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Love as endurance part four

This is not actually about love as endurance, yet; it’s one of the foundations.

I want to talk a little bit about parental power and responsibility - and the transition between living in that world as a young child to living as an adult when in theory that power and responsibility becomes our own.

I think it is very, very hard to have power without having responsibility. I think when people attempt to have the former without taking the latter, they do not handle it well.

When I spoke of the transformation between parental-love and adult-love, one of the things I did not mention is the power dynamic. As children, power resides with our parents. Our parents are the arbiters of pretty much everything. Theirs is the pocket book. It’s their house. Permission to do any number of things is often legally required. As children, therefore, all the power in our lives resides in the hands of the people we love. Those people being our parents.

When we want something, they have the ultimate say.

No one has that much power over us as adults. Not even our parents.

The flip side, where parents are concerned, is that if they have all the power (and for young children, they do), they also have all of the responsibility. If something goes wrong, it is usually the parent who takes the blame, and the parent who is required to clean up the resulting mess. There’s certain safety, when the world is an alien place, in having someone else be responsible for the whole world.

It isn’t easy to be entirely responsible for another human being; it’s work. But it is possible when all of the power - and therefore most of the big decisions - lie in your hands. I don’t think most young children feel completely powerless all that often.

I know my husband didn’t, as a child. I, on the other hand, often did, and resented it. Once again I come up against the wall of generalizations. In any of the posts I’ve written about parenting, ASD, or relationships, there will always be perfectly reasonable examples that run counter to my experiences. I don’t mean to elide those examples; they are not examples with which I’m familiar enough to write, because in the end, they aren’t mine.

We’re all going to transition from being children to being adults. It’s inevitable. It’s one of the things we can’t avoid.

But transition from being powerless to being powerful is often fraught.

Parents of young children, or people whose friends and relatives have them, have seen small children melt-down. They’ve seen children pitch screaming, raging fits. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Especially in the case of parents: you can’t live with another human being 24/7 and not experience these. Everyone gets angry. Everyone has a temper.

Children have not yet figured out that expressed emotion is not equivalent to emotion. If they’re angry, they lose it. They may feel that their parents don’t have these emotions because their parents don’t melt-down this way (see: my son and his father), but that’s because they don’t have the tools to understand that expression is not the same as existence. So: 24/7 lack of temper on the part of a small child is a pipe dream.

As parents, we also get angry. Sometimes we are furious - but we’ve learned to bite back, suppress, hold on to the anger. We’ve learned that we don’t have to express it by, well, melting down.

Take one tired child and one tired child’s thwarted desire. Stir in a No. Many, many small children, when frustrated or disappointed, when raging with the unfairness of the power-balance, will often scream: I hate you at the top of their considerable little lungs. They are hurt, they feel unloved, and they are lashing out. They are trying to make an impact, to have any effect. There may be toy-throwing; one little girl I know would throw herself across the ground and start punching and kicking it - which, I’m awful I know, made me almost laugh because it was so archetypal but I had never seen it before.

What’s the effect of this on the parental loved ones? Well, on some days, it can sting. But if you’re accustomed to three year old meltdowns, that’s all it does. It does not cut you to the very core. You are not vulnerable to the pain such an angry declaration causes. You see the child in front of you, you know he should have gotten more sleep last night, and you know that once he does get sleep, the severe hatred of the moment will recede.

These fights will continue. They will become less onerous with time, as your children head out into the world and make friends. But: when your child as a child tells you that he (or she) hates you, it doesn’t matter. What difference does it make in the end?

You translate: I hate you into I am exhausted or I didn’t get what I wanted and you continue to parent. You love your child, even if you want, at that particular moment, to scream back at him or strangle him. You - yes - endure.

Possibly you’ll remember doing this as a child yourself, and you’ll know that it wasn’t meant.

You have the power and the authority; the child has thwarted desire and deep attachment. Tomorrow he will tell you he loves you. Tomorrow he will forget just how much he screamed that he hated you. You will still feed him, still make sure he gets dressed, still stop him from body surfing down the stairs.

He will, in spite of his furious declaration be a child in the heart of your home, and you will still love him.

That’s the parent angle. However, the child angle is different. For children:

Your mother (or father) say they love you. They want you to be happy. But they are making you miserable. They can do anything they want. They can buy anything they want. They make all the decisions. They have all the power. Children feel this power strongly when they are thwarted. They’re hurt - they are genuinely hurt. They understand that all the love in the world - theirs - doesn’t make a difference. Parent is standing before them like an immovable object. An Invulnerable Object. They flail in fury. They strike out, sometimes physically, sometimes verbally, often both.

They have no effect.

What they learn, as children, is that they can’t have an effect. When they are hurt and angry and lash out - nothing happens.

There is a visceral understanding that develops through situations like these:

Power = Love.

Or, more specifically, your love gives the loved one all the power.


We learn the trappings of interacting with people who are not our parents when we enter school; from there, we mature. But we have friends in school; we do not, until we hit a certain age, have love in that all-consuming sense.

We don’t test the boundaries of love in the same way we did as small children. Can you imagine screaming at your friends that way? They wouldn’t be friends for very long. Friends are not your parents; this is pretty evident early on. We don’t want from our friends what we want from parents. Therefore, the power = love dynamic doesn’t come into full play here.

It comes into play later, when we are beginning to look for boyfriends/girlfriends.

I wrote about parental-love models and adult-love modes; this is a very strong element of the parental-love model - but it is not always one we’re aware of. When we fall in love, we’re often uncertain. We’re nervous.

We’ve given - often unconsciously - all of the power to someone who is not us. On a visceral level, we’ve fallen back into the power = love paradigm. The person we fall in love with, the person we want something from has all the power. This kicks in all kinds of reflexes: we want to be good. We want to be loved. We want to do whatever it is that will make us loveable. (I am talking about early teenage interactions here.)

When someone still holding on to the parental love paradigm is hurt in a relationship, two things can happen. One: they are immediately reminded that they have no power. Because when they last felt this bitter horrible searing pain, they didn’t.

Two: they lash out. They scream I hate you or some similar variant because they’ve been hurt.

But the person sitting across the table from them is not their parent. They do not feel that they have all the power, all the answers, or all the authority, because they don’t. They are initially as vulnerable, emotionally, as their partner.

So of course they’re hurt. Did the hurt person intend this as a consequence? No. And I would argue that when people are still clinging to the concept of unconditional parental love, they are not even aware that they can cause pain when they are in pain themselves. If they themselves are hurt, anything they do as a result of that pain? Doesn’t count. It doesn’t even register. Nothing they did when they were a child counted, either, and again - on a visceral, subconscious level, this is the model they know.

It doesn’t count because in their minds, the person who hurt them, the person they love, has all the power. They are flailing and in pain, and they are responding as they did when they felt this kind of pain and disappointment before. It’s the equivalent of a tantrum, and they throw themselves into it emotionally because at base they are trying, desperately, to have an effect they don’t viscerally believe they can have.

But they are doing inestimable damage while they flail, because the other person is not their parent. The other person doesn’t have the power and authority. There is emotional scarring and pain.

This destroys early relationships. It forces people to put up walls, to place much larger distances between themselves and their partner. It is hard to be open when an inadvertent difficulty causes long knives to materialize.

A lot of early relationship concerns are about power. I think those concerns stem from the early, childhood interactions. We’re certain that if we’re the one who wants things we aren’t given, that the other person holds the power in the relationship. I think it’s incredibly important to ditch this certainty fast as humanly possible because it is very, very easy to break the tentative beginnings of any adult relationship by this kind of flailing.

We need to see that we have power.

We can’t build something adult if we hand all of the power - however unintentionally - to another human being, because we are also trying to hand all of the emotional responsibility to that other human being as well. We are attempting to carve out a parental-love space with other adults.

And this often doesn’t work at all.


I don’t know how to give children the sense that they have this kind of power. I don’t know how to raise them to understand that their emotional words have this kind of weight, when young - because it’s imperative that when they’re young, their words don’t have that weight to us.

When they’re older, and the fights are not out-and-out tantrums, I think we should let our children see when things sting. I think we should own up to our own vulnerabilities. I know that with my oldest son, the thing that broke almost all of our arguments was a sense that I was listening. That I was taking his opinion and his desires into account, that there were reasons for disregarding them. That what he said could, in fact, have an effect on my own positions.

So let me close with an (I’m sorry, it’s long) example of one of our later fights. In fact, I think it’s the last major argument my oldest and I had in this house.

I am not an outdoors person. My husband and his parents are. So once a year, for four days, he goes canoeing/portaging with his family, and I stay home and write. When my oldest son was old enough (i.e. could swim), my husband began to take him on these trips. He left my youngest at home with me; we would go do holiday things while they were in Algonquin park.

It’s not always easy to come up with a weekend that suits all of the adults who would like to participate. When my oldest was a high school student, there was one year when the only such weekend was labor day weekend - the weekend directly before school. That was the only weekend that worked for my in-laws and our family. My husband told my oldest who said “fine.”

Except he wasn’t really listening. And when it came time to go, he completely flipped out. He did not want to leave for a trip the final weekend before school.

My husband doesn’t believe that children should be forced to go on a holiday. But they’d planned a portage route that depended upon my oldest son’s presence; my husband made clear that he thought my son was necessary; my son was silent. He would not agree to go.

They discussed it over the course of three days. My husband again made it absolutely clear that he felt my son’s presence was necessary - although he intended to try the route without my son if my son elected not to go.

During the course of this, I was getting angry. I understood that my son had not, in fact, paid attention to the weekend date. I understood that he did not want to take the last summer break weekend and go to Algonquin part. But I also understood that when my husband said “necessary” it was not window-dressing or hyperbole.

So, finally, I went to talk to my son. Well, okay, I went to fight with my son, because I was angry. His father never asks for anything. He gives and gives and gives - but he asks for nothing.

I wanted a good damn reason for the refusal. My son was hunkered in his room - waiting, as it turns out, for me. He had, he told me, been expecting this because I always come running to drop a hammer on his head if he’s having an unresolvable difficulty with his father.

This was news to me, but, well. We had a very, very terse discussion, and it went nowhere, and I went downstairs to cool off, because - I was angry. I have the temper my husband does not, and poorer impulse control - and it’s hard to have a sensible discussion about anything when angry.

Before I had achieved this cooling off, I heard the door to his room open - loudly - and he came thundering down the stairs in fury. He said: “You win! You win, you’ve hammered me down with guilt - so I’ll go!”

And, dear readers, that was too much for me. I said, “Wait one bloody minute. I’ve hammered you down? What exactly did I say that you didn’t already know? Do not blame your conscience on me!”

There was no time-out here for either of us. He was too old, and I was too incensed. I have tried all my life not to use the guilt paradigm because I grew up with it. Nobody enjoys being told that they’ve utterly failed.

He shouted, I shouted, it was pretty loud. My husband and younger son remained safely upstairs.

The last thing my husband wanted was to drag a sullen and resentful teenage son to Algonquin park. But even through this, both my son and I employed a certain logic. It’s heated, but we stay on focus.

So I finally said, because I was struggling, “Look, you need to give me something I can work with here. I know why your father wants you to go. I understand that there is a visceral reason that you do not want to spend the last summer weekend away from home before school. There must be, or you wouldn’t be fighting it like this - but I do not understand it. I need to understand the reason behind it, because from where I’m sitting, there isn’t one that’s good enough. Dad does not make things up. This is not a matter of personal preference - if you’d told us you didn’t want to go when he told you the date, he would have chosen a different route. He can’t change it in two days. He is going to try that route anyway, because he’s made that commitment to his parents. And I’m worried.

“Give me something to work with, because if I don’t have it, all I can see is that he needs you to be there and you don’t want to be.”

And he took a deep breath and sat down on the floor of the kitchen beside me. After a long, notably quiet moment had passed, he said, “I don’t have one. I can tell you that I don’t want to go. I can tell you why - but it doesn’t even make sense to me.”

It was because I’d asked him to give me that explanation that his fury had guttered. It was because I was clearly trying to find a balance between my own reaction and his. This would not have worked when he was four. But he was in high school. He was in high school, and our argument paradigm involved facts and reason - even when we were emotional. It is easy, when we are angry, to speak past each other - but we grab onto facts, onto logic and reason, on the way past, and we hold them while we speak.

And just like that, the anger was gone. I had asked him something that made clear that I was listening. I did care. I had asked him for the tools to look at his decision in a different way. He therefore examined them all, and he came up with what I came up with: he viscerally did not want to go - but there was no reason that he thought was actually good enough. He looked up at me and said, in an entirely different tone of voice, “I’ll go.”

The great thing about my oldest is that, when he reaches a decision like this, he steps beyond sullen resentment. If he agreed to go - like this - he would go, and he would be present. He would not spend the weekend being angry. He went upstairs to tell his father.

The coda, of course, is that he came home from the weekend laughing. Husband, not so much. It turns out that the stretch of river that my husband was concerned about was a huge problem. Not, as my son laughingly said, for the right reasons. My husband had been concerned about handling the canoe with the current going against them; the current was actually moving with them. It was unfortunately moving with them at great, great speed - so the entire leg was a struggle for control. My husband and my two sons had one canoe; my in-laws & their daughter had the other.

My husband quietly said, for the entirety of that leg, he kept telling himself “I have to bring home two children. I have to bring home two children.” It is not a trip he would like to repeat.

But my son didn’t sense that - either of them. My oldest thought it was funny - but he also had absolute proof that his presence was, as my husband had feared it would be, entirely necessary. He was, in size, almost as tall as his father; he knew how to paddle, and had the experience his younger brother lacked. They barely made it with him; they would not have been able to do it without him, which meant that they would be 3 days out, and would have had to turn back - with no food for the journey back.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 21st, 2012 09:03 pm (UTC)
I swear to God, Michelle, your posts may not make me a better parent but it'll be my own damned fault if they don't. You continue to be insightful and wise, even if it's not what you're intending to be when you write these things. Damn, woman.
Jun. 22nd, 2012 09:09 am (UTC)
Thank you. Your posts are helping me in a quite different context, and I am grateful to have found them about now.
Jun. 22nd, 2012 10:49 am (UTC)
I don't have much to say, but I am putting it away and processing like mad, because it explains so many things. It strikes me that you've bascally employed the same strategy as with your husband: sitting down and recasting the argument until you were both sure that you _understood_ the other and communicating from a basis of 'I love you and I want to understand you and I want to make this work' and you try as much as you can to leave manipulative methods out of the discussion.

I can also see how this would have been difficult for your son- you were basically asking him to make an adult decision of 'I will go because these people rely on me.' (Which I agree is much better than "I must go because I promised/am being told to go/am being manipulated into going'). I... kind of understand why he couldn't arrive there on his own, and I can see why it was a milestone that he did... and well done for helping him to get there.
Jun. 29th, 2012 01:27 pm (UTC)
Quick background on me: I wrote short stories for a few years, put creative writing aside to quit my job and go back to school, had a baby while in grad school. Baby is now 3. Your posts on family life of course make me project what it may be like with my son. He and I have similar temperaments and, I suspect, similar tempers. But there's an interesting contrast in my deeper reaction that I thought I'd share: Reading your books makes me want to read. Reading your LJ posts makes me want to write.
Thank you for all the above.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )