My oldest son, Tucker, is a major cuddler.
We often joke that his Love Language -- like his Mama's -- is "snuggles." He has long been most content to curl up in a lap or to climb into bed just to be next to one of us. Some of his lowest emotional points as a young toddler were the times when both of us were too busy with something to give him the physical attention he wanted, and he cried out pitifully, "But I just want you to hooooold meeeee!"
"I love you, Dada..." Tucker said the other night. We were on the floor next to his bed, as we neared the end of the bedtime routine. He sat curled up in my lap, my arms around him. He practically purrs at moments like that. I know it won't last forever, this willingness to be so physically close, and it always makes me smile.
We'd chatted a little about the events of the day. I forget the details now, but it's a part of the routine. And then, as is not unusual, he did what he often does, and proclaimed his love for me in our embrace. Are there any better words to hear from your own child? I don't think so. Sure, there are many other amazing things you as a parent will always long to hear; things that will make your heart beat faster or your face flush with pride. (And honestly, Tucker is awfully free with his "I love you," to the point that he occasionally says it to people who were perfect strangers only an hour earlier. Heck, sometimes he seems to use it as punctuation, or as filler for awkward moments of silence.)
And yet, it always takes my breath away.
"... I just love Mama more."
This was new.
I won't lie; while I knew better than to overreact, those words stung. A little. OK, maybe more than a little -- even knowing that taking the word choices of a 5-year-old personally is a recipe for needless stress and frustration. All the thoughts you can imagine raced through my head:
Why would you say that? Do you mean it? Of course -- OF COURSE -- Mama is amazing. But-but-but don't you know what I do for you every day? I cook for you, I clean for you, I dress you, I read to you, I play with you. I take you to preschool, the lunch I made for you packed safely into the adorable bumblebee backpack I picked out just for you. Oh, and speaking of preschool, let's not forget that I intentionally insisted on a co-op so I could volunteer as a parent-helper every month, and I'm the regular weekly volunteer assistant for your Art Class. I'm the one who takes you to restaurants because you love their mac and cheese, and I'm the one who came up with Our House Restaurant to make eating at home so much more fun. I teach you to swim, and ride a bike, and throw a ball, and do a somersault. I'm the one introducing you to your favorite superheroes, working with you in the garden, and making you feel better when you are sad or scared or hurt. I make you and your brother the most amazing birthday cakes cakes every year, and it's me -- me! -- who took you to see the Lego Movie twice. Not Mama. NOT MAMA! Did she put you up to this? We both know that she's the competitive one, right? I mean, not that it's a contest. Why can't you just say you love us both the most? How can you have a dozen different things you call your "most favorite food" but not have two "most loved people"? What did I do to make you not love me as much? Was it when I yelled at you earlier? Because we both know Mama does that too sometimes. Is it because I let Coltrane pick what color plate to use at dinner? I swear, love me the most and I can guarantee you first pick at breakfast...
Of course, I didn't say any of that.
I do what I do each day because I love him, not to earn his love back. How lucky am I that I get to pour myself into two little lives and watch them spout and grow and flourish? I am a gardener, and more important than tomatoes or kale or giant pumpkins, I tend to my children. Their good fruit is my reward.
I smiled at him, and he smiled back, in that way he does where he squints his eyes and his dimples go on forever.
"I love Mama the most too," I said. "What is it that you love most about her?"
"She's really good at snuggles."
"Yeah, she sure is. I'm happy to hear you say that you love Mama the most, Tucker."
"You are? I love you, too, Dada, really a lot, it's just I love Mama--"
"More. Yeah, I got that. Do you want to know why that makes me happy?"
"Because it means I picked really well, when I chose her to be your Mama."
He nuzzled in closer to me, and I'm content. Even if I do only come second, my cup runneth over.