Saturday, March 03, 2007

What does love feel like?

Andrew was wanted and planned. I had happy thoughts and worried thoughts about the baby I was carrying long before he was born. He didn't kick as much as other babies. He strettccchhed. During the last two months he planted his feet on my diaphragm and pushed his head into my bladder. I tried to stretch for him, and clenched so I would not pee. People would ask me if I was having a contraction and I would say, "No, my little parasite is trying to make me pee my pants."

I was in labor a long time. I lost two nights sleep. He was born at 7:40pm on a Monday. Because he was breast-fed the nurses kept waking me up every few hours to feed him. In the middle of the second night I woke to hear a baby crying and in my exhaustion I thought I was babysitting. I thought, "Where is this kid's mother and when is she coming back???" And then I realized I was the mother and for a while all I felt was despair. I managed to smile at the nurses. I knew that if I cried and said that I did not want to be a mommy they would write it in the charts and that would be a bad thing.

I shared before about the game we young mothers would play where we shared all thing things we said we would not do. We also shared our fantasies about running away. I confessed that I always knew how much gas and money we had. Every time in I got in the car without the baby I would mentally calculate how far away I could get on the resources we had.

Another mother had a neighbor who adored her baby. The neighbor often joked, "If you ever get tired of her, you just give her to me." This mother had a reoccurring fantasy in which she packed up everything before her husband came home. When he walked in the door all she would say was, "What baby? We don't have a baby."

We could share these stories with each other because we trusted each other. We all knew that even though we had times in which we locked ourselves in bathrooms wondering why we ever thought we were capable of raising children, we still loved them.

When Andrew was about 18 months old he developed the sport of baby-tipping. All my mother-friends had babies around 6 months old. We got together every two weeks for a play group (which was really a mother-support group). Andrew thought it was hilarious to walk over the babies, and give them a tiny push. They would topple over, screaming and Andrew would laugh. Once he had all four of their babies screaming at once. I left the group crying and angry at him for being such a demon and depriving me of my one place where I got support for being a mother.

When I was pregnant with Brian, and Andrew was four, I more than once confessed to my friend that I did not know why I did this. I had just got out of toddler hell. Andrew had turned into a person. I liked him. Why was I going back? Caring for babies and toddlers was, for me, a sort of work camp you had to go through to get a child. Why did I sign up for it twice? Oh there were joys to it, but it was work. I knew why I did though. I had dragged Hubby across the country for my job. He had no idea what he wanted to do, and said he wanted another baby. He would stay home and take care of it. Many times during the pregnancy, and even during Brian's life (even in the past year) I have thought the thought, "This one's Hubby's kid. He can figure it out."

Love of children comes along with resentment, exhaustion, and simple dislike of them.

It is easy for me to confess this because with my birth kids the moments of negativity are pauses between long stretches of happiness. The vast majority of days I look at my kids and the kids of my friends and think, "I got the best ones." And I know they look at my kids and think the same thing about theirs. I find them amazing. I want good things for them. I am proud of them. There is no question that I love them, even though there have been times when I drove along thinking, "You know, we are mistaken when we wonder how it is that a mother could ever abandon her children. The real question is why don't they all abandon them? Anyone who has ever been trapped with a toddler all day must wonder why you don't see them abandoned at roadsides like kittens all the time."

But my love for my biological kids is very different. With Andrew there is simpatico. I GET him. I understand what he is feeling and why. The greatest danger is over-identifying. I have to remember to distance myself. The past month, since we have been partially home schooling Brian, has been easier with Brian than life has been since he was two (maybe not, but it sure feels that way). For years I have felt that there was some problem he had that I could not understand and I could not fix. My love was mixed with frustration. I often turned to Hubby and said, sometimes tearfully, "You have to figure this out! I can't. I don't know what he needs."

There were days when I felt somewhat disconnected to him. There were days when I realized I had more sympathy and understanding with the foster boys, than I did with him. But through all that there was also commitment and love. It bothered me more than I can explain that I knew he was unhappy in school and that I could not figure it out. I am married to a special education teacher who knows all the teachers in town. So I struggled to make Brian's home life better. I bought him pets and cuddled him and hoped his father would figure out school.

What I am saying is that my feelings for my biological boys is complicated. There is not a simple, constant, feeling of love. There is love, commitment, anger, frustration, pride, and feelings of being overwhelmed and wanting to walk away.

My love for my husband is a different sort of thing. When I think of how I love my husband I feel like I am basking in his love for me. I don't think that always thinks I am the most wonderful person alive. But I do know that he has a commitment to me. I know that he has sometimes not liked me very much and during those times he was still kind to me. And that is the most precious love that anyone has ever shown me. He loves me so much that he acts loving even when he doesn't feel it. Don't get me wrong -- we have fought. There were tough times. But we both managed to remain decent to each other through those times and that has built a sort of trust. I feel utterly safe with him, and I adore him for giving me that feeling a safety. I never felt that way as a child, and I do feel that way with him.

My feelings of love for my biological kids is not like that at all. I am very aware that it should not be. I should make them feel safe, but their job is to move away. They are not here to take care of their mother.

As for Carl, David, and Evan?

Well, my feelings for each one of them is also distinct.

Carl is the one that I allowed myself to love completely and naively. I was a typical, stupid first-time foster parent who thought that she could just love a kid and that the kid would get over his issues and love her back. As a parent I knew how difficult and complicated that would be, but I had certain naive expectations about the relationship. The truth is I was d*mn lucky, because it did happen that way. Carl does not have attachment issues. He had been loved by a good (though not perfect) mother for 14 years. He had mourned her and he was ready to love another mom. Oh, he test me, more than once, but he loved me back. I think the day that we both knew we loved each other, really, was the day I was so furious and he was afraid I would kick him out. I didn't, and he's trusted me since. Because his childhood pain was not so deep, he did not have to go through that over and over. Once was enough. He may be passive aggressive, deceitful, and a compulsive liar, but I also know he loves me. He does things that hurt me, and I feel hurt and angry, and then I forgive.

I offered that to David and thought he accepted and returned it, and then found out I was wrong. When David's behavior first changed I fought for him. By the time I admitted defeat and let him go I was unable for a long time to say that I loved him. I said that I cared about him very much. I am very aware that David may not really be able to attach. He seems to, but it is superficial and he can turn it off and walk away the second he thinks he has a better offer somewhere else. So I have to protect a part of myself that I don't protect with Andrew, Brian, and Carl. I love him, but it is not the same. I don't know if I can explain it well, but I know it is different. When David can't hurt me like Carl can. If I hear that David is, again, telling lies about us to garner sympathy from someone, I shake my head sadly. If Carl did that I would be so hurt I would find it difficult to talk to him about it.

I went into the relationship with Evan not expecting to fall in love with him. He was going to be something more like a boarder. My relationship with him grew more naturally. It became whatever it became because it was what we genuinely felt for each other, not because either of us had a particular expectation. He of course quickly measured what I did and felt for him against what I do and feel for the bioboys. I did my best to help him deal with all that. I knew that he commanded much more of my time and energy than Andrew and Brian did. I knew that I had to set aside time to spend with Andrew and Brian because Evan took so much. I knew that I loved Evan, and that it was more like what I would feel for a nephew. He came to me at nearly 18 years old. There was no way I was going to feel the same sort of protective love that one has for a child one has loved since they were small and defenseless.

When I learned of Evan's addiction I made a decision to stick with him. I did it as much because I thought it would be healing for me, after my pain with my father, to stick with it. I worked hard on what the Al-Anon people call "detaching with love" and I call "loving with detachment." For me it was the loving part that was hard. Detaching, running for the hills, abandoning him when I knew he was an addict, was what some deep part of me wanted to do. Staying, taking the risk, allowing myself to love him at all even though he is an addict, that is hard for me. As I seem him now drinking and bragging about drinking I am very aware that his journey is not over. I remain detached while I care, perhaps loving him. I no longer feel a great need to figure out whether what I feel for him is LOVE. I care about him, that is enough.

And then there is Miss E and Ann. They, unlike any of my boys, have attachment disorders. (David may be incapable of geniune attachment, but he is not reactive. He does not panic and hurt people who try to love him, at least as long as he is getting what he wants/needs from them. And even when he does not, he does not really attack. He just moves on.) I know that Ann and Miss E would reject any love that I have for them. So though I once tried to offer Ann love, now I offer them only tepid, consistent friendship. I try to offer them only as much as they can accept.

So this is a long post, as I knew it would be, but the point is very simple: there is not one way to love a child and there is not one sort of way that love feels.

Caring enough about someone to behave as though you love them when you really don't feel it is love. It can be the best sort of love. This is commitment, and it is a good thing.

Pretending that you love someone when you really don't because you feel like you have to, perhaps because people will be disappointed in you if you don't, that is not healthy. That can turn into resentment. This I think of as mere obligation, and it is not a good thing, not in the long run anyway. If that is really all there is, and all there ever will be, then the child is not getting what he or she needs.

But telling the difference between those two things is not easy, partly because no matter how a child comes into your life, there will be days, and long stretches of days, in which we feel that we are acting only out of obligation. There are days when we are worn out, tired, hurt, and drained, when we feel very little, or when we feel only anger and exhaustion, but we keep going.

Parenting is like that -- no matter how the children come into our lives.


  1. "Caring enough about someone to behave as though you love them when you really don't feel it is love. It can be the best sort of love. This is commitment, and it is a good thing."

    Do you mean when you really don't feel it AT THE TIME, or when you really don't feel it AT ALL?

    One thing I tell my clients is that love is a feeling and parenting is a skill. I would say that one of the skills of parenting is acting loving even when one is feeling other things (anger, frustration, exhaustion), but I wouldn't say that acting that way when the feeling of love is entirely absent is love or even a close substitute for love (which you pretty much say in your next paragraph.) I agree that there are all kinds of love, but I do think there is a particular kind that children need, and that is unconditional love (which is what it sounds like you get--or close to--from your husband, and missed from your parents.) Teenagers aren't quite children though. A lot to think about--thanks for writing this.

  2. I mean at the time.

    I also do think that it is normal for parenting relationships to start out without the feeling. That's part of what was going on when Andrew was born. I was so exhausted after not sleeping for two nights that my first reaction to him was sort of "that's nice. Now take him away so I can sleep."

    If I had not read about new mothers sometimes feeling emotionally unresponsive for the first day or so I would have worried. For the first day (maybe two) every time I looked at him I thought things like, "How could I have a kid?" I did not have strong emotions of any sort. It all seem unreal. I was mostly just going through the motions -- until I finally got some sleep. After that I started having emotions again, and one of them was deep love for him.

  3. I can so relate to "getting" one of your bio kids and feeling helpless with another. I have the same thing with my oldest and my second bio child. I "get" the oldest. To this day, he calls at least once a week (he's 23) and visits one weekend a month -- because he wants to. The 11-year-old is the one I don't get. I do not know what to do to help her. We've tried it all and so far nothing seems to be working. I know we'll eventually find the answer and my love for her doesn't lessen. But there are days when I really don't like being around her. I have felt great guilt about that, yet know I'm not abnormal. Thank you for sharing.


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