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The Limits of Love

Can a mother love a child too much?

A few years ago, a love song came on the car radio. “I’ll stand by you. I’ll stand by you, won’t let nobody hurt you. I’ll stand by you,” Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders promised an unidentified lover in a sweetly sorrowful tone. Five months pregnant, I quickly crumpled into tears as my future life as a mother flashed before my eyes.

I saw myself cradling a newborn, holding the chubby hand of an infant, catching the fall of a wobbly toddler, guiding the bicycle of a school-aged child, and collapsing under the weighty hug of a taller-than-me teenager.  

Caught up in the music and imagined moments, I hardly knew where I was when traffic slowed and stopped. I sat there at that stoplight thinking that I had never in my life loved anything or anyone so intensely.

And then I realized that I had. When I fell for my husband a decade earlier, I fell hard. Barely 18, I melted when the mysterious blue-eyed boy I’d been crushing on spoke to me at a party. Years passed before I caught my breath and even more passed before my heart slowed to a more regular pace. It was a head-over-heels deal in every way, and I thought I’d never look back.

And yet here I was loving someone—or rather the idea of someone—more.

In a matter of seconds, I went from feeling sentimental to resentful. Was there actually truth in all those unheeded warnings about the ruinous nature of children? Sweet G hadn’t even been born yet, and I was already favoring him over my husband. 

It wasn’t a good feeling, and I decided to end it right then and there. I found my cell phone in my purse, and dialed my husband’s number. No answer. A few seconds later, I called again. When I didn’t get an answer a second time, I called his work. After all, this was an emergency.

“I want you to know that I will always love you more than our son,” I said when I finally reached him.

I can’t remember my husband’s exact response, but I do remember his initial resistance to the idea. He later explained that my proclamation seemed bluntly insensitive, even mean. I didn’t blame him; ours is a kids-come-first culture where selflessness is the ultimate trait of a perfect parent.

But I persisted. Like many of the emotion-fueled epiphanies of pregnancy, the realization that the hub should always come before our child was so clear and undeniable. I needed him to understand, to get on-board with the idea—for the sake of our budding family.

Eventually, the hub agreed and even pointed out that it pained him to hear stories of parents who invest in their child’s life to the point that they can barely recognize or live with themselves when their child grows up and moves on. 

By setting limits on our love, we feel as if we’re protecting ourselves from falling apart when our kids leave home and start families of their own as well as preserving a relationship that has to thrive into the golden years and beyond. And now that we have two children, it’s more important to keep our love for each other in sight.   

As for Sweet G and Baby T, I think they’re better off without obsessive parents who refuse to let them grow up. Instead, we hope to foster the kind of love that will allow them to someday form their own families.  

In the meantime, we’ve learned to keep our love for each other alive by doing the following.

1. Leave the kids at home—literally and figuratively.

Now that our younger son is more independent, the hub and I have been headed out on dates. They may be shorter than they used to be, but they’re full of the stuff our love was founded on all those years ago: long talks about dreams and discoveries. The only taboo subject: the kids. Keeping our focus elsewhere helps remind us that we—both as individuals and as a couple—have an identity outside of parenting.

2. Bring love notes and just-because gifts back.

The early years of my relationship with the hub were marked by daily love letters, emails, poems, and notes. The frequency waned after a few years, and, around the same time, we stopped buying gifts for each other, preferring, instead, to travel or buy something for our home. Now that much of our time is focused on our kids, we’ve started to give each other little reminders of our love for one another: sappy text messages at lunch, romantic handwritten notes hidden around the house, etc.

3. Huddle up on a daily basis.

Every night after the kids are asleep—whether it’s for a quick job-well-done smooch or long, decision-making session—we meet in the living room to evaluate our performance as parents. We’re only two-and-a-half years into our lives as parents, but we know the importance of teamwork and support.

I’ll always stand by my children. And when they grow up and leave me to stand by their own families, I’ll still be standing by my husband.   

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