Before I became a mother I was aware that love came in all shapes and forms. I heard that old saying about how having a child is like having your heart go walking around outside your body and I hoped that someday, no matter how terrifying it sounded, I would have the chance to describe it myself.
After years of waiting I got that chance. The nurse placed my daughter on my chest and, with my husband looking on, I looked into her eyes and very calmly and gently that love washed over us like a wave. I thought to myself, well, this is it then. This is what loving a child feels like.
But I was wrong. That was what loving a child felt like at the moment. I didn’t realize that every day of our lives together that love would grow and shift and transform and look different and do something new, just like the child herself.
And I didn’t know how changed I would be for it, like every nerve I possess is exposed and reactive, aware of how each decision I make holds her in its wake. I suppose that’s the whole “heart outside your body thing.”
But there’s this joy that she brought with her too, a kind of happiness I never really associated with the definition of love until she came along and showed me. Like how hearing her first belly laugh (and every belly laugh since) warms up a spot in the core of me that grows and radiates out my face and forces my arms to outstretch, and reach for her. Her laugh becomes my laugh and I kiss her cheeks…
“How do you describe love?” That’s the question I asked a group of children playing after school in the Dickinson Public Library this month. It was a question I truly wanted to hear answered out of the mouths of children who are so very often unfiltered in their word choice and pure in the confession of their experience.
But the big task of describing love was not lost on them. Each one took a big breath before a multitude of words came tumbling out. It turns out love is as complex to a six year old as it is to a thirty-three year old. In short, to them love meant happiness and caring. It was an action; of giving, hugging, kissing and a feeling of safety and familiarity.
I’ve never thought about it before, but love is the first thing we teach our children because, beyond food and diaper changing, from the very beginning it’s their most essential need.
And then, in a world where it takes a village, it just grows from there. (No wonder it’s so hard to describe!)
One of the children I interviewed mentioned her grandma in her description of love. The other pointed out her brother. I watch my daughter, who can’t form a full sentence, point to the photos on our wall and identify and recognize the family and friends who have held her, kissed her, teased her and made her laugh. I hear her grandpa come through our door and I watch my daughter run towards his voice and reach her arms up and I’m fascinated by how early those bonds are formed with the people who make themselves familiar to her and how special and unique each of those relationships have become to her already, at such a young age.
But the most underestimated and surprising love shift that came with our daughter’s arrival was the relationship I share with my husband.
My husband and I have known each other since we were twelve years old. We’ve been married a good ten years. We’ve suffered six miscarriages, six moves, a total do-it-yourself house flip and another do-it-yourself house build, hours of working cattle and years of frustrating infertility consultations, but nothing phased and shifted our relationship as much as the arrival of an 8 pound 11 ounce baby girl.
I can’t speak for him, but I will tell you it took one minute into parenthood for this woman with independent tendencies to realize that not only did I love this man, but now I needed him, we needed him, more than ever. Suddenly the love we had for one another became essential and necessary, a feeling I hadn’t experienced in our relationship before. I admit it took a while to settle into our roles as parents, to understand what each needed from the other to get through and do our best. We’re still working on it and, just like our love for our daughter shifts and moves and grows, so does our love for each other.
Because there’s something about the way her eyes light up when she looks at him, the way she reaches for him and snuggles into his shoulder that makes me feel proud and lucky, and well, before her I wouldn’t have used those adjectives to describe love.
After her? Well, love seems to be in every word.