By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor
It happened to me, just as it happens to just about every parent that ever lived. By the time the baby arrives bawling and purple by way of a body fatigued to the point of madness and despair: the miracle of love arrives along with it.
Then came those first days and weeks and months, that have stretched to years and decades of toil, effort, exertion, and yes, drudgery in the guiding of those two tiny babies towards adulthood. Somehow miraculously, the miracle persists.
As one grandma put it when she cornered me with a screaming toddler in a crowded grocery line: “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.”
In his recent report on what social scientists have dubbed “the IKEA effect,” NPR science correspondent Shankar Vedantam began with a personal anecdote about a friend who spends his free time caring for two huge misbehaving dogs that bark, get into fights, and otherwise make him unpopular with his neighbors, asking: “Does he do all this work for the dogs because he loves the dogs, or does he love the dogs because he does all this work for them? Most of the time we think that when we love something it leads to labor, but is it possible that labor leads to love?”
Turns out, recent research has confirmed Vedantam’s hunch: labor can indeed lead to love. People actually feel more love and appreciation for the self-assembled products from IKEA (however lopsided that hutch turned out) than those same products assembled by a professional.
Of course, my lovely daughters are neither Vallvik TV units nor Selje nightstands. And I’m among those immune to the IKEA effect when it comes to cobbling together a Malm desk: there’s no love lost between me and DIY assembly.
But the labor = love equation illuminates the miracle of child love – and it also explains parents' natural delusional perspective on their children’s charms, potential, and skills. Indeed, it’s no miracle at all, but it's still sublime. Effort and work ignites imagination, emotions, and makes us care. This laborious non-miracle of love sets our relationships to our children apart from most others. After all, in the beginning, their 24/7 needs transform the caregivers in profound ways. The repugnant becomes normal. The mundane, fascinating. The predictable, hilarious. The simple, exalted. Ordinary people become heroes of sleep deprivation and sacrifice – if only for a few months.
That the residue of that labor lasts a lifetime is a telling testament to the human heart. For some, this may be a prosaic explanation for why we love our kids so much, but I find it remarkable: that our exertions can transform our feelings. It’s also a great lesson to impart to our children: that putting nose to the grindstone can unlock a kind of deep satisfaction.
Recently, my daughters and I watched First Position, a documentary about young aspiring ballet dancers preparing for an international competition. As a former dancer, I'm not a huge fan of ballet – especially for little girls, many of whom can’t help but become fixated on staying unhealthily thin. And the film featured more than one stage mother, tilting just this side of the Toddlers and Tiaras windmill. But some of these kids had experienced what all children need to experience, that our “general ed for the general public, fill-in-the-blanks” schools sometimes fail to emphasize: that intense effort itself can breed passion and love, loose screws and all.