There was a moment a few days ago, as I held my three-month-old son and told him I loved him, when I thought, “How could he possibly understand what I mean? How do we even learn what love is?”
Especially on days when my husband and I have to buckle his special clubfoot boots as he cries out of frustration and then we pick him up and rock him back and forth telling him we love him, I worry whether that could be confusing.
It occurred to me that we all hear children ask thousands of questions, sometimes in just one day. They wonder why the sky is blue, how babies are made, and why you have a stain on your shirt or a receding hairline. They are not bashful about their questions; they do not hide their curiosity. And yet I’ve never heard a child ask, “What is love?”
I can only assume this must be because they think they know what it is. And I think they think they know what it is because their parents or primary caretakers treat them whatever way they do and then couple that with the phrase, “I love you.” (Or at least I hope every child gets told this—and more importantly, treated in a way that shows it.) So of course they must reason that the way they are treated is equivalent to love.
So then, no matter what that treatment entails, children grow up and become adults who seek to love and be loved in the way that feels familiar and comfortable. That way may not necessarily be healthy, but it is what they know.
Given this, it only stands to reason that we all walk around with different definitions of what it means to feel and demonstrate love. However, we throw the word around to one another as if we all must have the same understanding of it.
In reality, if we think of love as currency, we are all like individual countries with our own monetary systems trying to trade with one another without any concept of how each other’s systems work. Sometimes it takes years to figure someone’s out, if we ever even do at all.
I think The 5 Love Languages book touches on this concept in a really wonderful, easily digestible way that can be really helpful. But the more I think about it, the more I think there are potentially infinite love languages.
For some people, love is shown through constructive criticism and high standards; for others, it’s shown through unwavering support and encouragement. Some people learn that love is possessive and jealous, while others learn it should feel like freedom. It’s no wonder we get mixed up and confused at times when someone who says they love us turns around and says or does something that doesn’t feel like love.
On nights like tonight, when my son fusses and stirs and cries in a restless sort of sleep, I wonder, “Is love being merciful in this moment and taking his boots off for a break, or would love mean making him tough it out because the long-term payoff will be worth it?” I honestly don’t know the answer right now because either option leaves me plagued with guilt.
I don’t really know where this leaves us or what it is we ought to do about the fact that there is so often a disconnect or miscommunication between any two people who say, “I love you,” to one another. I don’t have an instant solution to all of our relationship and communication issues. What I do know, however, is that I’m going to keep trying to figure it out.
And I am going to keep hugging my son, giving him forehead kisses, singing him songs, strapping on the boots he hates that are going to correct his foot so he can walk someday and enjoy his life, and telling him I love him again and again and again.
Hopefully someday he’ll understand the language I was speaking, and maybe he can speak it back to me, too.