Photo illustration: Mia Feitel
Not too long ago, at a dinner party, an old friend and fellow mother quizzed me on the exact quality of the love that I feel for my four-year-old daughter. “Isn’t it so true what everyone says,” she asked, “that it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before?”
To which I said: Yes? I mean, sort of? Certainly it’s not, as I suppose I expected, merely a more intense version of the affection that I feel for other children in my family (although, for the record, I do love my niece and nephew very much). But if I’m being honest—more honest than I was at that dinner, because I didn’t want to spend a rare evening without my child counting the ways in which I adore her—the answer to that question is also, a little bit, no.
Of course, many of the sensations that I associate with motherhood were new, for example, the all-consuming fear that I’d somehow break or otherwise damage my daughter. The fear hit basically the instant I found out I was pregnant and continued to be my primary emotion, in relation to her, for about a month after she emerged. But as I acclimated to her ongoing existence—as I grew more confident that she most likely would recover, for example, from being dropped into her crib from a distance of roughly fifteen inches (an incident that nearly prompted an entirely unnecessary trip to the emergency room)—I was better able to experience other emotions. And at least one of them felt oddly familiar. It felt kind of like a crush.
As a teenager, I dated and was dumped by the same boy four times, once for every year that we were in school together. At a certain point, I knew that my continuing infatuation with him was kind of stupid: I have a clear memory of sitting behind him in assembly one day, shortly after our second or third break-up, and staring, lovelorn, at the back of his neck. I wished, more than anything, that I could just lean forward and kiss it, even as I recognized how utterly ridiculous it was that my dumb brain stubbornly insisted on identifying this back-of-a-neck as being, bar none, the best back-of-a-neck that it had ever come into contact with.
That’s sort of how it feels, sometimes, to be a parent. Not the getting-dumped part, not usually—although my daughter did tell me she hated me last night, when I wasn’t able to get a tiny piece of pink modeling clay back into the same half-flat, half-round, machine-extruded shape that it had been in when she’d taken it out of the package. But the weirdly unshakable attraction, the conviction that a particular person is probably pretty close to perfect, even in the face of plenty of evidence to the contrary? Yes.
It’s not a sexual feeling—not at all—but I’d argue that it is, quite literally, romantic, i.e. suggestive of an idealized view of reality. And I find it interesting that almost nobody ever describes it that way. Freud, as far as I can recall from my single high school psychology class, focused far more on the feelings that children have for their parents (and of course he did see those feelings as being at least partially sexual, which: yikes). More recently, Ayelet Waldman acknowledged the romantic side of parental love, but she did so in the course of an essay in which she accused every mother she knew, save herself, of placing her children “at the center of her passionate universe.”
My daughter is not at the center of my passionate universe, I don’t think, but I will cop to engaging in more than a few behaviors that might make an outsider think she was. I scroll through photos of her on my lunch break, or choose a particular running route in the hopes that I might see her playing in the park with her pre-school class. As desperate as I occasionally am to get a little time to myself, I start to miss her within hours.
So, not to sound like an early ‘80s pop song, but: Can this feeling last forever? I’m not sure that it should. While children are very young, their parents near-obsessive interest in them is adaptive; when they’re older, it’s not. As the situation currently stands, I don’t think either of us would be able to tolerate not being around each other for even an entire week. But by the time she’s old enough for college, or even sleep-away camp, I’m confident that will have changed. My own mother, for example, can go months without seeing me, to no apparent ill effect. And, in case you’re wondering, she does love me as much as I love my daughter. I know, because I just called and asked.