“Mama, how much do you love me?”
She’s asked for years, head cocked and dimples ablaze.
And my answers have varied, depending on her age at the time:
“To the moon and back.”
“More than all the stars in the sky.”
“To infinity (and beyond).”
“More than anything else in the world.”
Even now, my responses usually follow with a big bear hug and a barrage of kisses as she laughs and squirms to free herself from my embrace. She accepts my idioms and comparisons and hyperboles and goes about her merry way, leaving me to ponder the question alone.
How much do I love her?
She has no idea—and neither did I prior to her arrival. Only when she becomes a mother herself will she fully comprehend it, the magnitude of this love…
After all, she doesn’t know what it’s like to build a life from scratch, to watch helplessly as a poppy seed becomes an orange and then a watermelon and then a person within your own body, to feel your abdomen swell—and your heart, too, as you find yourself already in love with and completely devoted to someone you’ve never even met.
She can’t comprehend the terror of realizing that that watermelon must somehow exit your body, and how foolish the worry seems now in retrospect, as you’d go through it all over again—and then some—to become “Mom.”
She knows nothing of the responsibility of another person’s complete dependence, to surrender sleep and sanity to a tiny being swaddled in blankets, and to wonder how anyone could ever take advantage of the vulnerability a mother embraces with open arms.
She has no idea what it’s like to teach another human EVERYTHING: how to eat, sleep, walk, and talk, just to scratch the surface; how all the spills, messes, bumps, and bruises faded into distant memories the moment she mastered any one of those milestones; or how terrifying it was the first time I realized that the baby I carried within me is not a doll—and, in fact, isn’t mine at all—but a real, live person whose identity exists independently from mine.
She has no concept of what it’s like to summon strength for someone else’s sake: that every time she screamed and clutched my shirt as the nurse injected a needle into her pudgy toddler thigh, I wanted to simultaneously shield her from harm and punch that nurse in the face. Or that when I whispered, “It’s OK, baby, you’re OK,” I was really fighting the urge to collapse into a mess of heaving sobs right along with her.
She can’t comprehend what it’s like to sit on the edge of her bed, wet washcloth in hand, and stroke her feverish forehead at 4:30 A.M., wishing I could absorb her pain so she wouldn’t have to endure it herself. Nor can she fathom the panic that ensues when she calls my name in distress, or my primal urge to rescue her when she’s in trouble, knowing that I’d sacrifice myself without the slightest hesitation if it ever came to that.
She doesn’t know that I’ve silently cursed the classmate who pushed her on the playground, or that I’ll fight the desire to strangle the first boy who breaks her heart, as even the calmest and most peaceful of mothers will transform into fire-breathing beasts when faced with the source of their children’s heartache.
She doesn’t know what it’s like to completely second-guess every decision you make, to weigh the pros and cons of each choice against your child’s best interests, and to shoulder the endless guilt that floods your soul no matter which path you ultimately choose. That time when she erupted into tears after I insisted on leaving the park “RIGHT NOW” so I could return home to start dinner? She doesn’t know that, despite my authoritative tone, I felt bad for spoiling her fun and secretly wished we could’ve stayed 15 minutes more. That, as her mom, my mind and emotions are constantly at war, with one side desperately yearning to give her everything she wants—and more—and the other knowing that I can’t, and shouldn’t.
She doesn’t realize that when I told her “everything will be fine” the night before her first day of school, I lay awake until 2:30 A.M. wondering and worrying about how the next day would go and praying that God wouldn’t make me a liar. Or that talking to God in the wee hours of morning, begging for His help to be better, more patient, more present—for her—is a more common occurrence ever since she arrived.
She can’t conceive of how many times she crosses my mind in a single day: the sudden memory of something funny she did yesterday, the silent prayer for a peaceful day at school, the multitude of daily decisions I make with her well-being in mind—and how even on a date night, when my husband and I are supposed to enjoy some time to focus on ourselves and each other outside of our roles as parents, she weaves her way back into our conversations so often that we sometimes have to make a rule not to discuss her.
When she rolls her eyes at my seemingly infinite attempts to capture the perfect photo, it’s because she doesn’t know that I am merely trying to preserve the memory of that day, that moment, in all of its glorious detail: the way her golden hair glimmered in the sunlight against a backdrop of pumpkins, the color of the blush on her cheeks after her ballet recital, the expression on her face as she perched on Santa’s lap while she was still young enough to believe in his magic.
She can’t imagine what goes into the careful selection of birthday gifts or party décor, the hours and energy a mom spends in pursuit of her child’s smile, or the thrill of watching your efforts culminate as your child bounds down the stairs on Christmas morning.
She’s not yet acquainted with the joy that results from watching your child hit a ball off the tee, deliver a line from atop the big stage, or read a five-word sentence for the first time; the intensity of valuing someone else’s successes and triumphs more than your own; and the pleasure you take in seeing bits of yourself and your spouse appear in your child—whether it’s via the shape of an eyebrow or the way she holds a fork.
She doesn’t realize how much motherhood changes your perspective: that every Amber Alert or missing child on Dateline stops me in my tracks, makes me consider that child’s mother and what in the world I’d ever do in her shoes, and that tears will inevitably spring to my eyes if I dwell on those “what ifs” too long.
She doesn’t understand how your sense of time and measure change: that your life begins to fit into two distinct volumes: Life Before Children and Life After Children; and that your own age becomes an arbitrary marker of time, replaced by the ages and school grades of your offspring.
She can’t yet grasp how motherhood alters the passage of time: that while the days creep by when you’re young, they fly as fast as dandelion petals once you become a parent; that I rue the day when she’s suddenly too big for me to physically hold on my lap; and that when I start to feel sad about growing older and all of my “firsts” being behind me, I remember that all of hers still lie ahead, and that witnessing the best days of her life will be even more magnificent and magical than when I experienced my own.
She can’t fathom the paradise and torture of watching her grow: that there’s nothing I treasure more than being present for every day of every year of the birthday candles she blows out, but that each time I mark another inch on the growth chart or measure the size of her hand, palm to palm, against mine, I have to momentarily hide in the bathroom so she won’t notice the tears that trickle down my face without warning.
And she can’t imagine the agony of knowing that one day she’ll leave me, spread her wings and fly as she leaves my nest, and how terribly frightened I’ll be to send the most precious thing in my life out into the world alone sans my protection. And likewise, that one day I’ll leave her—not by choice, but by design—and that I lie awake in bed at night contemplating and dreading that day, hoping that by the time it comes, I’ll have taught her everything I could and equipped her with enough love and knowledge to thrive in my absence, and above all, that she’ll have found someone who loves her as fiercely and unconditionally as I do and to whom she’ll be able to turn for comfort, affection, guidance, and support—all of the things I offered—once I’m no longer there to provide them.[hr]
“Mama, how much do you love me?”
I’d love to share with her the complexities of a mother’s love: the hope, fear, joy, and anguish. But I don’t.
Instead, I smile, blink back the tears, and assure her, “My darling, more than you know.”