“I like Dad better than you,” my son says conversationally, never looking up from his breakfast.
“Oh yeah?” I respond casually. “Why is that?”
“Because he takes better care of me than you do.”
Now he had my attention.
“Do you really think that’s true?” I say, my tone a little less casual this time.
“Yeah. He takes me to the bike park and he likes to wrestle and I like him better.”
I stand in the kitchen, silent. Thinking.
After a minute I respond. “You are so loved and cared for that it’s just a part of your life. You don’t even notice when it’s happening. Because buddy, I take care of you all day long, every single day of your life.” I realize I’m not angry or upset. I already knew I wasn’t the favorite.
For the first time he looks up, and it occurs to him maybe he’s made a misstep. He starts to backpedal.
“You take care of me too,” he says. He runs over and hugs my waist. “Dad just does it better.”
I hug him back, still lost in thought. Then I go to the pantry and pull out a piece of blank paper. On the floor, my daughter’s markers are still scattered around her coloring book, and I pick up a red. I offer the paper and marker to my son.
“I want you to do something for me. Every time I do something to take care of you, I want you to draw a heart.”
My son grins. A behavior chart for parents. He likes this idea.
“We’ll start right now,” I say. “Who made your breakfast?”
“You did! You get a heart.” He draws a little heart carefully in the middle of the page.
“Who helped you find clean jeans?”
“You.” Another little heart, unevenly planted beside the first.
“Okay,” I said. “For the rest of the day, it’s your job to notice when I do something for you, and give me a heart.”
“When your page is filled, do we get to go on a date?”
Now I grin. “No, when the page is filled, you will be more aware. That’s our reward this time.”
True to his nature, he took his task very seriously. A heart for pouring his drink. One more when I located a missing Lego. By 9:30, the page was already full, and it worked. That day, he was more grateful for his mom.
But in general, I am not his favorite.
I make him finish his math assignment and rewrite his copy work when he gets in too big of a hurry. I am the one telling him to put away his shoes, plate, laundry. Brush his teeth, be kind, have self control. I am the mom.
I am not the favorite because I make him do the things that aren’t fun. But I know I’m a good mom. I know just how to make my hot-tempered child laugh, diffusing a fiery moment, and help my introverted child find the time alone he needs, even in a full house. The homemade muffin he’s eating for breakfast has extra Greek yogurt to keep his blood sugar even throughout the morning. Shoes and jackets that fit, someone to lean against when he’s hurt or embarrassed, check-ups and dentists and shirts from the one store he likes best.
He doesn’t notice these things because they are just the stuff of his daily life. Love is so woven into every detail of his day that he can’t conceive of a life outside of it. It never occurs to him to be thankful because he doesn’t realize a childhood could be any other way.
And that is just how it should be.
I’m not the favorite, but mothering is about so much more than recognition. It is my way of living out my faith. The details that nourish my children’s bodies and soul are my very best reflection of the image of God. And if I am willing to see it, they are my best chance to recognize the traces of love in my own life, the tiny graces that fill my own days with ease and depth.
I spend my life nurturing my children, and I hope that daily, consistent nourishment will give them a framework for relating to a loving God in the future. They will understand love because it was their first experience, the groundwork for all others.
And that means more than any heart my son could draw.