Our first encounter with love is usually an exercise in call and response. A parent or loved one will tell us they love us, and we respond in kind. We’re not really thinking about the words; we’re saying them because they’re the expected response. That love that we parrot back to the waiting party is our first love—it comes long before we start thinking about concepts like self-love, unrequited love, or unconditional love.
Even after we’ve started to come to our own conclusions about love, that knowledge isn’t fixed. Time and our own evolution affect that definition.
Perhaps one of the experiences that most profoundly affects how we feel about love is motherhood. mater mea sat down with three women—Hanako Moondance, 31, who lives in Los Angeles with her partner and 2-year-old son; Shauntelle Hamlett, 41, who lives in Atlanta with her husband and three children ages 12-19; and Chantel Sparrow, 32, who lives in the Bronx with her 4-year-old son—about how their ideas of love have evolved over time and mothering.
What was your introduction to love?
Moondance: I think I’ve benefited from having parents who were very loving, but I was not aware for a long time that the world was different from that. Once I started school, I was able to see that [my friends’] family situations were different. I learned that love didn’t always mean a continuous partnership, and that I was benefiting from two people who were working on their relationship, in part, for my benefit, and that that was something special.
Hamlett: I have a very distinct memory from when I was about 4, of sitting in the living room, looking out of the window, and humming this little song to myself about it not being puppy love. I remember it so distinctly I can almost put myself in that place. I don’t have any idea where any of that came from exactly, but that’s the first memory I have of thinking about love, as in love, as in this big thing in relationships with other people.
Sparrow: The memory is a simple, but loving, time I draw on for comfort: Watching Dumbo in the bed with my grandmother for the first time, eating cheese and tea biscuits while drinking Lipton with too much sugar and a lemon wedge. I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 but it was the best. Last night as I was washing dishes, my son [asked me] whether or not we were having our Friday movie night. He asks about 50 times per day all week. I get why my son loves movie night so much: Even though I eventually pass out, they are one of the tender moments that I can execute flawlessly.
How has your definition of love evolved over time?
Hamlett: Love is a verb. I don’t think I was aware of that when I was younger. My mom was married multiple times, so I’ve had several stepfathers. When I looked at her relationships, I felt like maybe what they had was love, but it wasn’t what I thought of as love. I definitely developed a strong dislike of relationships where the discussions got really loud and aggressive. As an adult I realized that that is how some adults interact with one another. That doesn’t make it a horrible thing, but I learned early on that that was not acceptable to me.
I’ve been married twice. My high school sweetheart [and I] started dating when I was 15 and he was 16; we were together between dating and married until I was 28. My second husband I actually met at work, not long after I got divorced. We’ve been together from the time I was 29 until now.
When I was 15 and falling in love, it was all about that person listening to me, and him always being there. But then as I grew, I realized that love isn’t “I have a hole and it needs to be filled” [or] “You are supposed to give me something that makes me complete.” It took a lot of years to get to that.
Moondance: My partner Alex is pretty much the second person I’ve dated, ever. When I was younger, some guy I had a crush on told me I was the “marrying” type, not the “dating” type, and I took that to heart. But at the same time I think that I always knew that I didn’t just want to date somebody to date somebody, the way that I think a lot of people did in high school, and even in college. There was a lot I needed to learn about myself in order to know what kind of relationship I wanted to have with someone, or what kind of love I had to offer somebody else. So, I think for a long time [love] was this very vague thing.
I agree with you, [Shauntelle], that love is a verb and it grows and it changes. It’s like a chemical reaction based on the two people who are involved. Even when it is tough, there is an understanding—a sense of respect for each other, and what we mean to each other. Now that we’re raising a son together, there’s a certain amount of stability that is required of us [to show] him what healthy love looks like.
Sparrow: Love has evolved in two key ways for me over time: learning to understand love as an action versus something that passively happens to you and learning to express love through physical touches, like hugs, kisses, cuddles, hand holding, etc. Through interacting with very close friends and romantic interests both of these lessons were a long time coming but it wasn’t until I became a mother that they slapped me in my face.
At the risk of sounding trite, I will say my understanding of love deepened tremendously when it was time to parent. I did not want children nor did I plan to have a child, but my surprise pregnancy was the universe’s way of waking me up and taking me off of my-self destructive path. I’m so grateful for that.
I did not love myself. Outside of sex I did not want to cuddle with, kiss or hug my partners. It made me uncomfortable and made my skin crawl. I also did a lot of “falling in love” with men but never truly cultivated that love by allowing them to see me for who I really was. [I thought] they wouldn’t like me, which caused me to be resentful.
When my son was born, the reckoning was also born. After a period of depression and a horrible breakup, I learned how important self-love is every day and how to act daily in love. Kids need kisses, hugs and cuddles. I recall not getting them, so I give them freely. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept them still, but I’m still a work in progress.
How do you explain love to your kids? How do you raise them to love?
Hamlett: I definitely believe that kids hear what you say, but they do what they see. My mother is definitely an explainer, but yet I know there were were times in my life where I was doing what I saw.
My mom spent a lot of time talking to my sister and I about what it means to have someone treat you respectfully because she had experienced a lot of abuse. Fortunately, I have never been in a situation where I was abused, but I still put myself in situations, or allowed things to happen where I was less than respected, and definitely not treated in a way that was healthy or consistent with being loved. Unfortunately, my sister was in a lot of physically abusive relationships that, if she had listened to what my mom said, wouldn’t have happened. But she saw what my mom went through, and what she did reflected what my mom did. So I try to be really conscious of what my kids see. I try really hard to walk the talk.
Moondance: I agree with the demonstration [of love]. My son just turned 2, so his verbal communication is starting to develop, but we haven’t gotten to the stage of having really deep conversations. If my partner and I are dealing with something and having a hard time, or having a really serious conversation, we take time to share loving moments with our son, or postpone our discussion for when he’s asleep or for when we’re away from him. It’s not so much to pretend that everything is ok, but just acknowledging that our son is there, listening to and absorbing everything. It’s really important how we cultivate our love as a partnership and our love for our son.
Sparrow: I think for me one of the lessons that I personally skipped over for a large portion of my life was the self-love piece, so I’m trying to harp on that a lot with my son. A lot of the things I try to instill in him are part of my own journey and development. I want him to always [know] that I love [him] and the people around [him] love [him], but sometimes the people who say they love you aren’t going to be around, so what else is left? Sometimes you’re alone, and you have to be ok with that. That’s huge for me right now. I just want him to know that he is good enough always.
Hamlett: Don’t you guys think the hardest part of being a parent is trying to grow as a person? You can’t just stop everything and say, “Oh, this is a moment where I really need to figure out what the heck I’m doing.”
Moondance: Sometimes I have conversations with my partner where I say “I need you to be a rad dad and not a sad dad.” I don’t want him to go through the world and forget that he’s a person that needs stuff. You can’t take care of anyone if you’re a mess. You need a certain amount of functionality for yourself, and you have to recognize that you’re an important human who’s also raising an even more important human.
Sparrow: Right. You absolutely can’t do any of these extremely difficult tasks, especially parenting, when you’re not your best self. But I think one of the hard lessons that I have learned in the last four years, is that I have to stop trying to pretend that everything is perfect. I have a lot of shame and stress and anxiety around not having the perfect arrangement for raising a kid. It wasn’t what I wanted, and it wasn’t the picture that I was looking for, so I was always trying to pretend everything was fine and pretend I was super happy about it, but it wasn’t the ideal situation for me. I think because I was pretending I wasn’t getting to a place where I was actually accepting of it.
I think it’s so important for our kids to see us get through things and cope, so that they’re also able to have the tools to cope with things later. I don’t think you can truly appreciate a struggle when you’re having one if you’ve never seen that modeled before.
Hamlett: I admire that a lot, because I struggle with that. I felt like my mother was a little too open and it made me feel like the parent. As a teenager, my ultimate goal was that I was not gonna make my mom any more stressed out than she already was. So now, my very, very closest friends might know a quarter of what I struggle with, but I’m not even the kind of person that’s gonna confide in my husband unless I think there’s no way I’m going to figure it out by myself. If you didn’t live with me and see that I took a shower for an hour and a half, you would not know that I was upset about something. And I don’t know how to work through that.
Moondance: I think that’s a learning process and ties into self-love a lot. For a good section of my life I slept everything off. I would think “That’s so exciting, I’m gonna take a nap,” or “I’m really depressed, I’m gonna take a nap.” I felt like I shouldn’t burden other people with what I was going through at the moment, and would choose to talk about it much later in an offhand kind of way. Sharing a space with my partner has taught me how to express myself. I would have really bad periods, and I had to just learn to let go and be a mess and let him support me in the ways that he could. I had to realize that there is an importance and a clearing out of self if you verbalize [your emotions].
How has being a mother changed love for you?
Sparrow: I had a lot of anxiety about parenting and mothering. I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. I actually never wanted kids. The moment my son arrived, I really loved him, but I wondered, “What does that mean for everything else?” That started a really severe internal rumbling, and everything came up from my whole entire life. I had to put some serious work into the whole self-love thing and how I wasn’t expressing love the way I should have been to everyone else.
I think for me [being a mother has] been the source of figuring it all out. If I went with my original plan and never had kids, it probably would have never happened. I’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of co-pays, and a lot of hours reading to get to this place. It’s been a really uncomfortable, but also a really awesome, trip. It’s made me a better parent. I understand that I’m not going to parent perfectly, and even the people who “got it all together” aren’t perfect parents.
Hamlett: My kids have truly taught me an understanding of unconditional love. I’m Christian, and I’ve had an in-between relationship with God over the years. It’s at a better place now than when I was younger, and I think my kids are one of the big [reasons for] that. I could relate how I feel about my kids to how I believe God feels about me, and I couldn’t have done that prior.
You watch your kids rebel against you, and you know they have to go through it—even though it may make things harder for them—because it’s part of their growth. And you still have this huge love [for them]—this overwhelming, indescribable feeling about them, that you can’t relate to anyone else. That made me understand unconditional love.
Moondance: Becoming a mother opened me to this whole other perception of the way that I was reared as a child, and a deeper understanding of what my parents put into me. I really benefited from some incredible parenting, so now I’m trying to pay it forward. I think [my partner and I] have almost a reverence for our son and his life and we’re learning to do that for ourselves. I’m learning what my role is to support this small person who’s learning about the world. The discussion of what I thought motherhood would be is so different than what it actually is. It’s reaffirming of my own humanity and my own capabilities to be able to provide for someone and care for them.