Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Dealing with superficial affection

Gawdessness in her post this morning, The Dark Bits Around the Edges of Things, wrote about many things, but included there is a passage about dealing with a child who is able to turn off affection. David was, no, is, like that. Reading Gawdessness' post has made me think about it living with that reality.

I want to be clear, Gawdessness's post made me think about all this, but this is about me and my relationship with David.

I don't know about you, but some of the smallest things can upset me the most. Andrew responded poorly to his immunizations. His two months shots made him cranky. I gave him ibuprofen in advance of his four months shots. Even so, his little leg got hot and swollen. He was miserable. I think I held him and rocked him for almost 24 hours straight. As long as I did not move him suddenly, or touch his leg, that was all he wanted. I can still call up that body-memory of him on my shoulder, accepting comfort.

Even then I knew that though I was full of concern for him and I wanted his pain to be over, I also found caring for him deeply satisfying. He was hurting. I comforted. He was comforted. I was satisfied. It is not everything there is to life, but it is part of it. We give our love and, when it is received, we feel good.

That memory is in contrast to the times when holding him did not help. He cried. I picked him up. He arched and pulled away and screamed more. And though he was mostly an easy baby and I was mostly a good mom, at that moment I would have a terrible thought. Something like, "Well, if you don't want me then I don't want you either." Or worse. For a moment, I wanted to reject my baby.

It is so primal, that need to love and have our love received.

Andrew and Brian have been raised in loving homes and they have both rejected my love and comfort on more than one occasion. It is a difficult experience, but it is one moment in parenting. It passes, and we move on. Thank God it passes.

Except when you are raising children who have been traumatizes it does not always pass. RAD kids work hard to be rejected. They push every button they can find. When they were small they were hurt horribly by the people who were supposed to love them. For them, love is equated with pain.

But kids like David are different. My theory is that they were not so much physically abused as rejected. Their abuse came in the form of abandonment.

They were on the opposite end of that loving/rejecting experience. They, like all humans, offer love and affection. But what if, when they were small, that affection was regularly rejected? What if they had that horrible moment of rejection? What if it happened a lot? What if they lived there? When I am rejected I have a foundation that allows me to keep my footing and still feel good about myself. They did not have that. So they responded in a very different way.

I have never been sure what goes on in David. It is possible that the affection he seems to have for me is genuine, but that he can turn it off in an instant. Or maybe there is no real affection. Maybe he just uses people and has no real feelings for any of them. He offers me the behaviors he needs to in order to get what he wants from me.

For a long while it was important for me to figure it out. I wanted to know if he really loved me.

But I have changed my mind about that. If I were talking about a friend or a lover I would need to know. If there is an adult in my life pretending affection in order to get what he wanted from me, then I would want to know because I would not want to be his friend or lover anymore. I need those relationships to be mutual. I would not want to fall for the act. If I did, I would think I was being duped.

But I am David's parent.

And I love him.


I love him even if he doesn't love me back. I love him even if he is using me. I love him even if he is trying to manipulate me. Maybe when he hugs me it is part of a performance for him, but when I hug him back it is real. And I am not being duped because I know what is going on, or at least what might be going on, and I am choosing to love him anyway.

Now before anyone out there thinks I am fantastic, please know that that is a decision, a commitment, I make over and over. I don't always feel it. I feel all sorts of things. Sometimes I feel that he is a manipulative little brat whom I just don't want to deal with. I also don't always or even usually do what he wants me to.

But I decide that I am committed to him -- or perhaps I remember it. I remind myself that loving him means loving him unconditionally.

It would be more difficult though if he were a seven-year-old girl who had been socialized to offer charming smiles and hugs. I don't know how I would handle that. Which is why I don't have any advice for Gawdessness -- just solidarity, sister.

I do have one thought though. Loving unconditionally does not mean giving affection on their conditions. If we are going to teach them what genuine love is, then we need to behave in genuine ways. If we don't feel like cuddling, then we don't cuddle. Oh of course there are plenty of times when as parents we don't feel like hugging our kids, but they need comfort and so we put aside all our exhaustion and hug them anyway. But that doesn't mean that we hug them when they are being manipulative little brats whom we would rather not deal with at the moment.

Even if we do still love them.


  1. Thank you for that post. At times I am consumed by guilt that I don't have the feelings for my little ones that I have for my older children. I have been heading in the same direction though, allowing myself to express my genuine feelings with the girls, and hoping that it will give them an example of what real love is all about.

    I loved your thoughts about commitment. That's exactly where I stand. I'm committed, for better or worse, whether they love me back or not. And I like the idea of not even worrying about whether they love me. It isn't part of the equation, it would just be an added bonus.

  2. I completely relate to this post.

  3. Thank you for writing this. I've had those rough moments when my heart ached to love and to feel that back. Moments when he either didn't want anyone or he wanted Hubby. Knowing it is normal development doesn't makeit better.


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