My mom had amazingly sharp instincts. With a glance, she could read the mood of any one of her kids. There were times I was convinced she could even read my mind. She was especially astute at detecting stirring tensions between her children. Simply walking through a room, it seemed, she could mediate our sibling glares with a touch, a look, or a gentle word. With little effort, her pre-emptive strikes often diffused brewing battles. I can only imagine what she might have taught the UN Council, given the opportunity.
She was a wise woman, but there was one battle I think she never truly won. And, it certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. According to my children, it is the “unwinnable” battle, and, when there is more than one child in the house, it is likely unavoidable. A sibling is a child’s first “opponent” in life, each vying for a mother’s exclusive attention; “I want mom’s lap!”, “Mom, will you read ME this book?”, “Mom bought this for me, not you!”, “Mom…Mom….MOM!” As mothers, we stretch ourselves in attempt to meet the needs of each child, and still, we have only one lap, only two arms, only 24 hours in a day to fill each bucket.
Regardless of a mother’s best efforts, sibling rivalries often sprout early and grow through the years, rapidly, it appears, during the teen years and times of perceived disparities in discipline. As mothers, we are sucked into the turbulent vortex with an assault to our (sometimes fragile) maternal identities by those we love most, our children. In anger and/or disappointment, our little darlings lob the ultimate verbal bomb, “________ is your favorite. You love him/her more than me!” It finds our hearts with stealth accuracy. It is the nuclear weapon in a child’s arsenal. It is an indefensible accusation, akin to asking a husband,”When did you stop beating your wife?”And really, how does one argue the logic (or lack thereof) of a child when you are so tired you could sleep standing up? The war was lost before the battle began.
Truth is, when the child to mother ratio exceeds 1:1, problems are bound to arise. The power struggle for attention seems to take root upon the conception of baby number 2 and grows more antagonistic as a pregnant lap shrinks. Though my mom tried, really tried, to give us each our own little sliver of herself, at 9:1 odds, she was plain outnumbered and, aside from cloning herself, didn’t stand a chance at winning the tender ego-driven “Who do you love more?” battle. But, she never stopped trying and she generously shared with me the wisdom of her experience.
With the arrival of my second, she saw the winds of change swirling around me. Shortly after I came home from the hospital she arrived with a box of gifts. Inside, cached among the little outfits and blankets, was a children’s book. “Not today, not tomorrow, but one day this will come up,” she assured me. (Little did I know just how right she would be.) As she held her newest granddaughter, and with my first-born tucked snuggly by my side, I flipped through the pages of I Love You the Purplest by Barbara M. Joosse.
That day, I became privy to a mother’s secret; as mothers we don’t, and really can’t, possibly love our children “the same”; they are not the same people. This does not mean that we don’t love them equally, of course we do, or try to, but if we are to see them as individuals, we can’t possibly love them the same.
In her book, Joosse’s story begins with two brothers hunting for fishing worms. One asks, “Mama, who has the most worms?” and the other asks, “Mama, who is the best rower?” The story continues as “Mama” negotiates her way through the delicate maze of comparison questions during a day of fishing. All the while, “Mama” never chooses one as the best ______, giving both boys equal, but different praise; “Max, your can is full of the liveliest worms. And Julian, your can has the juiciest.”
That evening, as “Mama” tucks her boys into bed, Julian whispers, “Who do you love the best?” “Mama” gently answers she loves Julian “the bluest,” the color of a dragonfly, the deepest part of a cave, the mist of a mountain, the hush of a whisper. To the same question, she tells Max she loves him “the reddest,” the color of the sky at dusk, the color of a campfire, a wide open hug, and the thunder of a shout. Together, the reader learns, she loves both her boys the “purplest.” Equal, but different, each bringing something unique and special to the mama’s heart.
For several years, my girls loved hearing this story, especially when read with their names inserted. Truthfully though, like my mother, I doubt I will ever really win the “you love her more” battle. My teens caution, “You can’t win because it’s like boxing a ghost when you’re fighting against feelings.” Nonetheless, I tell them everyday that I love them, hoping they see my love for them is equal, but unique, just as they are. Conceivably because they are teens, that message is often lost. Perhaps someday, when they have children of their own, they will come to understand their mama’s love, just as I did.