“Love only flows down”

On Friday night Caroline, Jay and I sat on our bed reading bedtime stories.  This is a nightly routine for us.  We put Jay in his pajamas, brush his teeth, and then plop him on the bed between us with a cup of milk and read from a pile of picture books.  This particular night Caroline was reading Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go and Jay was being particularly sweet, pointing out his favorite trucks and kicking his feet excitedly when Caroline turned to the page with all the construction equipment.

I was tired and feeling happy and I lay my head on Jay’s tiny shoulder.  Jay didn’t like this at all.  He pushed against my forehead with his little hand and said “No Daddy, go away.” I sat up, a bit chagrined.  I love Jay more than I’ve ever loved anybody, and that love wants to express itself through affection.  But I realized in that moment that while Jay can lay his head on my shoulder, it’s not my place to lay my head on his.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a conversation I overheard between a mom and her college-aged son.  It struck me, listening to the two of them talk for almost an hour, that there was an imbalance between them: the son gave the impression that he was indulging his mom with his company, while for her part it seemed that there was no one she would rather be spending time with.

My mother-in-law emailed that essay to several of her friends with grown sons.  One wrote back, “I think that love flows down, parent to child, in a way that it just can’t flow the other way.”  I liked that, and I think it captures a little of why it felt unnatural for me to put my head on Jay’s shoulder.  In every other loving relationship such a gesture would have fit: we rest our heads on the shoulders of our spouses, our friends, our siblings, our parents. But children recoil—almost instinctively—when their parents show signs of needing them emotionally.

On Saturday morning I was talking about this with a friend—a man with two grown children of his own—who recommended I read Michel Montaigne’s essay “On the affection of fathers for their children.”  That night I read it on the couch beside an open window with Wally asleep in my lap.

Montaigne, I knew, is considered the “father of the essay,” and as I began to read I was amazed, first of all, at how current the writing seemed.  I paused after a page and looked him up in Wikipedia, expecting to find that he’d written in the late-19th century or something like that—just long enough ago to give him stature, but recently enough that his sensibilities don’t seem radically different than our own.  I was stunned to discover that he died in 1592.  The world has turned over a few times at least between then and now, but not everything has changed, apparently, in how parents feel about their children.

Montaigne writes that after a desire for self-preservation, “the love which the begetter feels for the begotten” is the most powerful law of nature.  Given that the reproductive success of the human race depends on parents loving their children, but not on children loving their parents, Montaigne writes, “it is not so surprising if love is not so great when we go backwards, from children to fathers.”

It takes the fun out of the best things in life to reduce them to biological causes.  Montaigne seemed to realize this, so he offered a more romantic explanation for why love only flows down:

Anyone who does a kindness to another loves him more than he is loved in return; anyone to whom a debt is owed feels greater love than the one by whom the debt is owed; and every creator loves what he has made more than it would love him.