In The Philosophical Baby, philosopher and psychologist Alison Gopnik says this: “It’s not so much that we care for children because we love them, as that we love them because we care for them.”
I first felt the truth of this statement when my daughter was around two months old. It was a golden October afternoon. My daughter was fussing. For her, it was a clear sign that she needed to nap. Badly. I cradled her. I shushed her. I rocked her. I hummed to her—all in an effort to help her understand that she was tired. I even told her, “Shhh… You’re tired.”
Within a few minutes, her eyes fluttered and then closed.
I watched her peaceful face for a few moments. God, I love this child, I thought.
But a shadow fell on that moment—because I knew that it hadn’t always been that way.
The cliché is that a mother’s love is born the moment a child is laid into her arms. For me, there was certainly a euphoria that delivery was over and that I was holding a child—especially after two days of labor. But should I call that “love?”
Because if I call it “love,” there’s definitely a problem. Because that “love” ended.
After a few days, that wondrous rush had faded away and I was left with the incessant task of nursing an infant. Sleep deprivation, a hormone crash, and outright insomnia darkened that nova of euphoria. What I felt in those first days of new life—whatever we call it—was gone.
And so in those early, difficult days of new motherhood, I had to lean on something else in the absence of euphoria. I needed something to pull me through the darkness, the ardor, the ceaseless hours. So I focused on the task of care—both caring for myself and caring for my daughter. I nursed until I couldn’t nurse anymore. I cared for my swollen parts, my torn parts, my painful parts. I tried to sleep. I ate well. Every moment of those weeks was spent in the task of care.
And after all of that caring, I can say that the motivation to care for my daughter didn’t truly begin with love. Love wasn’t really what I felt at midnight, 2:00 a.m., 4:00 a.m., and 6:00 a.m. when my newborn needed to eat. Beneath my heavy eyelids weighed down with exhaustion, what I felt was a sense of duty to help this tiny person who needed me so much. It was obligation. This person belonged to me. This person was a part of me. So I had to care for her. Even though I was exhausted. Even though I was in pain. Even though I didn’t know when I would sleep or shower next.
I cared for her because she needed me.
Love didn’t have a brilliant beginning. It didn’t own a designated minute hand on the clock like birth did. Love grew like my child had during pregnancy: slowly and quietly. Like my daughter, love wasn’t born fully developed or realized. It would grow. It would change. It would strengthen.
In those first weeks, I grew to be the expert in my newborn’s gestures—her facial features, her grunts, her habits—I started to realize that something had shifted. All that caring had become the most important part of my life. I began to say things like, She likes it when you hold her this like or She’s not hungry. That’s her tired cry. When someone would return my crying baby back to my arms, she calmed.
I realized that not only was I meeting her needs before my own, but I was enjoying it. I had grown to love taking care of her. Soon, the tasks of caring became easier. It freed energy for me to see, to notice, to appreciate. God, this baby is amazing, I thought. How could she already look like her father? How could she already have some of his facial expressions? I wondered what she would be like five years from then or what her voice would sound like. What would she like to do on a Saturday afternoon?
I could imagine how love would continue to expand beyond the boundaries of the uniqueness of your child and branch out into a deep appreciation for the beauty of life’s simple complexities.
But it all started with a simple aphorism, a statement that has been weakened by overuse, yet it remains the truest way of explaining how a mother’s love for a newborn grows. “Love is putting someone else’s needs above your own.”
And so I believe that Gopnik was right.
You don’t care for your baby because you love them.
You love them because you care for them.
This piece originally appeared on Sharon Tjaden-Glass’ website, Becoming Mother, where she shares her writings on motherhood. She is publishing her first book, which will be out in August 2015.
Artwork at top by David Watmough via saatchiart