We live in an age of convenience. Everything is about efficiency and ease. Iterations of household items and gadgets exist to make life more streamlined.
But there are no shortcuts for parenting. When I was a child, we had a washing machine with a ringer in the basement. There were no driers; we had clotheslines in the back. We had buckets and mops for the floors. Being a housewife took more time and involved more work. We could buy clothing - but that was the time during which clothing became much cheaper to buy than to make. Literally every house I ever visited as a small child had a sewing machine. Now, sewing is a hobby.
Now, there are shortcuts for almost everything else - and in contrast, it makes child-rearing a long, hard slog. We have choices now. We can choose. When I was born, birth control was illegal unless you were married.
It is absolutely true that I will never love anyone the way I love my children. I will never struggle as hard to learn to love, to work at love, the way I worked for my children. Children occupy a special place in my emotional ecosphere.
There are reasons for that, of course. But the flip side of that is: no one will love my children the way I love them, either. At least that’s my hope. I want someone who will love my son as an adult and a partner, not as a parent; I don’t think he will need more of those.
If this is true, though, it is also true that no one will love me the way my parents did. I don’t experience the love they gave me as they experienced it. I understand it far better as an adult than I did as a child, but my experience of what they gave me is not, and cannot be, the same as their experience. I understand - now - the things they sacrificed. As a child I took them for granted.
As a child, I was allowed to take them for granted. I think, as a parent, that this is important. I mentioned that I fought more with my mother than I’ve fought with pretty much anyone else in my life - but on balance, I was pushing the bounds of what love meant. I knew I was loved.
The arguments with my mother were therefore arguments about love and its conditional nature.
Because the truth of the matter is: love is conditional. My parents loved the child they believed I was and should be. As I grew into myself, they didn’t always like what I was. I was very different, at thirteen, than I was at birth, or at age two, or at age five or eight.
But my sense of love was parental love. And when I spoke of love at age thirteen or fifteen, much of my understanding of what love meant was parental love. Parental love endures when like is tested. It is the closest thing to unconditional love we receive. Does it feel unconditional at the time? Well, no, not during the stage at which we’re fighting to set boundaries and exert an independent existence. Our parents want us to be happy. We know this. But some of their decisions at that age seem guaranteed to make us unhappy. At my age now, there are times when I wish I had listened more and argued less.
But conversely, I don’t regret making the mistakes. Some people learn well by paying attention to the mistakes and consequences of others; I was not, sadly, that person. People are not all the same, I reasoned, so the consequences for actions would have to be different. Ahem.
I believe that when we are fifteen, or when we are falling in love for the first time, we have, at heart, a model of love that is based almost entirely on the parental loved we received. That model is the one we know. We don’t daydream of finding our parents, of course. But love on a visceral level is the love they gave. Our parents understood us, when we were young. They loved us. They tried to give us what we needed.
Even if, at fifteen, they are not giving us what we now think we need, the sense of that love informs us. We know what love means.
Sadly, what we know is what parental love means. We know how to be the center of the universe. When we look for love, it’s impossible not to be affected by that knowledge. What other love do we actually know? We know - from reading, from the gestalt - that true love conquers everything. I believe we even understand the meaning of the phrase - for us.
We know what love means. So when we enter the world of relationships at a young age, we are intent on being loved and on loving. But we don’t have fully mature ideas of what either mean. We know what we want. We know what we can give.
But actually, I don’t think we do.
I think those early - often painful - relationships teach us the boundaries of ourselves and our emotional capabilities. I know that there are people I said I would love forever when I was fifteen that I do not love now. I don’t believe, in any adult sense, that I loved those people then. But I meant every word when I said it. My mother had always said that ‘love is work’, and I believed that that meant I should be able to accept anything if I loved someone.
But of course, we can’t.
So we learn two things, in those early relationships: we learn what we actually need, and we learn - which is arguably more important - what we are capable of giving. Sometimes, rarely, people can learn these things together. I do know marriages that have lasted decades that were built on those sixteen year old relationships; mine was not one of them, but I know they’re out there. I also know they’re very rare.
In the short term, we are capable of giving everything. We can empty ourselves entirely into the act of giving. I think many of us try this as teens because we have equated this with love. But what many discover is that we cannot give this everything forever. We cannot give in a vaccuum. There are limits to what we can give if we are to remain healthy and be true to our emerging sense of ourselves.
In learning what those healthy limits are, we are beginning the long climb out of the love-as-child paradigm and up the face of the love-as-adult cliff.
We also learn that the act of giving is entirely individual. What some people can give while being happy is not the same as what I can give. What they might, on the other hand, consider a sacrifice, I don’t. No two people are the same that way, and no two people should be. But it means that no two relationships will be the same either.
We learn to set emotional boundaries that we can maintain without having a breakdown. And we learn, as well, what we need. Not necessarily what we want, but what we need. People often confuse the two; in my experience, they’re not quite the same beast. Sometimes we ignore our needs because ignoring our own needs feels like it is the height of love.
And it is an act of love - but … it’s parental. We can sustain that act of love as parents because, especially at the beginning, our children are helpless and entirely dependent. And because they are ours. We cannot actually sustain that level of love for people who are not. We can try. We can try like champions - but it doesn’t work out well. These other people are not our children. They are not bound to us the way children are. They are not beholden to us the way children are, because they are not children.
In our adult relationships, it is important to own our needs. Because if those needs are not met, we are sucked dry. We are drained. We end up as emotional husks. If our needs are not met, we don’t have the emotional energy to meet the needs of others.
The question of our needs comes up in a few of these posts: on help, on communication. Let me underline and emphasize that now: It is bloody important to learn and own your needs. It is important to separate needs from wants, which children have difficulties with, but which adults in theory don’t, and to own those needs.
If you do not get what you need, a relationship is not tenable. This does not make you a horrible person, but while we are learning what we need - and the flip side, what we can sustainably give - we cause pain; we are hurt. When dealing with love and its evolution into its adult, healthy variant, there is almost always pain.
It does not have to destroy a relationship. But often, it does. Especially when we’re young and we’re more absolute.
Is the pain deserved? No. Emotional interactions scar us in ways that are invisible but sometimes far more difficult to deal with. There is sometimes no justice in those interactions. It is much easier for me now to look at the things that were incredibly painful and see that the causes were the immaturity of both participants. I needed to see a villain at the time. I don’t need to see one, now. I see someone who couldn’t give me what I asked for. I see someone who asked for things that were impossible, in the end, to give.
But that’s because I understand the struggle to achieve something stable, adult, reasonable.
Love is conditional. The conditionality is the reason we look for partners with whom we’re compatible. Partners who share our values or our goals or who respect the people we’ve become. My ideal partner will not be your ideal partner; I would be the ideal partner for very, very few.
If love were not conditional, it wouldn’t matter who the partner was. We could randomly find and love any partner. We can’t.
I have met adults who somehow feel that this is wrong. And I’ve spoken with any number of adults who, after a break-up, itemize the things their ex is doing with their new partner with some anger: “If they had just done those things with me, I would have been happy! Why can they do them with someone else and not me?”
People who say this don’t actually see themselves in the relationship. They feel on some level that people are interchangeable - but that’s not the way relationships work. They feel, in fact, that love should be - that love is - unconditional, and that the universe is unfair.
Well, actually, the universe is unfair. We are not all born as children of Bill Gates or Mitt Romney. We are not all born with two working eyes, or arms or legs. We are not all born in the genders in which we’re comfortable. We do not all get hit by cancer. Life does not guarantee fairness or justice - those are human characteristics and the best we can do as people is to attempt to add to fairness or justice.
But: we love our children. Our children can be entirely different people, and we love them all (if we have more than one). The sense that people are interchangeable and equally deserving of your time and love - that’s the parental love response. That’s the model that we needed, like a cocoon, to grow up in. But once we’ve emerged, it’s too small to house us in the same way again. We can’t remain inside it forever.
The reason that someone could do different things with a person who is not you is because they are different people. What they bring to the table is not the same. What they give is not the same. What they need is not the same.
So: the two things that we learn as we become emotional adults:
1. What we need
2. What we can give
These two things have to be in balance. It’s not always simple to figure out what we need; many of us feel that if we’re adults we shouldn’t need anything. If we’re adults, we shouldn’t need love, anymore. We shouldn’t be dependent.
Nor is it easy to figure out what we can give, because emotionally, giving something stable and solid has not been part of our upbringing. We’re not taught how to give emotionally to other people, except by example, and we don’t always take the lessons we need out of the examples we’ve seen.