(Portrait by Julie Swenson)
Years ago I saw the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. In one scene, a severely depressed mother leaves her son with a neighbor, uncertain whether or not she will return for him. The little boy senses his mother’s desperation, and before he leaves the car he says, “I love you, Mommy.” That line didn’t ring true for me. I remember thinking, “Little kids don’t tell their mothers they love them.” I wasn’t yet a mother, and I couldn’t remember saying that to my own mother when I was a child. Now, however, I understand what that little boy was saying, how he meant so much more than, “I love you.”
When I tell my seven-year-old daughter I love her, she says, “I love you too, Mommy.” Or she will climb into my lap and say, “I love you so much.” We do this many times each day, and I believe her words. Yet her love for me is different than mine for her. Hers is tangled up in need—many needs—that I attempt to interpret and accommodate.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional complexities of being a mother. I expected to love my child, and to be loved in return, but I didn’t anticipate the intricate shapes that our love, both hers and mine, would assume. I believed, naively, that our mother-daughter relationship would be simple until she reached her teens. Instead, it has been complicated since the day she was born.
As an infant she was most content with me because my scent and voice were familiar. (I also like to think my repeated crooning of “Hang On Little Tomato” soothed her, since I sang it every day in the shower while I was pregnant.) Yes, I often misread her cries. I fed her when she was tired, or changed her when she was hungry. She wasn’t the easiest baby, but we definitely forged a nourishing bond. As much as I loved her, however, I don’t believe that bond was based on love in her little mind. I was the breasts that nursed her, the arms that held her, the hands that washed and dressed her. I was survival, security, comfort.
At around age two came speech, that sublime milestone most parents long for and embrace with relief. She was so easily filled with wonder then, wandering around the neighborhood learning the names of flowers, or opening jars of spices so she could sniff them and repeat the words I read: cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla bean. At times her verbal play was comical. She was so taken with the word “no” that when offered something she wanted, she would reply, “Nokay.” My love for her was at its least complicated then. I never considered whether or not she loved me.
Later, her contrariness became less amusing. By age three, she was moody and willful, a master negotiator, not easily pleased or placated. I may have been ready for a difficult teen, but I was not ready for this difficult child. Nor had I imagined I would ever find it difficult to love her. That is not to say I didn’t always love her; I did. But that love was often overshadowed by the fact that I didn’t really like her, and I needed time away from her behavior to regain perspective. Hearing, “I hate you,” was easier than I expected because it was so honest, a fleeting expression of anger or disappointment. Yet this was also when she began more frequently telling me she loved me. I knew she was saying, “I love you,” for many different reasons. Like the little boy in the movie, those simple words could arise from happiness, fear, manipulation, insecurity.
I accept that, at seven, my daughter needs me more than she loves me. On the most basic level, she still relies on me for survival: food, shelter, clothing, hygiene. But she also needs me to be there, physically and emotionally. She shadows me, asking for hugs when my hands are full of laundry, or wet from doing dishes. She talks nonstop, expecting me to listen to every word. I can’t always be there, even when she’s with me. I know this, but I still feel an almost constant push-pull, a sense that I should be there more. Or maybe less? Just as when she was an infant, I often struggle to read her cues.
This is the heart of it, never knowing whether I’m doing too little or too much. Before my child was conceived, I was told how I should mother. At one extreme were older mothers like my own, who considered breastfeeding obsolete, let their babies cry themselves to sleep, left their toddlers to entertain themselves in playpens, and considered discipline paramount. At the other extreme were moms who advocated attachment parenting, preached breastfeeding at all costs, believed the “family bed” was essential, and shunned any form of punishment in favor of positive reinforcement.
Over the years I’ve patched together my own mothering style, striving to find what works best for both of us. I’ve tried (and often failed) to show my love for her through action and not mere words. At times I push her away as surely as she pushes me away, but for different reasons. She needs to separate herself (her self) from me in order to grow. I push her away when I mistakenly liken her need for attention to that of a narcissistic mother. (That realization—that her needs are age appropriate—was a beautiful, transforming breakthrough for me, and for our relationship.) Yet I still search for balance. I want to be there enough but not too much. I want the intensity of my attention to match her level of need. I want to get the timing right.
Several nights ago my family, including my daughter, saw an accident which left a man with an arm so badly broken it was gushing blood. He was a stranger, but he needed our help, plain and simple. My husband freed him from the vehicle pinning him to the dirt, and then called for help. I held his hand while my sister-in-law twisted a cord below his shoulder to stem the bleeding. We talked to him as he moaned and yelled and kicked his legs, slipping into shock and, briefly, unconsciousness. When the paramedics arrived and moved him to the ambulance, he screamed. He was still screaming when we drove away. Other than in movies, I have never heard anything like that man’s pain.
The following afternoon my daughter got a sliver in her toe while playing at our in-laws’ lake cabin. I couldn’t hide my frustration over her reaction. I worried what my in-laws would think of my child screaming and refusing to let anyone touch her. I tried unsuccessfully to calm her, but I didn’t try very hard, because it was just a sliver. (Sliver: a thin piece that is cut or broken off lengthwise; a small portion. Even the word implies triviality.) As much as I love her, I couldn’t help her, and I felt more annoyance than sympathy.
Should I have felt as bad about my daughter’s sliver as I did about that man’s shattered arm? I don’t think so. I didn’t know him, much less love him, but his pain and need were so great, so impossible to ignore or to forget. My daughter is my love, but I didn’t feel awful for her. I was there for her, but I couldn’t be there in a way that would ease her pain, and, while frustrating, it was okay. Not all pain, physical or emotional, can be tempered by a mother’s love. I suppose this is something both of us will need to better understand as she gets older.
I am a wife, a friend, a writer, a person with responsibilities other than my child. But she is the most important part of my life. As she grows and her needs become less constant but more complex, I fear that I can’t, or won’t, meet those that are most essential. My job is to ensure that, one day, she won’t need me at all. But because my love for her is unconditional and craves reciprocity, I hope she will still love me when she no longer needs me.
The other night, sitting outside, I saw a blurry group of stars and walked to the edge of the patio to get a closer look. That extra ten feet made no difference, of course, and I realized how ridiculous we are with our struggles, how inconsequential to the universe. This makes me want to try harder, to do everything I can to make my daughter’s life happy, because I will always love her more than anything in this world. For the same reason, I don’t want to raise her to believe she is the center of this universe, to expect that her needs will always be met, her pain completely alleviated, by me or anyone else. And so I will go on walking the line between love and indulgence, hoping that one day I will have earned her love, that she will move along the continuum from a love based on need to one based on mutual affection, trust, and respect.