Love the feeling, love the action

Posted by on Sep 16, 2011 in Parenting | 8 comments

This post is part of a series on the fruits of the spirit. The current theme is love.

Three weeks after Dominic was born and two days before Mike left for Laos again, Mike and I went out to dinner at the Bangalow pub. I can tell I am not one of these women who is going to struggle to tear myself away from her baby to go on date nights – I finished the feed, tossed him into my Mum’s arms, wriggled into jeans for the first time in nine months, set my watch for two and a half hours and trotted happily out the door.

Over a delicious dinner Mike and I talked about what the month apart would hold for us and the challenge I had just set myself to serially blog about the different fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22) as they related to mothering, marriage and the miscellaneous of life.

“Are you going to do them in order?” Mike asked. “Because if so, I’m going to miss most of love.” Mike said this if it were an entirely novel scenario instead of a disturbingly regular occurrence that we are on opposite sides of the world and missing out on love.

“Yes,” I said. “Don’t feel bad, you wouldn’t be getting much loving if you were here, anyway. Not with a three week old baby demanding my time, attention, and body.”

Mike considered this in silence from a moment and then brightened.

“Oh well,” he said, smiling in the manner of someone who has just had a private naughty thought. “That means that during the month of self-control you’ll be in Laos during the hot season. And I get to watch.”

I thought about all the things that might test my self-control in Laos, took another bite of pork belly rolled in apples and dates, and sighed.

“So what are you going to write about first?” Mike asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Two days ago I set myself the goal of coming up with one idea or issue a night during the midnight feeds.”

“How’s that working out for you?” Mike asked.

“Well, I came up with one the first night,” I said. “Last night I wasn’t thinking of anything except ‘I’m so tired, it’s so cold, I’m so tired, it’s so cold’.”

“So what were you thinking about the first night?” Mike asked.

“The difference between love as an action and love as an emotion,” I said. “And how I didn’t feel like I felt love the moment they placed Dominic in my arms. I just felt cold and shaky, and shocked and relieved that I had somehow – against all the laws of physics – actually managed to get him out. I think popular culture leads us to expect that we should feel that rush of emotion. I know some women experience being overwhelmed by feelings of love just after birth, but surely others don’t.  I wonder if a lot of women get tripped up by that lack of feeling instant love.”

“Are you feeling tripped up by not feeling that overwhelming rush of emotion-love right after birth?”

“No,” I said. Slowly. Hesitantly.

“What does the Greek word used in the original verse mean?” Mike asked.

“I don’t know which of the words for love it is,” I said. “I’ll need to consult Google on that.”

“I don’t think love is a feeling, ” Mike said. “I think it’s an action.”

“When it comes to babies maybe it’s a feeling that follows an action,” I said. “Maybe it’s due to cognitive dissonance.”

“What?” Mike said.

“Cognitive dissonance,” I said. “When you hold two conflicting ideas at the same time it causes dissonance which messes with your head and makes you uncomfortable, right? We are generally motivated to reduce this dissonance by changing our thinking about one of these ideas to bring them more into line with each other. So if you go through nine icky months of pregnancy, then think you might die giving birth to this child, then have to get up in the cold and the dark every two to three hours to feed the little being, maybe subconsciously you figure that you must hugely value anything that costs you this much and that’s where all that love for your baby comes from.”

Mike took a bite of steak with mushrooms while he mulled that over.

“There’s something really wrong with that,” he said finally.

“Yeah,” I said. “Just for the record, that’s definitely not the dynamic at work in generating my love for you. I don’t think.”

“That might be the sweetest thing you’ve said to me today,” Mike said. “All week, even.”

“I don’t think it’s primarily the source of my love for Dominic either,” I said. “I don’t think.”

Dominic is five weeks old now and I still don’t have what love is in relation to a child anywhere near sorted out, much less where it comes from. But this has been my experience so far: Love has not swamped me like a tidal wave; it is creeping in slowly, like the tide. Dragging myself out of bed at 3am in the cold darkness to feed Dominic is love in action. Wanting to kiss his little face after he’s eaten when I know there’s a good chance he’ll baptize me with secondhand milk – that’s love the feeling.

What do you think? Is love a feeling or an action? And if love for our kids doesn’t spring from cognitive dissonance, where does it come from?

Related posts:

The Most Versatile Word in the English Language
From Peace to Patience
Dear Dad, Love Dominic (A letter for Father's Day)

8 Comments

  1. I don’t know how well I can express this, because I think it’s probably a bit of a mystery, but I tend to think that love for our children is like God’s love in miniature. God loves His children because He made us in His image, because we are His, because He is love, in spite of what it costs Him or what He stands to gain from us. Likewise, we love our children not because of what they offer us, but because they are made to be loved, because they exist, because they are little persons in our image, so to speak. Parenting costs the parent so much that I’ve come to believe that such a costly love can only come from God.

    • I think you expressed it well!! We were just talking about this on the porch here the other day. Someone with one child was saying that they love their first child so much they actually can’t conceive of having another because they can’t figure out how they will ever love a second child as much, and they fear robbing the first child of love to love the second. Someone else said that was what they had found miraculous about parenting, that their love for their children kept multiplying exponentially as each new one was born, that it never got divided, never decreased. That, they said, was the closest they’d come to understanding how God can love all of us at the same time.

  2. Well said Brea! You just do, even when wanting to bang your head in the shower……but they also do things like giggle and learn to kiss (Will) or teach their brother how to do legos and hold hands crossing the street (Thomas) anf your heart just floods with love. I found the flooding part is easier to come by once you are getting 6 hrs of sleep and once they have some spunk/personality, even as small as 3mos

    • Ah, yes, the six hours of sleep would help I think, good point! D is just learning how to smile. Last night, even though he was awake at 3am he was content to lie in his crib and flap his arms and legs and give me a little smile every time I looked at him. It’s impossible not to love him in that moment, even though you’re also going “go to sleep, little one, go to sleep.”

  3. I’m with you. I didn’t immediately feel this rush of love for Andrew the minute he was born. At first it was like being on auto-pilot. Feed, change, sleep, repeat. Instinct. Duty. My feelings for him developed over time as he was able to interact with me. As he responded to me more than just a source of food and comfort with smiles, etc. my feelings began to grow exponentially. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but that’s how it was for me. I think it might be different with our second baby… because having gone through the experience you know there is so much to anticipate. At least that’s my hunch.

    • That’s so interesting about the second baby, I’ve got one friend who speaks of how she got more anxious with each pregnancy, because she knew what was at stake, because she wanted these new little babies in her life, her family, so much more each time. The first time, she said, she had no conception of what she’d be missing should something go wrong.

  4. I think love is both an action and a feeling. I consulted a dictionary to see which they listed first–the noun or the verb–and concluded that dictionaries fall short of being able to define love properly.

    Love is an action. God commanded us to love our neighbours as ourselves, and I don’t think He meant for us to merely have cozy affectionate feelings towards them. I think He meant it in a way that implies active participation.

    But then, also, love is a feeling. Because if it was just an action, then I could conceivably fall in love with and marry just about anyone, as long as I made the choice to love as an action. But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?

    Hmm… great food for thought. 🙂

    • “dictionaries fall short of being able to define love properly”… love it. Yes, there’s more to it than the feeling, but feelings are closely tied to attitude, aren’t they? And love the action without right attitude is… well… I’d guess not always, but sometimes, runs the risk of falling into dangerous territory. Thanks for looking at the dictionary, bizarrely I had not yet thought of doing that :). Now I’m going to have to go have a peek myself.

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