The Bearable Work of Love

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It’s Valentine’s Day today, and I’m rocking a feverish baby, date night plans cancelled. I didn’t help my preschooler address cards to her classmates—she was too sick to go to school. There were no baskets of heart candies and stuffed animals for the kids today when they woke up—I didn’t have the energy. But my house is full of love today. Today’s love is heavy, and I’m tired. It’s keeping me awake all night and sabotaging my work week. But this, I’ve discovered, is the bearable weight of love.

When I was younger, I was terrified of the workload of love. I wondered how people did it—how they shared bathrooms with their partner or put up with socks on the bedroom floor. I saw parents carrying two kids at a time with an overflowing diaper bag and wondered if I’d ever be strong enough to choose that burden. I watched families with special needs kids power through joyfully or see marriages and friendships survive distance and time in confusion. I didn’t know how people did it—why people chose it.

What I didn’t know then—and what I’m learning now—is I wasn’t seeing the work these people did. I watched them sweat under physical burdens—kids on hips or needy partners on speed dial—and I saw them sacrifice their resources wantonly. The true work they were doing emotionally and spiritually was what I couldn’t see.

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I’ve been thinking about this idea this week as my kids struggle with a severe case of influenza. It’s been physically taxing—I’ve lost sleep, fallen hopelessly behind at work, skipped countless meals, carried my kids for hours. Somehow, the physical work isn’t what has consumed me though. It’s the emotional weight of loving these tiny humans: worrying, praying, comforting, listening. That’s the real burden I’ve been shouldering. Keeping track of dosage schedules is hard; being responsible for someone’s wellbeing is harder. Losing sleep is hard; fear for someone’s health is harder. The emotional work of love is heavier and more back-breaking, but it somehow fuels my tired body to keep up with the physical burdens.

Learning about love over my adult life has taught me this. The real weight and work of love isn’t physical. Selfishly, I’ve guarded myself in the past from the physical sacrifices of love, careful not to give up too much time, energy, and money for another. But when I buy in and get my hands dirty loving my husband, kids, friends, and neighbors, I take on a much heavier, much more significant burden: an internal struggle of emotional work.

We see the physical work of love, but the emotional and spiritual burden of it—that’s what fuels the selfless actions.

We see picking up your partner’s dirty socks. The real work is loving them through depression and melding your dreams with theirs.

We see giving time and energy to a friend. The real work is choosing them when they can’t give much in return.

We see sleep loss and sacrifice in parenthood. The real work is in putting their future ahead of your own.

I think that’s what people who’ve mastered love know. They’re not worried about losing sleep or spending money or the absurdly impractical economics of love. They sign up to be parents when they know it’ll cost them every shred of strength and energy they have. They commit to their friends and partners even when it means giving up time and money. They volunteer and give back and welcome immigrants because they’re not worried about the impracticalities of love. They’re already doing the internal work.

Don’t worry whether you’ll be able to shoulder the burden of loving someone. Put your name down on the sign up sheet for the internal work—for praying, for listening, comforting, worrying, confiding—and you’ll be fine. I don’t know how it works, except to say it’s a miraculous gift from God, but that internal work—the kind you do with your soul—strengthens you for the work you’ll do with your hands. The real work of love makes every physical action bearable—and then some.