My mother used to worry that she didn't have exactly the same number of presents for each of my siblings and me at Christmas. When I was old enough to realize this was a legitimate concern -- enough to make her run to CVS and pick up non-gift items and wrap them just to even out the piles, even if that meant my brother got a box of tampons (because for all the precision in creating an equal number of gifts, there was the inevitable and odd result of less precise distribution) -- it's seemed crazy irrational.
My siblings and I never counted. And even if we had, I'm not sure I'd jump to "you love her more" because she had eight gifts and I had six. OK, maybe between the ages of 13-17, but this nonsense continued to as recently as December (when I'm just a few years older than 17).
But now, with my own kids... I kinda get it.
Lately, my youngest has been having a hard time falling asleep. He's figured out he can get himself out of his toddler bed and has started a new routine that involves multiple trips to and from bed claiming, "I'm having trouble falling asleep... I'm scared... I can't do it." With his sleepy eyes and quivering voice, it is very difficult to say, "Too bad. I know you're faking. Get back to bed." So I go with him, lay down, hold hands, tell him a story, sing him a song, leave and come back 15 minutes later and do it all over. This goes on for hours while my oldest patiently waits for a few uninterrupted minutes of my time.
My oldest will fall asleep fairly quickly, in his own bed. Some nights he stays there for an hour. Some nights he stays there for several hours, but at some point, every night, he comes into my bed. Sometimes, I don't even notice. Since he's figured out how to get out of his bed, my youngest now sometimes comes in too. But I don't let him in the bed. There is no room (and once he's fallen asleep, he doesn't put up a fuss when I bring him back in). This arrangement seems fair -- to make up for the time I spend getting one to bed, I let the other sleep with me. I hope this is an even trade.
But does it have to even out? Are they really keeping score? Even if my oldest sees his brother getting more attention at bedtime, isn't it good for him to see me respond to his brother's distress? Does he understand that it works in the reverse, too? Isn't it good for them to learn that sometimes, someone needs more than you but it doesn't make you any less?
When one is sick and I need to spend extra time with him, I worry about the other. He notices my attention is uneven and acts accordingly: sometimes unusually grouchy, sometimes unusually whiny, sometimes unusually temperamental. He notices.
My husband assures me that they don't have to be treated equally, they just need to be loved equally. I know he is right, but because they are kids, I worry this must look as if everything is equal, always. I worry that they notice more than I think they do. I worry that one day, they will take out scorecards and start tallying.
I think about my mom and the gifts, and I try to remember.
Love is not measured in the number of gifts, the amount of hours spent together or anything else that can be measured, counted or tallied. It's in the kisses that soothe when nothing else will. It's in the excitement you show when they score (or try to). It's in the pride you show when they fall and get back up. It's in the Band-Aid you affix like no one else can. In the tears you cry when a Band-Aid can't fix what's broken. In the strength you show when they break your heart a little. In the extra tight hug you give them after they've made a mistake. It's in they way you give your heart and care for theirs in return.
And these things I will do for both of them. Equally and always.