Thursday, November 7, 2013

Dear Guy I Went to College With

Years ago, you told me that the only reason I wanted to have children was so I could have someone who unconditionally loved me.  I took you to mean that because I had not (and would continue to have not) always been treated kindly by the opposite sex, I viewed having children as creating someone who wouldn’t leave me and love me just as I am. 

I just wanted to let you know you were wrong. 

I tried, and failed, to articulate how I felt about this comment at the time.  Maybe part of me was worried that you were right, that my desire to start a family was wrapped up in a selfish need for love and validation.  I hadn't really done much thinking at that stage of my life about why I wanted a family, I just knew deep down that I did. 

And while there are a myriad of reasons to marry, not marry, have or not have children, I want to focus on the unconditional love part of your comment. 

First, it supposes that I believe in unconditional love, but for the most part I don’t.  I once had a therapist tell me, using himself as an example, that although he loved his wife he couldn't stay with her if she suddenly started smoking crack.  This, to me, is a condition.  You might continue to love your crack smoking spouse for a while after it was over, but eventually that would fade until it no longer resembled love. 

There are many conditions to romantic relationships.  They can be torn apart by abuse, neglect, breach of trust- anything that my Dad would call “attacking the core” of what makes the relationship strong and makes you a couple.  You and your partner can weather many hardships, but when you start chipping away at the core you run the risk of being unable to recover it. 

This is also true for almost any familial relationship, and I have seen enough family members fight and stop speaking to know that, although they might still claim to love the other person, the fact that they've ceased contact says otherwise.  You cannot love someone you've completely eliminated from your life (with exceptions that I’ll get to,) and if you are willing to do so it’s because they haven’t met your conditions. 

Even pets do no unconditionally love us.  If we stopped feeding them or started abusing them and gave them the opportunity to leave they would do so, finding food shelter and comfort somewhere else and, eventually, forgetting us.  These are the conditions they have set for us, and for most people these are easily met.

Which brings me to the relationship you specifically mentioned- parent and child (and I won’t differentiate between mothers and fathers here- the facts for both are the same.)  A child does not unconditionally love a parent.  Just like romantic relationships, abuse, neglect and breach of trust can all be serious enough for a child to eventually abandon a parent.  They might say they still love them despite all of that, but completely cutting someone off does not read love to me.  Even some of the children of prison inmates can forgive enough to visit and stay in contact, so if a child cuts a parent off it’s because their conditions have not been met.

Notice above I said “for the most part” I don’t believe in unconditional love.  My one exception is the love a parent has for their child.  There is nothing that my children could ever do or say that would make me stop loving them.  There is no conceivable act or condition or behavior, no matter how depraved, that could make me not stop loving them.  The parents of serial killers are still capable of loving their children deeply even if they no longer understand or approve of who they've become.  They might even cease contact, but deep down I know they still love them because that kind of love doesn't go away.  It can't.

Is this true of all parents?  Probably not.  I’m sure there are some out there who just couldn't or wouldn't feel enough love for their children as to have it be unconditional.  These are the parents who are capable of cruel and evil acts toward them, the worst of which might be complete indifference.  Thankfully, this is not the norm.

I've talked to parents who've given up their children for adoption and, although technically those ties are cut, there is not a day that goes by that they don’t still feel some sense of love for that child (and again, I know that this is not true for everyone.)  I've known parents who've lost children very young or not so young who do and will carry that grief around with them for the rest of their lives.  It’s a grief so indescribable that there is no word in the English language for a parent who has lost a child.  It’s a grief that I hope to never have to feel or even comprehend, as it’s so big and so heavy just to know people who have felt it.  It brings tears to my eyes to even think about.

So, ultimately, the short version of my response to your comment (here almost 20 years later) is that I didn't have children so someone would unconditionally love me, I HAD CHILDREN SO I WOULD HAVE SOMEONE TO UNCONDITIONALLY LOVE.  They might walk out the door at the age of 18 and I might never see them again, but that will never be my choice. I will never stop trying to reach them and there will never be one single nanosecond when I don’t love them no matter what.