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Balancing Act: ‘Mom, Who do you like best?’

The quest for four little words drives my children to the brink of nearly every one of their self-made disasters.

Four little words I longed to hear when I was a kid. Four little words that haven’t lost their appeal, despite my status as a supposed grown-up. Four little words I will never, in spite of their efforts, utter.

I like you best.

It transcends sibling spats. My daughter once spent the first hour of a field trip in tears because I got a little too chummy with one of her classmates on the bus. I watched my son go rogue on the 3-year-old we baby-sat for friends the other night, knowing it had nothing to do with the little boy’s behavior and everything to do with mine: I was enjoying our wee guest too enthusiastically.

Mostly, though, my kids compete with each other.

My daughter started inquiring shortly after her brother was born and has yet to give up, five years later. “Who do you love more: Me or Will?” She’ll throw in a variation every once in a while, but the objective never changes.

“If you had to give one of us away, who would you pick?” she asked recently.

“That’s impossible!” I protested. “It’s like asking which arm I’d rather cut off – my left or my right!”

“Left,” she answered. “Duh.”

Famous sibling whisperer Adele Faber, author of “Siblings Without Rivalry,” once cautioned me against telling my children I love them the same.

“Imagine asking your spouse who he loves more – you or his mother,” she told me. “You don’t want to hear, ‘I love you both the same.’ You want his love for you to be unique and special and like nothing he’s ever felt before.”

That analogy makes sense to me. We all want to be liked best. We want to land in our loved ones’ hearts and leave a mark whose likeness has never been seen. We want to be the wittiest, the bravest, the wisest. We want the most accolades. We want the most Facebook likes.

We don’t want to be loved the same.

Which is why I try to see my kids’ angling not as an attempt to diminish the affection I feel for others, but as a defense of the affection I feel for them.

That requires slowing down enough to discern what’s underneath their pleas and tantrums, rather than just reacting to them. Some days I’m better at that than others.

My friend and former Tribune colleague Barbara Mahany has written a beautiful new book of essays called “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door” (Abingdon Press), and I’m trying to let its message of stillness imbue my days, even when deadlines and laundry and permission slips threaten to send stillness packing.

One of my favorite passages is about Barbara teaching her son to pay attention – to use his eyes, she writes, for all that they’re meant to take in. “The color of sky as the last beams of the day paint a pink you’ll never forget. The glint of the moonlight on a pine branch heavy with snow. The gleam in the eye of someone you love.”

And, my favorite, “how to notice a soul draining toward empty.”

I want to adopt that as my first and most consequential motherly task: Notice when their souls are draining toward empty.

I joke that I had to leave parts of my brain at the hospital when each of them was born. That’s why I forget what I’m saying midsentence and make wrong turns and grasp for common words.

“Remind me to buy dish stuff, you guys. What do you call it. It cleans them. The powder. Dish stuff, you guys!”

“Detergent?”

“Yes!”

But I tell them the hospital gave me extra spaces in my heart in exchange, and nobody else fits in them. Because the first space is shaped like my daughter, and the second is the shape of my son. And when they grow, so do the spaces.

Sometimes they grin and sometimes they roll their eyes and sometimes they cry anyway because it’s hard to watch your mom love another kid.

But I don’t see that as selfish or insecure. I see it as relatable.

I see it as an invitation – an opening – to fill up their souls.