My joy for my babes has always been fairly transparent. Put my three-year-old in front of me in a shining moment of cuteness or kindness or cleverness and I'm begging, groveling even, for hugs and kisses. In my three years of mothering, there have been moments that I feared I may actually take a bite of my child, to inhale him, my love so strong. I've even been known to contort my five-foot eight-inch frame and curl up in a toddler bed next to my son, Oliver, for hours while he naps. Jammed together in the miniature bed, comfort matters not. It's my opportunity to watch him, listen to him, and drape my arm around his small, perfect body while he rests. It's my best chance for affection -- he is too tired to squirm away.
My baby Eli is nearly nine months and past the stage of wanting to cuddle in my arms. He is much more interested in looking at the world around him than in resting his head on his mom's shoulder. But sometimes, in moments of sheer exhaustion, I can trick him into lingering in a maternal embrace. If I sit in the rocking chair to nurse him and then slip a pacifier in his mouth just before he falls asleep, he'll lay there and look into my eyes before his roll back in his head, off to a deep slumber. I gently rub his round cheeks and breathe my love over his relaxed body. Such moments are pure goodness and I'd be willing to bet that mothers everywhere have cooked up similar schemes for affection.
Of course, I can indulge in these moments at home and not think twice about it. My boys are young and I don't mind being vulnerable with my offspring. However, I recognize that there is something about love -- even maternal love -- that is dangerous.
In junior high school, if we giggle a lot when talking with a boy, we are teased because the obvious is true: we like them. And I don't mean like them as a friend. You know the phrase, "like them like them." Typically we want to safeguard this emotion because we know the truth of love in junior high. It is fickle. Admitting that we "like" someone can lead to social devastation. The risk of unrequited love and the dangers of exposing our hearts follow us to high school and beyond. Despite the rawness and truth of our humanity, something about showing this sort of love to the world makes us seem weak and vulnerable -- not exactly virtues in our society. Put your love out there and you open yourself up to the risk of heart break or looking foolish.
Once, before I was a mother, I sat in an audience watching a children's choir sing. I must have worn a goofy grin that exposed my sheer enjoyment of the production because after the concert a woman sitting down the aisle from me asked, "Do you have a child at home that you're missing? You sure looked like you enjoyed those kids."
For some reason, my cheeks turned red and I found this obvious love that I had shown to the world a bit embarrassing. I did not have children at home, thank you very much. Yes, children are lovely, but really, I am a single, working girl with no near plans to procreate. I felt like a high-school student caught doodling my latest crush's name in a notebook.
The same sort of thing happened to me in a coffee shop just the other day. Eli sat in his stroller next to me while I enjoyed a coffee and the newspaper. He remained occupied by eating some sweet potato puffs and chewing on a brightly colored rubber baby spoon for awhile, but he eventually got bored and started cooing for my attention. I dropped the food section and cooed back. I enjoy his giggle and did my best to encourage some gentle laughs while I took a few more sips. After basking in his cuteness for a sufficient amount of time, we packed up and made our way out. As I was leaving, an older woman who was seated at a nearby table stopped me and said, "You sure must love that baby. I can tell."
"Yes," I stammered. "He is a great baby." Again, my love had been exposed and I could feel the heat in my cheeks.
These observers caught me red-handed, googly-eyed and in love. My heart has been exposed and the world has seen my unabashed affection. These moments have stuck with me and made me consider the fact that I have so obviously done nothing to safeguard my heart. But, as mothers and fathers, can we? Or do we surrender that choice when we give birth?
I vote for complete surrender and sealed my ballot the other day at breakfast. My husband Jake and I were out enjoying an above-average dining experience with our young sons. Oliver ate his entire egg without being coerced, Eli was happy and amused in his high chair, and Jake and I got to enjoy some quality conversation and family time. The server asked if we'd like a refill of coffee and Oliver piped up that he wanted some more chocolate milk.
"How do you ask, Oliver?" I interjected.
Oliver looked at the young woman and said in his high-pitch voice, "May I have more chocolate milk, please?"
It was a simple transaction, really, but staring at him from across the table, I was filled with so much empathy and investment that I actually found myself mouthing the words to myself as his little voice said them out loud. "May I have more chocolate milk, please?"
I have no poker face and now my pantomimic mouth had shown up at the table as well. I must have been absolutely beaming. Looking at our table of four from a distance, you may have paused and noticed. This woman has no control. Her heart, her eyes, even her mouth are bursting for these children.