My friend used to be an au pair for a family with three children, and one day the mother of those children told her the following:
"The biggest lie in parenting is that we love our children equally."
At the time, I myself was not a mother yet, but that sentence stayed with me and as I turned it over and over in my head I examined it in relation to the experience of my own mom and siblings, my maternal grandmother and her daughters, and various other moms in my life whom I was close to.
It seemed wrong somehow, the sentiment, even crude and somewhat frightening to think about, let alone to speak out loud.
Yet something about that saying resonated with me, and years later I came to understand that while I don't agree with its basic tenet, I do understand its origins.
And perhaps, though I can't be sure of course, what that mother was actually trying to say is:
We love our children differently.
Because we do.
Our children are born and we don't know. We don't know what kind of babies they will be. We don't know if they'll like milk chocolate like us, or dark chocolate like their dads. We don't know if they'll be good sleepers, or excel at math, or be crafty with their hands. We don't know if they'll be the five year-old with bruises all up and down their legs from climbing and stumbling and falling and running, and we don't know if entering the first grade will be a cinch for them.
We certainly don't know what kind of adults they will turn into. Will they show empathy? Be ambitious? Make the dean's list? Travel the world? Be kind and gentle and forgiving? Will their stubbornness of childhood linger or will they soften and bend?
My kids are young. The oldest is just about to turn five, the youngest is just about four months.
I know plenty about Alon, after five years together, less about Anna, who, as a baby, demands a steep learning curve.
I'm at the beginning. But already, even with Anna being so young, I know that my love for them is different.
Alon is a boy, Anna is a girl. Objectively, right from the get go, this makes things different. We don't love our boys the same way we love our girls and I don't care how many nature/nurture studies you quote (I've read them too) it is what it is. We just can't help it (and I don't think we should).
Alon is rambunctious, hard-headed, so so curious, and currently has the attention span of a fruit-fly. His limbs flail through space while his mind wanders around there too and so copious amounts of scratches, bruises, one lost tooth, and this morning's huge black and blue bump that just barely missed his eye, are procured. Because we had a baby and brought her home, he's a little angry right now and is doing his best at displaying said anger mostly through deafening screams and cries.
And because we had a baby and brought her home, I love him even more.
So, what makes our love different?
I believe the difference lies in our approach, in our understanding of the individuality of each of our children, and in our acceptance of personality traits that we might otherwise prefer to expunge.
Being that our children our different - different from us , different from each other, different from what we "wish" or "hope" them to be - we parent them differently and in doing so we love them differently.
Each child challenges us to learn the language that speaks to them. Alon can be pacified with a certain tone, a specific look, a few definite words that are timed correctly.
Anna is appeased by a delicate touch to the face, a hush whispered gently in her ear.
Nadav responds to a well thought-out argument and only on a full stomach. Never, ever, approach on an empty gut. Ever. After all, the language we speak with our partners is a life-long lesson, no less important, and oftentimes just as challenging. But that's for another time.
When I think about the years to come with my children, I often find my thoughts drifting to the language that we will share. Will we talk about music and clothes and cakes and friends? Will they be able to find comfort in their mom's advice, will they seek it out? Will I know how to dispense it, at what time, and will I find the words that will resonate just right with each child? Because when I think about the kind of mom I aspire to be, the kind of love that I wish for my children to know, it's in this place that I pause. So much of our day to day dialogue is haphazard and cursory and by-the-way. We're exhausted, busy, and just want to get through, get it done already. But there are moments where the words are everything. A "You're a fantastic kid" just before the meltdown can mean the difference between an evening of pulling hairs and one of smooth sailing. An invitation to bake accompanied by "I need my helper to do this" can set the tone for an entire weekend. And when you're able to take a deep breath and speak the request calmly instead of blowing up, well hell, that's a gold medal-deserving kind of moment.
And yet, the same words said in the same manner can have such different effects and yield as wide a variety of results as there are children in the world. Herein lies one one of the biggest lessons in how we love our children. When we learn to tailor our words, their intentions, and their desired consequences, to each of our children, I believe that we learn how to love in the way that they need to be loved.
And that's why we love them differently. Because they demand it of us. And when we are able to rise to the challenge, it's one of the greatest gifts we can give them.