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What do I really mean when I tell my son that I love him? Having never really thought about it beyond the text book definition, “an intense feeling of deep affection”, I decided to explore what love really means in my role as a father.

When I tell my son that I love him I’m committing to things beyond “I will protect you and provide for you and see to it that you have every opportunity you need to become someone special.” Those are the outcomes of my love, things that are easily measurable later in life when we sit and reflect on what was. When I tell him I love him, I’m really promising to show him how to be a good person. I’m taking the responsibility to show him how to be compassionate, how to express emotions (happy AND sad), when to speak up and when to just listen. He needs to learn things like respect, how to use his imagination and how to recognize when to lend a helping hand. I want to be sure that he’s self-aware, that he knows where he comes from and that he understands what privilege means (and that he is privileged). These are tools which he’ll need to survive and succeed, they need to be so engrained in his character that he acts on them without even thinking. Love means I have to be a role model.

This approach is all good and well but there’s one gigantic assumption: I have all those things so under control that I will have no problem leading by example. Yikes. Or more appropriately, OH SHIT! Can I learn to hold my tongue in trying times? Do I really think that I can ensure my depression doesn’t manifest as anger? Am I always respectful of those around me? Will I be too hard on him when he needs words of encouragement? In this context love is frightening. Love is an endless test of my anxiety and love surely isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Well here I am, 18+ months into fatherhood and one of the main things I’ve learned as a father is the love I have for my son is in a constant state of evolution. Right now all I have to do is suppress my laughter and explain to him why he shouldn’t pull the cat’s tail. He doesn’t fight back or call me names which means I have time to figure out how to deal with the terrible twos and craft an explanation for why the world isn’t fair.

I can confirm that love carries a lot more weight now than it does in almost any other context. It’s not just a saying at the end of a phone call or to be piggy backed on a farewell hug. Love isn’t just a feeling of excitement or arousal. Love is love for sure, but it’s no longer a 4-letter word.