Unconditional love is a tricky thing.
You think you have it with your childhood dog. (Until he poops on your bedroom floor.)
You think you have it with your first boyfriend. (Until he poops on your bedroom floor.)
Yet, you have no idea what loving unconditionally feels like until you have a child—with poop on the floor (and car, bath, hair) and all.
During the season of love, it begs the question, “Is unconditional love something that we teach our children, or is it a biological infusion once parenthood is upon us?”
It is all I can do to get my 9-year-old son to tell me he loves me, despite my telling him like 10,000 times a day. I withhold things, like snacks and clean undies, until he says it aloud. It comes out a mumbled rush through hot cheeks, but it is there and I cling to every forced syllable.
Love = Pretzels.
It’s a good lesson.
Because verbal affection is seemingly unnatural for him, I was concerned that I had overfed him forkfuls of adoration, and now the words were as meaningless as broken Legos. Had I ruined him for future romances? Will he be told he’s an emotional desert by a partner who adores him? Had my overlove create a Love Void?
So I pulled back.
And in my restraint, I saw that all of those words, actions and symbols of my unconditional love started transferring from a place inside of him to those he holds near and dear.
“In this lesson of one-sided devotion, how lucky that we get to sit in that purest space of love.”
I heard him talking to his plush buddies, as he awoke, telling them he had to go to school but not to worry, he would be back before they knew it. He let the cat knead away on his leg as he kissed his ears. He gave our puppy “bellies” as he told her how pretty and sweet she is.
Then I waited for this new mushiness to wash over me.
I am still waiting.
It is one of the roughest lessons to learn as a parent, that no matter the endless love we feel for our kids, they just don’t feel the same about us. That no matter how many crusts we cut off sandwiches, how many forgotten backpacks we drive to school, how many sleepless nights we endure, our kids don’t owe us anything in return. In this lesson of one-sided devotion, how lucky that we get to sit in that purest space of love. That love where we let it flow from us and don’t expect it back. It is selfless and true and beautiful.
We have to stop expecting that our children “owe” us love. Kindness, respect, sweetness…of course. But we can’t presume for them to match the well of unconditional love that we have for them.
The reward for all of this comes the day when our grandchildren are on the receiving end. It may be decades away, but there will be a time when all of the sacrifice and waiting will be poured into the next generation. In those future moments, we will see the reflection of our own unconditional love, and every second will be worth it…poop, pretzels and all.
Maggie Knowles writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.