I remember the moment it hit me that I had to split my love between two children. It felt like a harsh physical blow, like how I imagined the opposing boxer’s fist would feel in the ring, expected, yet still strangely shocking.
I’d walked in to Eli’s room to tuck him in the night I arrived home with his brother back those many years ago, past the framed painting of two crowned dogs in face-off, and its prescient caption, “Why Can’t We Both Be Kings?” Suddenly I felt an overwhelming surge of guilt as I saw his big expectant brown eyes stare desirously toward me in the dark. I’d been tending to someone else while he’d waited, tending lovingly to a new boy in a way I had previously, over the last two-and-a-half years, tended only to him.
I had to calm myself, as I often do in moments of sheer panic. I had to be my own personal cheerleader. It’s ok, you can do it. You can love both of them. It doesn’t mean your love diminishes, it just has to expand.
That moment occurs to me often — when my boys tussle over my attention, when I have to choose who to kiss goodnight first, or whose homework question to field before whose. The internal pep talk has to happen in a split second. Inevitably recently, as insecurities rise with growing existential awareness, I will be accused outright of loving the other more, of picking sides because of my seemingly obvious preference.
“I love you both the same…” I find myself saying dispassionately as mothers have in the many generations before me. Of course, though, even as I say it, I know it is not true. The minute the easy cliché rolls off my tongue, I know that the truth, like most truths, is far more nuanced.
I do not love my children the same. I love them very, very differently. They are, after all, completely different in who they are, the way they love me, and the way they expect to be loved. Intimacy between two people is incredibly personal and unique, unlike the intimacy between any other combination. I do not act the same or feel the same when Eli nears as I do when Oscar approaches. I try not to judge myself for the difference, try not to think which is better, which is worse. In the same way, I try not to judge them and their responses to love and intimacy—with me and with others—as better or worse. It is what it is, they are who they are.
In terms of how to display my love for my children — equal amounts doled out differently, separately—I try to think about the directive I see scrawled often on the kids’ math homework: show your work.
In addition to showering both kids with ‘I love you’s and as many hugs and kisses as they’ll allow, I try to let them in on how challenging it is sometimes to determine how to give them what they want from me.
Without getting too defensive, I try to let them in on what I’m up against, on how hard it can be for me to translate their feelings through the complicated array of physical and verbal protestations they can offer, each in their own way.
A friend recently shared a difficult accusation her teenage son made, that she put work before him, that she found her other son easier to handle, ostensibly easier to love.
As she began to explain to me how she defended herself, how she got annoyed with him at his wrong assessment; I imagined how he felt, and what he probably most wanted.
I stopped her. It seemed so obvious because I was outside the situation, not standing accused.
“I think he didn’t care about your excuses. I think he just wanted a hug and to hear how you really love him…”
She nodded, sympathy for him in her eyes. “I know…” she said. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what a person at any age is looking for from his mother is the simple reassurance that you love him immensely.
I have thought of that conversation often in the last few weeks and tried to give myself the same advice. I have to remember that, from my sons’ vantage point, they are the only one that matters. I have to stop and remind them that I am trying, like I hope they are, to love multiple people to the best of my ability, to show my love in the individual ways they need me to show it.
Sometimes it means giving in to their separate demands, like a tearful request to fulfill a long-promised visit to Chuck E. Cheese (which Oscar later acknowledged was more than a little manipulative), or Eli’s batting-eyelashes hands-clasped-in-prayer pleas for homemade empanadas.
“Remember,” I’ll say, to one or the other, “I’m doing this because I love you.” I cross my fingers that they do not count loving acts. Love is an art and not a science, and there is no finite proof, just a constant show of one’s belief in its existence.
Reach Arts Editor Juliet Linderman at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-8309.