I sat down to write on the topic of love, thinking I'd have wonderful, uplifting words to share. I was surprised when what spilled out seemed a little darker than I usually post publicly. I've decided to go ahead and share it anyway.
The love that existed in my childhood was entirely conditional.
Now, more than 40 years later, I understand that was because neither of my parents had experienced unconditional love, had never been loved simply for who they were. Each had internalized in their own way the message that they weren't good enough to be loved as they were, which naturally meant that kind of love simply didn't exist. Rather, they learned that loving someone gave you the right to define their value, to reshape them.
As a child, though, it wasn't at all clear to me what it meant to love or be loved. I very naturally loved people as I found them, with no expectation that they'd change for me. I assumed other people loved the same way I did. When I found my love wasn't returned as genuinely as I expected, I took that as a sign I wasn't worthy of love. This isn't to say I wasn't told I was loved, but that I knew I wasn't loved for who I really was -- I was shown love and rewarded for being who my mother wanted me to be, who she needed me to be. For a time, I tried to become what my parents wanted me to be. Gradually, though, I learned to keep who I was, what I felt and thought, private -- secret even.
That misunderstanding of love colored my life for decades. I continued to believe it was sign that something was inherently wrong with me. To be safe I hid myself, waiting for that day when I'd find people who could love me. As a consequence, my parents never fully understood me. I don't know if honesty on my part would have made any difference. I suspect it would only have made me less safe. The feeling of unworthiness is something I still occasionally struggle with, though less often now.
That life was supposed to be hard, unfair, mean, untrustworthy was a given. My parents did love us (as best they could). I remember my mother insisting was her job to teach us how the world *really* was, to help us fit into it. They believed, as so many people do, that learning early on how to fit in was the only way we'd ever be happy, the only way to spare us the pain of unfulfilled, unrealistic dreams. She deeply believed, and often told me, that I was "too sensitive" and "real life isn't like you think it is." I believe that in their paradigm, they felt reshaping us was a kindness, in addition to being their duty. It was also a given, in that children needed to be shaped, controlled, led, protected. It was the only loving thing they knew to do.
I disagree. To this day, I am convinced that once we accept that life is supposed to be hard, we give ourselves an excuse for unkindness, and we perpetuate the hard life we've come to expect. Certainly that's not a loving legacy for our children.
Still today, I see many parents who seem to believe the same things about how hard life is; who believe that part of their responsibility as a parent is to prepare their child for that hard life. Parents who feel that part and parcel of loving a child is a responsibility to mold and shape their child to be sure he or she will to be sure their child will be found loveable by the other people we meet in life -- grandparents, teachers, employers, future partners. Usually, that's just a reflection of how unworthy so many of us were made to feel in our own childhoods.
As a parent, I've found myself asking if it's even possible to reshape another person -- as a positive act, I mean. We all know that by not loving a child, or even by loving them not enough or in a manner unsuitable to the child; by mistreating, abusing, or neglecting them, it is absolutely possible to warp, stunt and misshape a child. In fact, becoming stunted and misshapen is virtually guaranteed when a child is insufficiently loved. I've come to see that reshaping another person, adult or child, is like squeezing a jelly-filled doughnut into another shape. No matter what you do, what's inside comes spilling out, impossible to contain. You end up with a misshapen, empty doughnut. Except that as a parent, we risk creating a misshapen, empty person.
Often, those misshapen people in their own turn go on to repeat those methods with their children. It usually begins with a desire to protect them from a harsh and unfair world. And so often that shaping of a child to make him more loveable goes against everything in a parent's heart. Why else would there be so many conflicting voices on how to control, direct, guide, protect, educate -- in a word, shape -- your child? Why would training, controlling, directing our child be so painful to our own hearts? Why is it so hard to hear your child cry it out? Why do parents tell children "this hurts me more than it hurts you"?
Those things are hard and hurtful because those aren't expressions of love. They are distortions of love. The only reason someone needs to tell parents such things about loving a child is because that advice goes against the grain of what it really means to simply love a child, or a partner or ourselves.
How about instead we re-shape the world that others would have us accept? We love ourselves enough to love our children, our partners, our friends the way we all deserve to be loved, by loving him or her as they are? What could happen if we allow ourselves to cast out the misshapen parts others imposed on us, to question the "have to" aspects of life, to step back a bit from the fears inculcated in us by our parents, our teachers, our culture at large, and give ourselves permission to radically love -- our partners, our children, ourselves?
In the almost 27 years I've been a Mom, to three very different children, I've found myself called often to step back, to look at the child standing before me with love, to stop myself from telling him who he needs to be today, or to become tomorrow, what he 'must' do to fit into the world as I see it, as others would define his future. I've learned to support them for who they are, to help them define who they want to be, and what they want from life. I know there are times when I'm not entirely adept at this, moments when their definition of who they are and what the world is, bumps against my fears for how they'll be accepted, whether they'll ever be happy, my desire that they be loved.
And I've learned, when those fears are about how they'll fit into the world, that I want passionately to change that world for them. I'm not always able to change the world for them, but that doesn't mean I have the right to change my child. His path is his own to find.
The love I feel for my children that calls me to help them craft a life that will feed their souls is what led me to unschooling, to parenting and living as we do. It also calls me to love myself. At first, I did this only because I believed that loving myself would make me a better support for my boys; now I see that we all, even myself, have a right to be loved for who we are. Would that I had figured this out about love much sooner than I did. I hope my boys figure it out faster than I did.