On special occasions, like birthdays, my parents would let my sister and me share a can of soda with our dinner. I remember how we would put two identical glasses side-by-side on the table and take turns pouring a little soda into each of them, periodically checking, like surveyors measuring a million-dollar property, to make sure that both glasses contained exactly the same amount of liquid, down to the last milliliter.
We measured our parents’ love in the same way, always vigilant to make sure we got equal amounts of it: equal amounts of attention, affection, praise, and presents. If one of us ever felt she was not getting her fair share, our home would ring with that most aggrieved accusation in the siblings’ handbook: “You love her more than you love me!”
In less emotional moments, one of us might slyly pose the only question that makes mothers and fathers more uncomfortable than the one about where babies come from: “Who do you love more, her or me?” Every parent knows there is no answer that will satisfy the child who asks this question. If you say you love both or all of your children the same, the kid won’t buy it. He’ll either think you’re humoring him and try to wheedle another answer out of you, or suspect you’re not telling him the truth because you love his brother or sister more (or less) than you love him but don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.
The problem is that “Who do you love more”” isn’t the right question. It’s not a matter of the amount of love you have for each of your children; it’s about how and why you love each of them, how you express your love to each, and what you particularly love about one or the other. Try explaining that to a six-year-old!
The fact of the matter is that if I had to divide my heart between my son and daughter, I have no doubt the two parts would come out equal. But if I had to describe my love for each of them individually, it wouldn’t sound the same, for the simple reason that they are not the same people. I love my son’s gentleness, his protectiveness toward those he cares for, his instinctively sunny disposition. I love my daughter’s engagement with the world, her curiosity, the intensity of her feelings and beliefs. As mother and daughter, she and I share more of our emotional lives with each other, while with my son, I share a sweet, easygoing camaraderie. How can I even out the lump sum of such an assortment of sentiments and attachments in a way that they will understand?
Growing up, both kids had gripes about the unequal (i.e., unfair) treatment they felt they sometimes received from me. My son complained that I spoiled his sister, that I indulged her and got her anything she wanted. My daughter grumbled that I was more lenient with her brother, that I laughed at some of his misbehaviors, the same misbehaviors for which she got scolded.
I here and now freely admit that their grievances were absolutely legit! I did buy daughter more, because she seemed to need more—more clothing, more paraphernalia, more stuff —while my son seemed to need less. (We’re talking about a boy who could wear the same shirt for a month and not notice.) I did scold him less, because he knew how to charm the anger out of me by explaining himself in a way that made my stern face crumple with amusement. But did these inequities mean that I loved her more than him or him more than her? Not for a minute.
So, where does that leave us? Maybe there’s a mother out there somewhere who knows how to satisfy her children’s incessant desire to extract the inexplicable, but my own best guess is that we’re back where we started, with “I love you the same amount,” amount being the operative word. Although that answer might not be complete, and it might not pass muster with our kids, it is truthful—at least for me it is. My heart is filled with love for my children, and the feelings I have for each are bound together inextricably. One of them may take up more space in there one day, the other loom larger the next. But there is always plenty of room for both.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.