In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Mommy, Do You Love Me as Much as You Love Your Mommy?

I love your father more than I love you, my children

Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so good
No one could be, so gentle and so lovable
Oh, my Papa, he always understood. (Eddy Fisher)

When a child asks his mother whether she loves him as much as she loves her mother, two possible answers might spring to mind: (a) "Honey, love has different forms and we cannot compare one love to another," or (b) "Honey, I love you more than I love my Mommy." There is a third possible answer: (c) "Honey, I love you less than I love my Mommy", but this is seldom considered suitable. Which answer is the more appropriate one? Although (a) is the more profound answer and is adequate in many circumstances, (b) seems to better reflect reality in many cases.
It is true that various types of love are different and comparing them is complex, if it is even possible at all. How can we compare the intensity of romantic love to parental love? In fact, it is even difficult to compare the intensity of two occurrences of romantic love, such as the love you have for your current partner compared to how you felt toward a previous one; it is even more difficult to make comparisons between different types of love.
Despite the enormous difficulty of measuring the intensity of love (and other emotions), in everyday life people often try to assess this intensity. We measure the intensity of the love we have experienced at different times and toward different people ("I love you more than I have loved any other woman before"), or the love that other people have felt toward us at different times ("You used to love me more than you do now"). We sometimes compare the intensity of different emotions in the same person ("Because of my great love for you, I manage to control my anger"), or different people's love ("This person loves his wife more than she loves him").
We can conclude, at this point, that comparing the intensity of different types of love is possible in many cases, although it is very complex. Let me first consider the comparison between romantic and parental love.
One difference between parental love and romantic love is that parental love is less replaceable than romantic love-parents' love for their children usually maintains its intensity as long as they live, which is often not the case in romantic love. Parental love is also less exclusive-the number of children a parent can love at the same time is greater than the number of people someone can love romantically all at once. Although we might say that the emotional connections are usually deeper in parental love than they are in romantic love, this is not always the case, and moreover these are different types of love, some of the aspects of which are not comparable.
People indeed sometimes compare their parental and romantic loves. Thus, a woman recalled that when she was small, her mother told her and her brother that she loved their father more than she loved them, as their father was her whole life. This hurt the daughter greatly as the opposite claim is more natural and common. Indeed, in romantic love there are usually more changes (in both the intensity and the object) than in parental love, which is more stable and in many cases more profound.
I turn now to the comparison between parental love and the love of children for their parents, and will first consider the case of grief.
The intensity of grief is often correlated to the intensity of love. Parents' grief over the death of their child is perhaps the most intense emotion a person can experience. The grief for a child typically lasts for life: it is very hard for bereaved parents to carry on with their life as usual. In the Jewish tradition, the children of a deceased person spend a year of mourning, during which custom requires the bereaved children to recite prayers for their parent at least twice a day; they are not supposed to attend social events or to entertain guests in their home. The emotional function of this custom is to keep the intensity of grief at the appropriate level during times when it tends to diminish. It is interesting to note that the required period of mourning for a mate or a child is only three months. It is probable that in those cases there is no need to increase the intensity of grief and there is an urgent need to maintain a normal schedule.
The fact that the intensity of grief over the death of a child is greater than over a parent could be taken to indicate that there are greater emotional ties and probably love in the former case. However, the validity of this claim should be considered in light of other relevant features here, including, for example, the impact that the death has on the life of the mourner and whether the death is natural. While it is impossible to generalize about where the impact is greater, there is no doubt that the death of a child is less natural than the death of a parent.
Another possible indication for the difference between parents' love for their child and children's love for their parent is related to the emergence of envy. Envy is not typical of very close emotional relationships. A Hebrew proverb states that a person is never envious of their son or a pupil. (Some of us might question whether this is indeed true regarding one's pupil.) Achievements of those who are very close to us and whom we profoundly love evoke pride and happiness rather than envy, as their achievements are perceived to enhance us. Indeed, envy is more likely to emerge in the attitudes of children toward their parents than vice versa. Since envy is not typical of very close loving relations, we may conclude that parents feel closer to and love their children more than their children love them. The more we can see the other person as close enough to form part of our self-identity, the more we are able to be happy about this person's happiness without being distressed by a social comparison.
One reason for the difference between parents and children in this regard is that parents created their children and invested a lot in raising them, whereas the parents were in a sense given to the children. Hence, it is more natural to be proud of your children's achievements than that of your parents'. The achievements of the parents sometimes even generate negative attitudes in their children that stem from the child's sense of inferiority.
Comparisons between various types of love are easy when one type of love scarcely exists; such comparisons are difficult when genuine profound love prevails in both types. In such profound love, the differences between the two types are more evident and comparisons seem meaningless. Thus, a woman who believes that her love for her children is greater than the love she has for anyone else was hesitant when asked to compare this love with the profound love she felt for her deceased father (although she had no hesitation about making this comparison to her mother).
To sum up, although we say that we cannot compare apples and oranges since they are different types of fruit, we can compare their specific features, such as their taste or the hardness of their skin. In a similar manner, parental love and children's love for their parents is difficult to compare as they are different, but there are still some features that can be compared. The depth of the emotional connections is typically greater in parental love, and hence in a sense this love can be considered to be greater. Even if this is so, it is problematic to tell your child that you love her more than you love your mommy, as in saying this the great differences between the two types of love are ignored.
The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, my sweet child, I love you very much, but I love my mother as well, so let us not compare these different loves (even if my love to you is in a certain sense more profound). And if you insist on comparisons, please ask me about my love for your father whom I hardly love at all."

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Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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