Aug 17, 2017

What is Love?

Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me no more.

Now that you're listening to appropriate music for this post... let's begin.  I'm writing this with my 6-month old beside me in his bouncy seat, alternating between intent focus on the spinny wheel and frenzied bouncing with animal sound effects and flashing lights galore!

Normally I write at work or after he's asleep, because who can think with the sounds of nursery rhymes you didn't know you knew blaring in their ear?  But today it seems appropriate since he's the one inspiring this post.

The other day our nanny was telling me that Orion always smiles when I come into the room and he stops crying as soon as Ryan or I pick him up.  I said something like, "That's probably frustrating for you but it's nice to know we're his favorite people!"  She said, "He LOVES you guys!"

And instead of glowing with maternal pride and then returning to life as usual, I thought, "Can babies even love?"

Which is not to say I don't think I'm important to my child.  Obviously he needs me and relies on me and feels safer and more comfortable with me.  His world is very small and I am the largest player in it.

But love?  In trying to pin down why I didn't feel it applied here, I tried to figure out my definition of love.  And I guess I don't know what I think it is.

My family has talked about love being one end on the scale of like to dislike.  After a certain point, we just call it "love."  Other people seem to refer to it like it's a different emotion entirely.

I can't decide if I agree with the sliding scale or a different emotion, but I guess in my mind love requires a certain self awareness.  Like in the book Anthem, when the characters have no concept for "I."  It's a dystopia, and their government seeks to keep them from rebelling by removing all sense of self-identity.

Now a child will grow to have his/her own unique identity but at what point does that develop?  Does a 6-month old understand that he is him and I am me?  Or does he just think of me as an extension of himself?  Can he really understand a concept like "I, myself, feel a certain way about you, a different human"?

There's also the question of intelligence and awareness and how much of that is dependent on language.  I had a friend a few years ago who was arguing that you don't need to know math and science to be intelligent.  I was skeptical (and feeling dumb) but she made some interesting points.  She said a chef, or a wine connoiseur, has 10 different words to describe something that I would just call "bitter."

So later, trying to remember that experience or compare it to a similar one, I won't remember the minute differences between those two, because I don't have the vocabulary to classify it and differentiate.

A baby has no language, although I'll concede that he communicates through a bunch of different noises even if he's not expressing very complex concepts.

So how much is his brain capable of understanding and thinking about, without any language to define and categorize those feelings and concepts?

When I first started thinking about this, it seemed obvious to me that a baby wasn't capable of love yet.  So I started trying to find the point at which they could love.  Small children love, after all.

But when you really think about a small child, who is quick to say "I love you" and just as quick to say "I hate you" 5 minutes later because you wouldn't let them eat crayons or cut their own hair, it's hard to say that's equivalent to the true, full, unconditional love that I feel for my child now.

I think a child might love or hate with the full capability of their tiny, little self, but their capacity isn't very large yet.

And I think I myself continue to learn to love in different ways and increase my own capacity.  Each year that Ryan and I stay together, I learn to love him more, in new ways, and sometimes despite other things.  Having a child has taught me another kind of love, a deeper and fiercer, possessive love than what I feel for my husband or sisters.

I think it's possible to have your capacity diminished by bad experience and emotional scars, but for the most part, we're all growing and our ability to love increases and grows over time.

My grandmother made a comment on a post a while back about how she thinks she cries more easily now than she used to because she has more empathy for other people.

And that I think is the key to my personal definition.  Babies are born with just their immediate needs and instincts.  Whether or not they can love, it's not much more than a surface feeling, just like all their other feelings.  Children are still pretty self-centered, but as we age, we do gradually become aware of other people's feelings, and I think that's a necessary component for being able to love.

When you only care about yourself, you don't love other people.  You might love what they do for you or how they make you feel, but the feeling is still about you.  As an adult, I love my mom for her kindness, patience, and unintended wisdom.  I love my sisters for the people they are.  I love my child with a intensity that is probably more biological instinct than anything else, but it's certainly not self-serving since he's not exactly capable of doing me any favors just yet!

I'm sure when I'm older, I'll think my current state is that of a "shallow 30-year-old" and I'll be capable of even more.  Maybe I'll have even figured out forgiveness at that point!

So that's my definition.  What's yours?

Do you think babies can love?  What about the sliding scale vs separate emotion theory?

Jenn signature graphic | Optimization, Actually


  1. Ahh I totally thought this too! Someone commented about Babycakes loving me...and I thought "Does she? Or does she just know that I am vital to her survival?" Haha. The spectrum idea of love is a really intriguing one...going to mull that over.

  2. I have whole different concepts of love and I do think it transcends just a normal 'like' emotion and is embedded in us. In that way, and I do know my views are diff to many, I do think babies can love, and in a more pure way. In a 'this person takes care of me, I depend on her, Im grateful for her, Im happy to see her, Ill cry when she's not around because shes my world, her arms feel safe, she is mine and Im hers' kinda way. I dont have a baby yet but having seen my sis and even cousins raise them, I think it goes beyond immediate needs. Your nanny can give him a bottle and put him to sleep, but he knows your arms :) (again im weird I know, but love is weird isnt it? and perceptions of love..).

    The intelligence thing did crack me up tho, I 100% believe someone can be intelligence without knowledge of math and science. Using me as an example, Im a lawyer, I have about 4 degrees and work for one of the best law firms in the Caribbean... but I cannot math. Like if the number has more than two digits I need a calculator. Not want, need. I suck really hard at math. I represent doctors and scientists etc every day though and the way I see it, they cant do what I do which is why they call me. Likewise I cant (and have no earthly desire to) do what they do. Both sets intelligent, both at different things.

  3. I've thought about this before but in relation to my dogs. Some people firmly believe that dogs don't "love" their owners, they just know that person as the one that feeds them and keeps them warm/safe and let's then out to go potty or exercise. I'm in the other camp. I truly believe that after 4 to 6 years of ownership with my dogs, I could stop feeding them and keep them in their crates for days, and they'd still love me and die in my arms wagging their tails.
    Obviously I can't measure the level of love or even presence of love in my dogs, but I still think it's there and similar to babies in some basic, explainable sense. *shrug*


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