.
  11. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will always love you. Not matter what happens, no matter who or what you do, I will always, always, always be madly in love with you.
  12. If you get pregnant or get an STI, please tell us. We’ll figure it out. See #11.

NB: This post is far from comprehensive. It’s really more of a meditation than anything else. I am writing several articles that address this subject in a far more directed and detailed way, but for now, this post communicates my general state of mind.

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