Which child do you love the most?

2010-09-24 00:00

I AM always suspicious of parents when they claim to love their various children equally.

I understand that the question is quite a threatening one. If the child who was loved less understood this to be the case, he or she would still be nursing that injury 60 years from now. The child who was loved more might be consumed with guilt ... or grandiosity. The parent would feel weighed down with the awful burden; much better to say: “I love them each exactly the same” and have done with it.

I have two boys, Jessie (14) and Tom (10). I have often circled the issue of whether I love one of them more than the other, and if so, which is the one I love more? Like most parent, I would insist that I love both hugely and equally; but I am plagued by a sneaking suspicion that it’s not true.

I don’t know if other people hide their emotions from themselves as much as I do, but I am something of an expert at not knowing what I really think.

Sometimes, when I am making sandwiches or serving dinner, I suddenly realise that I have, for some unaccountable reason, decided whose serving is whose. This is Jessie’s, it’s got the extra ham. This is Tom’s, it’s neater.

It is the damndest thing, and I never know why I am doing what I am doing.

Do I love Jessie better? A deterministic Darwinism would predict that I would favour the one in whom I have invested the most. It makes evolutionary sense to care most for the older. But Tom is the baby. He is cuter, more gangly, he lisps and muddles his sentences. It’s natural that I would feel more protective of him — he’s more vulnerable.

Does it really matter?

Actually, I have finally come to the conclusion that it is just not as scary or as important as it sometimes looks or feels.

This is how I have resolved it for myself.

Firstly, “love” is a silly word. It contains so many different possible emotions and variations that it is impossible to know what we mean when we use the term.

Secondly, as a parent, the emotions I am talking about are protectiveness, care and the “hope that the child thrives” — now and as an adult. In that sense I can easily and clearly say that I favour them equally.

Thirdly, as a human being, and at different times, I feel different things about my children. The emotions I am talking about here include delight, grief, happiness, yearning, disgust, affection, frustration, anxiety, guilt, humility, anger, delight, joy, amusement ... in fact, all of the complex feelings one person is capable of feeling for another.

On any one day each child moves in and out of my affections and angers. There are also longer rhythms — periods of several weeks where either Tom or Jessie is more amusing, interesting, irritable or irritating. But these feelings are constantly changing and shifting — with the “protectiveness, care and hope” the background constant that is always present, no matter how bad or good other feelings get.

So I don’t think there is anything “wrong” with feeling different feelings for each child, at different times of the day or, on a bigger scale, at different times in your life and theirs. And if one of them should benefit with an extra biscuit in the lunch box one day, or suffer the manky piece of lettuce the next, well that’s just life, isn’t it?

 — Parent 24.

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