My daughter comes to me with snot and tears streaked down her face and asks between wails, “Do you still love me, Mama? Even when I’m crabby?”
She then bursts into more sobs as I take her small frame onto my lap and wipe the hair out of her eyes. I slowly pet her back, her shaking chest and stroke those soft arms and use my sleeve to wipe her eyes.
I make her look at me.
I make her look up at me and into my eyes, and I tell her to listen carefully.
I speak the words slowly so that my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter can really, truly hear them and process them as fully as I want her to. I say, “Zoe, I love you when you’re crabby, and I love you when you’re happy. I love you the same when you’re mad and when you’re sad. I love you just as much when you are mean as I do when you are kind. Mamas always love their girls.”
And she sighs and snuggles closer and whispers, “Promise?”
So I hug her tighter. I wrap my arms and my life around her and tell her, “Can you feel that? Can you feel how tight I’m holding you?” And she nods snuffly into my chest.
“That’s how tight I love you,” I tell her.
And she can feel it. She can feel my solid arms strapped around her tiny frame. She can feel my legs under her body and my back and chest supporting her being. I am sandwiched around her, and I let that reality do the talking when I know my words haven’t quite sunk in yet.
I want her to know this deep, reassuring promise of a love that isn’t conditioned on good behavior. This love that doesn’t keep a list of all that she got wrong. This love is bigger than whether or not she stayed “on green” all day.
I give her my love as a gift, and I watch her tiny face try to process that she’s allowed to just reach out and receive it.
Because it’s easy to keep our own score, isn’t it?
Yesterday I was late getting the kids up, I lost my temper, and we didn’t properly hug good-bye, so today I’m a bad mom and don’t deserve to be loved.
Or today everything ran smoothly and kids laughed and leaned through the minivan window and kissed me good-bye, so today I get to feel worthy.
Maybe for you it’s keeping score of which days you lost your temper and which you didn’t. Or which days you got caught up on the laundry or which days you managed to put up with your boss with a good attitude or which days you snapped at that co-worker, ignored that annoying friend, or forgot to read your Bible. Again.
Which days you managed not to take a drink or which days you woke up in a bed you didn’t recognize. Which days you don’t even remember anymore. Which days your marriage was a drag and which days you wanted out and hated yourself for it.
We are good at keeping tabs on ourselves. We are relentless about our lists.
What we got right and what we got wrong and all the ways we try to make up for it, or do better next time until finally there’s an afternoon we just wind up on the bed crying because it’s so exhausting. It’s just so exhausting trying to live up to all the ways we hope make us worthy of being loved.
But that is not love.
That kind of list-keeping, always measuring, always bartering kind of life — that isn’t love.