You learn a lot of random things when you have children. The pain of stepping on a single piece of lego. Toddler translation skills like you’re a bloody Tardis. How to read Fox in Socks without stumbling and make a car out of a cardboard box. A complicated system of relabelling food so it’s acceptable to a 2 year old (not ‘ravioli’ but ‘noodlepie’). All the words to every Play School song and an in-depth knowledge of Peppa Pig.
But what everyone says about having children is that you’ll love your child like you’ve never loved anything or anyone before. You don’t know, other parents would say to me smugly before my first son was born.
Honestly, I thought it was kind of bullshit.
I knew I would love my children. Duh. But I already love people. I know how to do it. Maybe it would be a matter of degree – I mean I supposed I would obviously love my kids more than I love my dogs — that I would perhaps be less critical, less conditional, more tolerant, better at loving them than I am at loving my partner or my parents or my siblings. But I called shenanigans on the idea that it was actually a different kind of feeling, some special better-than-regular-love kind of bond. I’m loyal and affectionate and protective of my loved ones already. Just try hurting anyone I care about and see how I react. I wasn’t going to feel anything new and different.
And I was wrong.
For me, it’s not about loving my boys more than I love other people. It’s about the different ways they make me feel, the different emotions that I’d never had in quite that way before. Turns out those smug bastards were right, they just didn’t explain it this way…
First, the joy. Happiness isn’t a strong enough word for what I mean. The joy that comes from seeing my sons when they are happy, truly happy, is so intense and immediate it’s like a physical cord between us, thrumming instantly with shared emotion outside my control. The sight of my elder son’s face, exploding with fun and excitement as he smiles at me from his swimming class. The slow delight in my younger son’s eyes, an inch from mine, as he wakes and focuses, recognises me. Any other emotion is crushed out of me with the weight of my linked happiness.
Second, the pride. It’s a mixed, strange emotion, inherently conflicted. I do not own my sons or their achievements. What right do I have to reflect that back upon myself? Yet it can be suffocatingly strong, and for the strangest things. I was arrested by it today as my son – once too tentative to leave the immediate proximity to his parents or other family members – dropped my hand on the way home and ran, gangly little legs flying, arms flailing, schoolbag bobbing as he raced ahead. I had to call and remind him to stay in view. He was buoyed by his independence, literally bouncing with confidence. My chest hurt watching him.
And third, the fear. God, the fear. The fear that comes from knowing there are other bodies out there, bodies that you care about more than your own but that you can’t be with and protect at all times. As they grow from literally being in my care and protection every moment of the day to being their own little people, the fear is always there beneath me, lurking, holding me prisoner. I cannot imagine escaping it. I don’t mean to say that I am a paranoid parent restricting my sons’ independence, worrying all of the time, ruining my happiness and theirs. It’s just a tiny buzz under the surface, the knowledge that you are powerless, helpless, that you have to trust other people, strangers, to trust to chance the safety and protection of these little people you would do anything to protect. You can’t control the universe around them (and you know you shouldn’t in any case), and it makes you afraid.
I knew I would love my sons. I didn’t know they would make me so joyous and proud and afraid. But if you have children I hope you feel that way too.