I have always heard that the love you have for your child is completely unique, powerful, and visceral, and that it is like nothing else, being absolutely transformative and life-changing. Many people say things like, "I didn't know what love was until I became a parent."
Now that I have had my darling little R for six months, I am in a slightly better position to evaluate. The love I have for her is different than the love I have felt for anyone else. I do love her very intensely, so that sometimes it feels like my whole body has been taken over by a powerful, all-encompassing adoration. But I have felt this way about other people as well (especially my husband), so it's not the intensity that is different.
Being a mother requires you to devote significant amounts of effort to someone's else welfare, needs and feelings. If you do it properly, you will become less selfish and self-focused, transformed in fact. However, the same is true for any intimate relationship: it takes you out of yourself and forces you to do things that stretch your reserves of patience, maturity and generosity to the limit. This process is terribly painful and uncomfortable (sometimes so much so that people eject early: ex., many divorces), but completing it is the only way to grow as a person. This process takes place in parenthood, but also in marriage (or marriage-like relationships), and even with other relatives or dear friends. All love is transformative, whether it's for a child or someone else.
So how is loving little R different? For me, the main difference is one of expectation. Everyone else I have loved has either been my equal (husband, for instance) or my superior (my parents, for instance). I loved them all truly and deeply, and if they lost 90% of brain function or committed hideous crimes, I would still. But I always wanted things from them, expected things from them, needed things from them. Precisely because my husband and I love each other, I feel entitled to make all sorts of demands on him, from deciding what his appearance should be (veto on the beard) to how he should spend his time, money and energy.
With Little R, however, I don't feel any of these things. I want her to grow up to be happy, healthy and a good person, and I would feel very sad if she had serious mental or physical problems (disabilities, addictions, insanity), and very disappointed if she was evil, mean or cruel.
But I don't expect her to do anything for me, or give me anything. I don't even really expect her to love me (though it's nice that she does, at least at the moment). I feel as if she is on loan to me, and that her presence is the gift, that just by existing she has given me something precious and valuable. I am happy just watching her play and explore, and whether she needs me or not, or notices me or not, is completely unimportant. It's a little bit like how I feel about art, or beautiful scenery: it is there and it is glorious, and that is enough.
With my husband, we try to constantly push the other to do their best, help each other improve and become better, stronger people, as if we were climbing a mountain together. But little R is climbing her own mountain, and while I will supply her with resources and support, it is her journey not mine. I am very lucky to be able to witness her struggles and triumphs, and in a way, that is all I can do.
I feel sometimes as if my husband and I were almost the same person (or at least joined in some metaphysical way), but I always feel as if little R were her own delightful creature, beloved but separate from me. It is a strange feeling, as if I had fallen in love with an alien. Perhaps someday the alien will return to her home planet, but this does not grieve me: she will still exist, and the universe will be more beautiful as a result.