By the time my child was little, this question had gone out of fashion.
Maybe because our generation found this question so inane that they decided to spare their children the trouble of answering it. It was almost as if parents tacitly agreed not to subject their children to the embarrassment of answering this rather impolitic question.
Maybe part of it was that it was a rather silly question anyway: each parent plays some role in the life of the child. Even in the case of the ever-absent parent, the other parent can be a hands-on parent only because the other is working to ensure a certain quality of life for the family.
Part of it might be that parents today are unwilling to listen to the answer…
My 4-year old daughter was asked this question by the judge in his chambers: “Whom do you love best?” At stake: who would be given custody.
She smiled, “My aunt.” She was talking about my sister.
The judge didn’t get it. “Whom do you love the most in the world?”
“My aunt,” she repeated, wondering why this man didn’t understand such a simple answer.
The flummoxed man cleared his throat and tried another tack. “Who loves you best?”
“My aunt!” she was beginning to lose patience.
My daughter smiled at me as the judge gaped at us both. I smiled back at her and told the judge, “She’s answered your question.”
“Does she understand the question?” he was concerned at my lack of concern.
“Yes, she does, and yes, she feels her aunt loves her best in the world and she loves her aunt best in the world.”
My ex-husband’s lawyer, who was expecting my daughter to say, “Mom!” and who was ready to interject with all the vituperative force at his disposal, was completely unmanned. 🙂
“But – but-” the judge couldn’t credit his hearing.
“Yes, it’s true. I’m a far second,” I said.
In those months (maybe even years), as my life spiraled out of control on every front, I spent all my time and energy on myself. My sister was my daughter’s parent in every sense of the word. So my daughter’s response was both natural and obvious – to me.
As I knit my life back together, my sister took a considered decision, one of the hardest she has ever made. In the interests of my daughter, she deliberately stepped back, and put me at the forefront of my daughter’s life as her ‘parent’.
Some years passed. One day, as we were playing, my daughter, then 8, put her arms around me saying, “I love you best, Ma.” It sounded and felt great! 🙂
But I thrust her away from me and said, “No.” This was sufficiently unusual for her to ask me what was wrong with her loving me best.
“The person you should love best should be yourself!” (Yes, I know – ‘should’! I try to minimize my use of the word – I try to forget it exists, but this was a long time back, when I was governed by many more ‘shoulds’ than I am now! 🙂 )
I struggled to explain myself to her. “If you love me best, you will do things to make me happy.”
“I like making you happy, Ma. I like seeing you happy.”
I smiled and tried to find the right words. “I like being happy too! And you make me happy more often than you know. But I don’t want you to ‘do’ things to ‘make me happy’. I don’t want you to love me best.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with it? Don’t you love me best?” she persisted.
I sat her down next to me. I tend to do this when I have important things to say, so the very act of getting her to sit next to me must have got her attention. She stopped fidgeting.
“See, if you love me best, you will try to make me happy. That means my happiness will be more important to you than your own happiness. Suppose you want to buy a doll for a present, and I want you to have a board game instead. If you want to make me happy, you will smile and agree to buy the board game. You will feel bad that you couldn’t buy the doll, but because you value my happiness more than your own, you ‘give in’ to my wish. Right?”
“You already do things like this, isn’t it?”
“Ma, I thought you didn’t know! How do you know that sometimes I do things even if I don’t want to only because I think they will make you happy?” She was astonished.
“Well, I do know. If you do things for my happiness once or twice, and then stop, it doesn’t matter. But it becomes a habit. You’ll find you are doing everything ‘for my happiness’ and you will then feel sad, unloved and neglected, because you are not doing things to make yourself happy. It’s already happening; I can feel it sometimes.”
She gave me a speaking look.
“The other problem is that my happiness becomes your job – at least, you feel that it is your job. So you have to keep worrying about my happiness all your life. Every time I’m sad, you’ll feel you’ve done something wrong, or not done something you should have done. Maybe I’m sad for some completely unrelated reason, but you will feel responsible – as if it is your ‘fault’ that I am sad.”
I looked deep into her eyes for emphasis. “This kind of thinking is nonsense. It is ‘wrong’. It creates a lifetime of misery and trouble. That is why I don’t want you to love me best. I want you to love you best. All your life. Always. Never mind what people say. Never mind what they think. My happiness is my job. And your happiness is your job.”
“Whether or not someone is with you, you are always with yourself. So you can happily entrust your happiness to yourself. Don’t leave the job to someone else. Don’t leave it to anyone else!”
“Whom do you love best, Ma?” she asked, getting to the crux of the matter.
“Myself,” I replied. (Yes, I should be hung, drawn and quartered. I should be shot. Boiling in oil is too good for me etc. etc. What kind of useless example for a parent am I? But I have to be myself – who I am – if I have to be any good as a parent. And this is me: I believe in each person being responsible for his and her own happiness.)
“I love you more than words can say,” I explained. “But I don’t do or say stuff to ‘make you happy’. There is no end to this kind of thinking. Here is how it works. You ask me to make you a Spanish omelet. I don’t have the time, or don’t feel like spending the time, so I refuse. Instead, I offer you scrambled eggs or a fried egg. You’re not delighted, but you choose one of the two, and I make it for you. I’m ‘happy’ because I’m doing things to make me happy. You’re not so happy, but you got a choice, so you could be less happy than you are. I could have refused to make you any kind of eggs, for instance.”
“But over time, you find that every time I cook something for you, I do it with great joy, and I enjoy seeing you enjoy it. I feel good. And you feel good. If I were to keep cooking things to ‘make you (and not myself) happy’, after some time, I would lose the joy of cooking for you. I would resent the effort it took. And that would come through in my words, on my face, in my body language. I would be annoyed at you and frustrated, and the irritation would flare out at other times. You would wonder what was wrong, and we would both be unhappy and irritated without ever getting to the root of the matter.”
“Trust me, it’s miles better this way. Just do what makes you happy. Have you got it?”
“All this talking has made me thirsty. Could you please get me a cup of coffee?” I asked her.
“Ma, I don’t feel like making you coffee. Maybe you should make it yourself,” said the cheeky minx. 😉
Yes, I’d say she understood what I was saying. 🙂
P.S. It’s been years since then, and we’re doing fine; in large part because she loves herself best. Just as I love myself best. 🙂
Now, are you ready to find out? Whom does your child love best?