There's a look my 2-year-old daughter gives me sometimes that I can never quite describe. It comes when she is feeling under the weather, wanting only to snuggle into my arms. Sometimes I see it after we've had a genuinely nice, tantrum-free afternoon playing in the park or building block towers in the living room. It's there when she is trying, and failing, to communicate a need or a wish. She so desperately wants me to connect the dots inside her little mind; she expects it of me. I see it when she suddenly runs up to me for an embrace, not having been prompted. When she opens her arms and wraps herself around me like I am the best and only thing. In truth, my husband and I are the most important people in our kids' lives — a realization as satisfying and heartwarming as it is weird and scary.
I don't think I've ever been the most important person in anyone's life before. My partner and my mom would try to argue otherwise, but there is a difference between the way an adult cares for another adult, and the way a child cares for, and needs, their parent(s).
My daughters love us unconditionally. Their affections may waver from time to time, like when Luna (our eldest) is told she needs to put her knitted Humpty Dumpty doll down so she can eat, but they never take long to return. They more than love us, though. They depend on us.
My daughters rely on Mama and Papa to keep them washed and fed. We are the ones who nurse them back to health after a bad cold. We provide cuddles after a knee is bruised. We are their playmates and teachers. My 8-month-old, who I breastfeed, physically depends on me for her sustenance, too.
That I am the most important person in my children’s lives is a bizarre feeling, to say the least. In some ways, it’s humbling. When either of my girls looks at me in the way I can never quite describe, I am reminded of how much beauty there is in being their mother. In those moments, my career guilt melts away. I don’t add a “just” to the title of “Mom.” Being “Mom” becomes enough, so much so that I suddenly stop berating myself for not doing “enough” of anything else. I have two amazing people to care for, after all, and to them I am everything I ever needed to be. At least for now.
The way that children idolize, love, and need their parents or carers is finite. My daughters’ love for me will change. It may diminish.
It’s a scary feeling as well. There is a selfishness to the fear (a justifiable kind of selfishness). If I am the most important person in their lives, and they are the most important people in mine, then I can no longer be the most important person to myself. I cannot act without thinking. I can’t just “go with my gut” if it means not considering them at all. I can’t spontaneously go out dancing, or commit to a dream job, or be that friend who’ll always answer your texts — not without considering so many other things. So many pieces of the puzzle that is my family.
To know how much they love and need me is also terrifying because I am only one person — one fragile, messy, imperfect person. I know I’ll make mistakes. I know I’ve probably already made more than a few. And I can never shake the feeling that I’m going to screw my children up somehow because (as humans) so many of our traumas and deeply-rooted emotional issues stem from our own parents. From the ways they cared for us, or didn’t. From the ways they expressed love, or didn’t. From the times they didn't get it right, even when they were really trying to.
And that is such an enormous responsibility. I can try to seek reassurance in the fact that I know my children’s parents are kind. I know we try to keep our home a place of warmth. My husband and I are self-aware enough to acknowledge areas of our lives and personas that could use some improvement, and we are dedicated to preventing our anxieties or baggage from passing onto them. Still, raising well-rounded, compassionate, strong individuals is a monumental task. We owe it to them to do our best, sure, but the challenge can feel more than a little overwhelming at times.
The idea of disappointing them is pretty overwhelming, too. The way that children idolize, love, and need their parents or carers is finite. My daughters’ love for me will change. It may diminish. There may be times, as they grow, when it feels entirely absent. I know there will come a time when I’ll hurt them, or piss them off — just as my parents hurt and pissed me off; just as my partner’s parents hurt and pissed him off, too. And I dread it. I dread the day when something I have done makes them like, or love, me less. When it makes me not be the most important person anymore.
Terrifying stuff aside, however, the beautiful weirdness of being the most important thing in our kids’ lives is worth appreciating. If they give us the indescribable look — which is, I suppose, some mixture of adoration, dependency, joy, comfort, and surreal connection — then it must mean we’re doing a decent job of this whole parenting thing. It must mean our children trust us. They know we will do everything they count on us to do.
What's more is that we are the most important people to them, and we are loved unconditionally by them, even on our bad days. On the days when we feel like we’re falling apart. On the days when nothing goes right. When we cry on toilets. When we burn dinner. When we don’t kill it at work. When we take out our anger on the people around us. When we are miserable and tired and just want to sleep. Through it all, we are still the most important things to them.
In truth, I don’t know that I could say the same of anyone else in my life. It’s a special kind of love. Weird and wonderful and wild, every step of the damn way.