One sphere of life informs the others. This week I wrote at Forbes about how the rules of business apply to dating. Similarly, being a mom has taught me so much about dating and relationships. After all, both are matters of the heart, human condition and avoiding prosecution when the other party makes you lose your shit.
Here are 5 ways that loving my kids has helped me love men:
1. That heart-swelling, dizzying first blush of infatuation is not sustainable — but it returns. When my daughter Helena was born 6 years ago, I thought I was going to die of love. And cuteness and sweetness and hilarity. I could not believe how much I adored this person. Had never know anything like it before.
Now? I love her every day, of course. Some days it's all I can do not to squeeze the crap out of her, I'm so crazy for her. Others? It's all I can do not to shake the crap out of her, she makes me so crazy. The rest of the time? Meh — just another day in paradise.
But I never question my devotion to my kids just because our time together is not perpetually ensconced in a glittery haze of happytimes. Accepting this as normal casts a new expectation on my relationships — even when the heady buzz of initial romance fades, that does not signal the beginning of the end.
2. People are who they are. I'm fully guilty of trying to change men. And by “men,” I mean my ex-husband. I also mean a whole bunch of other men. But since becoming a mom I realize you can't change people — we're all more or less who we are at birth.
One of my favorite things to do is tell my kids about what they were like when they were babies — because these tales confirm their personalities were hard-wired from the start:
When Lucas was less than a year old, each night his older sister and I would sit on the couch, reading books. Luke, always a hefty boy, would crawl on the back of the sofa, gleefully, mischievously giggling, and dead-drop over our heads onto our laps. When Helena sprouted her first teeth, she accidentally bit me while nursing, and of course I flinched. A day later, I lay her across my lap and pulled up my T-shirt, only to look down at my baby who locked eyes with me, flashed her little razor-teeth, grinned menacingly and chomped down, giggling as I recoiled in pain.
Flash forward five years, and each of these kids is more or less exactly how they were at birth.
If I had never become a mom, I would not have such appreciation for human's hard-wiring, and that has changed how I interact with people of all ages. Yes, I may be right to expect my kids to eat at approximately the same speed for the sake of scheduling and manners, but I accept that Lucas eats at the pace of a turtle, and plan accordingly. It can be maddening that Helena becomes so engrossed in a book or art project that she literally does not hear me, no matter how loud I scream or how persistently I nag. I accept this is just how she is — and physically get up in her grill when I need her attention.
Likewise, some guys just are not going to call when I think they should. Others are not as cuddly as I may prefer, or ambitious as I think they could be. But I'm not going to change that. I'm just not. So I have stopped trying. And everyone is happier for it.
3. Life is phases. “It's a phase, it will pass” — oldest maxim in parenting. Those tantrums and bad attitude and nose picking that you think may undo you? They pass. Those sweetest little things, like Lucas earning his moniker “Huckleberry Luke” for ending every blueberry pancake breakfast with purple fruit smeared across his face, or Helena's pre-crawling phase in which she rolled around the living room to fetch toys? Those pass, too.
Applied to relationships: The tough times tend to pass. Appreciate the sweet ones.
I look to longterm marriages I know. Even the solid, happy ones had some really horrible times — times when any sane person would have said, “Sure, that makes sense you would split up. No one should put up with that!” — for whatever reason those couples stuck it out, and come out on the other side strong and happy. Kids don't come with an out. You have them and you have to deal and you're all better for it. What if we applied that to our romances?
4. It's not all about me. Sometimes when the kids are acting like total dicks, it's because they had a bad day, or they're having a moment, or that is just life. It's not because I'm a bad mom or because they're traumatized by the demise of their parents' marriage. Similarly — if they're doing awesome at school or are particularly delightful, this does not necessarily mean it is because I am a superior parent (though it might).
In the past, if a guy I like dumped me, or there was friction in my relationship — I might have blamed him, though deep down I usually worried the impetus was some intrinsic flaw within me. Now, I am more forgiving of myself, and others. Because friction doesn't always mean someone is genetically defective (though it might).
5. You can't schedule the precious moments. Last week was my birthday and my boyfriend, who was out of town at a family wedding, sent a big arrangement of white orchids, with a sweet note attached. Helena so loved this gesture, and read the card again and again while smiling. She kept returning the note to the holder in the arrangement, even after I'd set it aside. She's like me: She loves romance and passion, even though at 6 she doesn't really know what that means.
I realize now that I've sought out a big life full of passion and romance — yes, in my personal relationships, but also my whole life. Big travel and a big career and big adventures of all kinds. I'd set up big giant gestures and experiences, but would often find myself disappointed. I had created specific, arbitrary expectations which of course never transpired as I'd envisioned.
If parenting has driven home a giant lesson, it is that you can't orchestrate memories. You can't control a whole lot, and in fact, the best things are those you cannot plan. The big, showy Christmas, or summer in Maine that makes your Facebook friends swoon (or glower)? Those are not likely what you remember. It's the impromptu, little tiny things that float up and snatch your train of thought in the middle of the day — the intent way Lucas, barely 2, would stand next to me at the kitchen counter, chopping broccoli, or how Helena would dress up in a silly, glittery outfit and my heels and say: “I'm a fancy lady going to a meeting in the city!” Sweet mornings when the kids lumber into my bed to snuggle and we'd do airplane stunts on the mattress.
So, too, with lovers. My ex-husband was the king of romance. Every holiday, birthday and anniversary were full of thoughtful, meticulously planned days full of activities, reservations and gifts. It really was a sort of fairytale courting that lasted until the end of our marriage. Yet those are not the memories I cherish from that chapter. I hold dear the way he would make me howl with laughter by teasing me about my hairy nipples, or early in our dating, over dinner one evening, he patiently listened as I shared so-very painful childhood memories, and when I choked up he said nothing but stepped around the table and held me.
And so with all loves it seems, there is no new wisdom. Live in the moment. Forgive. Commit. Enjoy and above all else — love and love some more.
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Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.