Few human ideas and experiences change as much through the course of our lives as our ideas about love. When we are little, love is simple. There’s our parents, whom we love with a kind of awestruck reverence, our siblings, whom we love with an odd mix of annoyance and camaraderie, and perhaps a favorite teddy bear or other item, which we love with the fierce possessiveness that only young children can muster. As we reach school age, our ideas and experiences change. We gain our first friendships, experience our first losses, and begin to learn that love is not a constant, but something that grows, morphs, shrinks, and even disappears over time.
And then puberty hits.
Hoo boy, this changes everything. Now we have this new layer of love, one that our society glamorizes and denigrates at the same time. Add in the massive cocktail of hormones and instincts that are part and parcel with growing up and there should be no surprise that our teen years are one big rollercoaster of emotions. No one can love like a teenager, as evidenced by the plethora of dramatic and heartbreaking love stories starring young characters, from Romeo and Juliet to The Fault of Our Stars. And we’ve all been through this, haven’t we? We all had that relationship in high school that we thought was THE ONE, but only lasted 3 months and ended with the bitterest of emotions. It is, as they say, part of growing up.
But love continues to change. If you are lucky enough to find someone to stay with for the long haul, you discover that love is not a constant. People change. You change. So therefore, love must change as well. Sometimes, sadly, this change creates incompatibilities, but for others it can deepen the love. You begin to discover that, despite what our society teaches us, the overwhelming drunken feeling we had when we were teenagers was not love, but lust and instinct and novelty rolled into one. Real love is different: less debilitating but stronger, less possessive but more connective, less physical but more intimate. It becomes far less about having this other person and more about simply joy in that person’s existence.
But none of this will prepare you for having children.
The love you have for your kids, in some ways, is rather like the love you have for that first girl or boy when you are 15, but the instinctualness never goes away. No matter how old your child is, the deep-seated urge to protect at all costs never fades. From the first moment you realize that you will be a parent, the protectiveness is all-consuming, and it never fades. But the love does change. As your kids grow, they become their own people, with likes and dislikes and quirks and traits that are somehow both an amalgam of yours and your spouses, yet somehow completely unique. They become people, and you come to love them as people, not just in the instinctual way you do in the beginning. Much as you “fall in love” during a new relationship and then it morphs into actual love as the relationship evolves, so do you “fall in love” with your infant child and then come to love them as an individual as they grow up themselves.
I am 40 years old. My wife and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. Our three children are 16, 9 1/2. and 8. I realize that I am still learning about love. I know nothing about getting to know the people my children will date and eventually marry (my oldest just got his first girlfriend and we haven’t officially met her yet). I know nothing about the love I will experience as a grandfather. Most importantly, I fully expect that the love I have for my wife will continue to evolve. There is much I have still to learn. But I know this, and that is wisdom.