When I was newly married, my husband and I took a marriage class offered by one of our church leaders for a few weeks. I was only about 21 years old at the time, so I honestly don’t remember everything about the class; but I’ll never forget how in one of the lessons, the teacher took a big black marker and on the white board he wrote, “service + sacrifice = love.” This little equation has been tried and tested throughout the years, and I’ve come to learn that it’s true!
I first noticed this in the preschool where I worked when we lived in the Bronx. It was a school for children with developmental disabilities, and some of the kids in the school were extremely challenging and required constant one-on-one attention and redirection. I was always surprised that at the end of the school year, the teachers and their assistants were often devastated to see the more challenging children graduate from our school. I was confused at first and shocked by their responses. I wondered how they weren’t relieved (…because I have to admit, I may have felt a little relieved myself). Somehow, gradually and almost imperceptibly, the teachers grew to love the children in their classrooms– but how?!
Then these little words came to my mind… “service + sacrifice = love.”
Oh, of course! These teachers had worked tirelessly with these kids the entire school year. They had served and sacrificed six hours a day for 10 months with them; and somehow, that combination of service and sacrifice equaled love.
I found the same thing happened in my church calling. For those unfamiliar with the LDS religion, the programs offered on Sunday are lead by members of the congregation. So, rather than having paid clergy, everyone volunteers their time to serve in a calling, such as teaching children in primary, or working with the youth, etc. For many years, I’ve worked with the teenage girls in my church callings, known also as the “Young Women.” When we lived in New York, since I didn’t have children at the time, I dedicated my whole heart to this calling as a leader over these young ladies. I spent time with the girls in their homes, and invited them into mine, and took them out for lunch to get to know them individually; and once again, gradually and almost imperceptibly, I grew to love them as if they were truly my little sisters. Ha, actually, to this day they will not call me by my first name; I am “Sister Merkley,” and I am honored to be called such.
It’s been several years since I’ve had the privilege to serve with them, but we still stay in contact and get together when possible. I really believe that it was because of the time, the service and the sacrifice spent with these young women that I grew to love them so deeply and I’m extremely grateful to have had the opportunity during that time in my life. It was not an easy calling by any means, but it stretched my heart to capacities that I hadn’t even known possible up until that point; so regardless of the challenges, the reward of love that I felt made it all worth it.
Then a few years later, I gave birth to my first child. Wow. As mentioned in previous posts, I went into preterm labor, so the “baby phase” with my little Ruby lasted about three months longer than usual since she came so early. This meant that I didn’t get to see her smile or coo back at me for almost 4 months. She also had a lot of tummy troubles and acid reflux, so she cried a lot. I remember describing this to my sister and it dawned on me that I had been giving, giving, giving and it was exhausting to not receive any kind of feedback for it. No smiles, coos, giggles– just poop, lots of crying and stress over feedings, which involved bottles, pumps and nipple shields. I would wake up during the night to nurse, bottle feed and then put her to bed so that I could go pump, and by the time I went back to bed, I only had an hour before I’d need to wake up again to feed her. This meant that many nights in the first few months, I would only get 3 hours of sleep, and not consecutively. I’ll never forget the first night I slept for three hours in a row, I felt like a new woman! Anyway, I don’t describe this to complain or sound ungrateful, but just to illustrate my point. When Ruby first started to smile. I wrote this in an Instagram post about it:
“This babe just started smiling a few days ago and I have to admit, it brought me so much joy! Going three and a half months without really seeing her smile was so much harder than I ever imagined. I feel like I’m learning so much about love…true love. The kind of love that doesn’t keep score, that gives without receiving and that requires endless amounts of service and sacrifice. This kind of Love is truly Divine. It’s heart wrenching and exhausting and beautiful. I feel honored to be on this journey that allows me to learn such beautiful things.”
Several weeks after I posted that, Norah came to our family and I felt once again my heart swell, and stretch and grow as I sacrificed even more to care for another little one. Up until this point in my life, I had never before given quite so much of myself– physically, emotionally and even spiritually, as I had given during my first year with Ruby and Norah. Someone in church read a quote that struck me as a beautiful way to describe this sacrifice.
“So it is that real, personal sacrifice never was placing an animal on the alter. Instead, it is a willingness to put the animal in us upon the alter and letting it be consumed!…for the denial of self precedes the full acceptance of Him.” –Elder Neal S Maxwell
This to me described my life’s journey. My journey toward motherhood was really just my journey toward love— learning to love as God himself loves. I realize this love can be learned through a variety of experiences, and I believe it goes beyond motherhood in the way we think and define it. There are many women and men who never have biological children for one reason or another, and this doesn’t exclude them in any way from obtaining this divine love. So I hesitate to put motherhood on this pedestal and make it appear to be the only way that one ever really learns to love, because that’s not true. I do believe, however, that we are blessed with families and relationships of all kind for the simple reason that they have the potential to teach us this kind of love. The love of God is defined in the Book of Mormon as the most joyous to the soul and the most desirable above all (1 Nephi 11: 21-23). I truly believe that that is what we are all ultimately seeking– to love, and to be loved.
Brene Brown said it this way in one of her blog posts about love:
“Love will never be certain, but after collecting thousands of stories, I’m willing to call this a fact: A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When these needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We grow numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. There are certainly other causes of illness, numbness, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.”
I hope so much that my children grow up knowing and feeling that they are loved and that they are worthy of love and belonging. This month as we focus specifically on having love for children, I am personally focusing on being more present with my two baby girls. I am also going to take time to play with each of them individually, which is something that I haven’t really done very much of up to this point. I’m excited to see what this month continues to bring.
Also, if you have any of your own experiences with love this month, feel free to share! Do you find it hard to love children? I’m curious to know how you personally learn to love, even when it’s not easy. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about this. In the meantime, here’s to living to love!
Update to this post: So guess what?? This week I found myself serving someone that I felt anger towards. I wanted to love them, but felt it was not coming easily. Interestingly though, after I did something kind for this particular person…guess what?! They just went right on being the rude person that they often are. (Gasp!) I know, right?! I was shocked!
Then this subtle thought came into my mind… “Service + Sacrifice = Love,” does not mean that you can win someone over so that they love you…it is so that you can in tern love them, DESPITE how they may or may not treat you. (Ugh.) So this whole formula thing…yeah, it doesn’t work on people, rather it works in you. I just thought it might be good to clarify that. Anyone else have any experiences with this??