What We Talk About When I Talk About Love with My Daughter

I wish she knew how much I love her. She doubts it sometimes. I see her eyes. She feels that if she could be small again, so small she fit on my lap alongside her brother—no, smaller, so she could squeeze back inside me where it is warm and safe and she doesn't need to share—then she could have all the love that would be enough to fill her. Or, failing that, if only she could be tall, so tall she could "reach the sky," she would then outgrow the hurt that threatens to bury her. She burst into tears the other night and whispered that exact wish. "I wish I could be tall. My heart would not hurt if I were tall." Oh, darling, grown ups have more heartbreak than you could ever imagine. Stay small, stay here with me.

But even here I can not keep you safe. Even now I sometimes have to nudge you away to make room for another.

It was my fear when I was pregnant with her brother. I doubted myself, my capacity to multiply. Even before there were two, I mourned the days of "me and you, just us two." At 34, I wondered and had no faith in love; what more at 3 years and 3 months?
I saw love as a vessel, a body that could only fit as many as my arms could hold. Heavy with the body of another in my belly, I could not imagine how much more of me there could be to give to her.

And yet, when her brother was born, I just knew, that I would love him with my everything and still overflow with love for her—expanding, engulfing, encompassing love. But I don't know how to tell her this. At 3, she does not know those words.

One day, I tried:
"Mommy, I don't want you to love my brother."

"But, E, I love your brother."

"Just a little?"

"No. A lot. I love you a lot, too. Not just this much, but this much," I replied, stretching out my arms and vowels for emphasis.

"No! Love Jacob only a little then you can love me a lot. Please."

"Can I tell you a secret?"


"Love is not like ice cream. You like ice cream, right? Sometimes, you like ice cream so much that you want the whole bowl to yourself. And you get mad when Papa tries to get a taste. Do you think you won't have enough ice cream?"

"Yes. I want all of it."

"Because if Papa eats some, and you eat some, and Mommy eats some, soon there will be no more ice cream, right?"

"And then I'll be sad."

"That would make me sad, too. But, Ella, love is not like ice cream. You can't eat it all. Even if I give you some and Jacob some and Lolo and Lola some, I'll still have love. It doesn't run out."

"Does Lolo and Lola love you?"

"Yes. But do you think they only love me and not Uncle Josh? Nope. Lola loves me so much. And she loves Uncle Josh so much. And Uncle Tommy so much."

"And she loves me so much!"

"That's right! So, even if Mommy is not here with you, or Mommy is with Jacob, or you cannot see Mommy, I always love you. So much."

"I love you, too, Mommy."
I know that is not explanation enough. Although, the next day, she told her Papa, "Love is like a mat," pointing to the four rubber mats outside, "It's big. We can all fit."

Other days she says, "I don't love Papa." It used to hurt us before. But then we talked.
"E, do you think that if you love Papa, you can't love Mama?"

"Yes. And I only want to love you. I don't want NOT to love you."
She thinks it is so finite, so easily consumed, non-refillable, irreplaceable. I can understand the confusion. Even grown-ups can feel like the love has been all used up (although that happens after years of not trying, not after thrown dishes or tantrums, no matter how long). So how can I tell her that my love is like a well that comes from an infinite source. You may draw from it every day and there will always be more, so drink up. The only wells she knows of are for wishing. And after three wishes, your luck is up.

There will be more conversations. There will be more tears and explanations. There will be more metaphors and moments when they are enough, although probably more where they aren't. We will keep talking about love until she understands, which may be never.

I don't have the words for a three-year-old. But I hope, every day, I have the actions.

I love you walks though I'd rather stay indoors.
I love you blankets over you when you're cold.
I love you amulets when you need to feel brave.
I love you buckles to keep you safe.
I love you stories, day or night.
I love you chocolate cake when you ate yours too fast and you want some of mine.
I love you smiles when you run into whatever room I am in, even before coffee, even on a deadline.
I love you hugs, when you trip and fall.
I love you kisses on the lips, before you grow too old for them.
I love you cheers when you do work you're proud of.
I love you tears when you're not proud of yourself.
I love you silence when you need to be sad.
I love you words when you need to remember that you may no longer be a baby, but you're always Mommy's baby.

Happy Valentine's Day, my girl. I love you through and through.