Adam Nemett: Love Requires Change and Probably Pain. That’s Fine.
The novelist reminds his son that no one is perfect the way they are.
You have your mom’s good looks, curls like crazy, lashes for weeks. You’re only 4 and a half years old, but you’re cuter than I ever was. Everyone says it: “This one’s gonna be trouble.”
But you’re kind too — or you have the potential to be kind, while occasionally being the kind of manic dick only a 4-year-old can be. This will hopefully change (spoiler: That’s what this letter is about), because you’re also curious and goofy and weird. I hope these are the traits you choose to cultivate in your coming years. Looks may serve you well or puberty may mutate you beyond all repair, but kindness and curiosity and humor are sustainable. They are what will make you whole and make your future partner such a lucky woman/man/nonbinary person. (It’d be good if this being was a terrestrial human, I guess, but what do I know, times change, love sneaks up and surprises.)
You’re 4, but you’re already dealing with the complexities of romance. At preschool, your main squeezes are Emma and Margot. Emma is blonde and indomitable, and Margot is a French-Taiwanese spitfire. They’re both strong and keep you in check. I like that they’re the ones who have you smitten.
You got to play Teacher at school last week, and your task was to pick a word and then call on other students to give you a rhyming word.
“Chair!” you said.
You called on Emma first, obviously.
“Bear!” she said.
You told me you loved them both, and I asked why, and you said, “I love Margot when she’s princess-y and fancy, and I love Emma when she’s calm.”
Not sure how to unpack that, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
But here’s the thing: Sometimes the heart wants what it can’t have. There was that month when Margot moved up to the older class and Emma lost interest and started hanging out more with Tony and Brianne. You started getting into more shoving matches with other kids, throwing sticks, generally acting out. Emma told you she didn’t want to play with you anymore.
You were a wreck at home.
“He’s kinda going through his first breakup,” your teachers told us. “He’s handling it okay, actually. This is all very normal.”
Sure, seen from an adult’s vantage point, it’s normal, but I tried to imagine back to that mind-blowing realization of childhood — that sometimes you like someone more than they like you — and how cruel and confusing and unfair and abnormal this must feel, such that stick-throwing seems reasonable.
I’m sorry to tell you, but that heartbreak will be the first of many, God willing. Beware any person that has not experienced this humbling pain. I don’t wish it upon you, not exactly, but the alternatives — that you never put your heart on the line or, worse, that you toxically skate through life acting entitled to the affections of others — are infinitely more frightening.
Heartbreaks force us to consider change, work harder, be kinder, show a different side, evolve into a slightly different human being that gets invited back to play.
I’m not suggesting that you ever become a false version of yourself or reject your core identity in favor of some ill-fitting costume. But nor will I feed you the line that you’re perfect exactly the way you are and if she can’t see that then there’s something wrong with her.
Do not be so arrogant as to think there’s no way you can possibly improve. Change and growth are good things, buddy. Each change, large and small, is a reminder that you’re not perfect, that the world isn’t perfect, that we’re all constantly in the process of becoming something new, and that sometimes you need to improvise and surprise yourself in order to surprise her.
What if I start wearing a supercool TMNT light-up watch? What if I try to be nicer, more caring, a better listener? What if I never throw sticks again? What if I try loving her even when she’s not calm?
And sure, sometimes, nothing works. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do that will create the love you desire, and it’s time to move on. Sometimes you like someone more than they like you.
But sometimes, they’re worth the work, worth the change. Your mother was. If your beloved is into salamanders, I’m not saying you need to become a herpetologist, but, y’know, maybe download a podcast or something.
Valentine’s Day is coming up, Jack. We went to dinner last night, played some Simpsons pinball, and over a plate of chicken fingers we talked about your ladies. I asked what you were planning to get them for the big V-Day, and your answers were all cued up.
“For Emma, I’m going to make her a card that says: ‘I love sitting with you on the bench when your tummy is hurting and rubbing your back and I love when you’re full of kindness.’ ”
Jesus that’s good, I thought.
“And what about Margot?”
“An ice castle from Target,” you said. “She has one but lost all of the pieces. So I want to get her a new one. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find it, but I’m gonna see what I can do.”
And I thought, Okay, you’re gonna be just fine. You’re 4, but you’re pure magic.
In fact, you’re damn near perfect. If Margot and Emma can’t see that there’s something wrong with them.
Don’t ever let anyone, including me, tell you otherwise.
Adam Nemett is the author of the debut novel We Can Save Us All and his work has been published, reviewed and featured in The New York Times Book Review, Salon.com, L.A. Weekly, The New Yorker, and Washington Post. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two kids.
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