Thursday, May 01, 2003
Eternal truth about love By Dennis Byrne
"Dad,” Kati asked me, “George and I love Lisa so much, can we possibly love our new baby as much?”
Ah yes, the old “is-there-enough-love-to-go-around?” question.
Kati and her husband, George, expecting their second child, came right out with the question. Children have asked it for ages, and now, not too distant from their own childhood, Kati was asking it again. “Do Mom and Dad love me as much as [fill in the name of the sibling]?”
There it is, the stiletto that every parent fears, because every parent has been a child and knows the perception of being at the bottom of love’s totem pole. It doesn’t matter if the parent came from a one-child family. The question then simply becomes a variation of “Do they really love me?”
J’accuse. “Mommy, if you love me as much as Tommy, why did he get more Christmas presents?” “Daddy, if you love me as much as Sally, why did she have more friends at her party?”
“Why did you go to her soccer game, but not my baseball game?” “Why does he get to sit next to the window?” “Why doesn’t she have to take out the trash?” “Why doesn’t he have to put away the dishes?” “Why is his room bigger?”
They may not come right out and say it, directly accusing you of loving one more than another. Kati says now that she never thought we loved one more than the other. It’s just that her brother Don always seemed to be able to get us to buy him better clothes. He was better at outfoxing us, I guess.
If it were up to me, I’d ban Cinderella. Every kid imagines himself or herself as the little char girl scrubbing her fingers to the bone while the favored bratty stepsisters dine on pâté de foie gras. We never hear what happens to those nasty sisters after Prince Charming comes along to rescue Cinderella. But we know that in every kid’s mind, the sisters are condemned to grovel in a shack in the dark and moldy shadow of Cinderella’s grand palace. It is not enough to win, it also is necessary for the other sibling to suffer grave humiliation in losing.
The problem is eternal, or at least as old as Cain and Abel. Children have this notion that love is divisible, like a chocolate cake. Only so much to go around. It must be ladled out in equal portions. If I don’t get mine now, I won’t get any.
An interesting thing happens, though, when children turn into adults having children. They suddenly discover that they don’t love each other less when the first child arrives; they love each other more. And when the second child arrives, they all love each other more.
Kati and George now have their second daughter, Leia, born a mere 16 months after Lisa. The thinking was that if they were born close enough together, they would grow up pals. Which raised the question: “Have you guys grown so old that you have forgotten your own childhood?” But Kati and George are right. Because what they obviously have discovered is an eternal truth about love: It is indivisible. There is enough to go around. In fact, there is more than enough to go around.
Love works that way. Giving out love doesn’t empty the vessel. In a strange kind of physics, it makes the vessel overflow. The more love you give, the more you have, and then the more you have left to give, in an unending upward spiral. Another truth: You love one child differently, not more or less, than the other. Just as you love a spouse, a parent or a friend differently.
At Kati’s and George’s, the eyes of the assembled grandparents, aunts and uncles are focused on Lisa as she builds her vocabulary. “Two,” she shouts out, to applause and praise. Her eyes twinkle and her smile broadens. As the hubbub quiets down and she lets out another “Two!” Another burst of applause. Quiet returns, and then she blasts out another “Two!”
She’s oblivious of any concept of “two” but quite aware of what she learned: How to get the approval of a roomful of people. We know that; makes no difference. We love to be used.
And in turn, we shower more love on Leia, relaxed in someone’s arms, her head bobbing in wonder at all the noise. For Lisa, it may be the first stirrings of the thought that she has to get a leg up on Leia, For Leia, it may mean that Lisa is princess. Never too young to suspect a rivalry, I guess.
But for George and Kati, for the grandmas and grandpas, for the aunts and uncles, it is a recycling of one of life’s great mysteries. And a joyful reminder of all the love that we have to give. Even if not in precisely equal amounts.
Dennis Byrne is a public affairs consultant, Chicago Tribune columnist and very proud grandpa of two.