I grew up believing that I loved my mom. To me, she was wonderful. I loved laying in bed snuggled up next to her after everyone else had left the house and we had the extra hour we got together because I went to the late-morning kindergarten. We would lay there and she would just listen to me talk and talk and talk. With that time, I felt safe and secure at school. She made wonderful food, spent time with me, kept my room clean and even played board games with me and she let me win. I remember those times fondly.
What I remember less clearly is how utterly dependent I felt upon her. She was my world and connecting with her in anyway possible was my main focus in life.
My mom always said, “I love you” and I don’t recall ever not saying it back. It was automatic, instinctual. Any time that I felt our bond was threatened, a simple “I love you” and her mirrored reply came in to save my day.
Recently, I realized that children do not love their parents, at least not by my definition of love. Upon further reflection I decided that it is also silly to even expect them to. Acknowledging this can have a profound impact on all of our relationships as I will show.
The morning on which I realized this, our home was abuzz with my wife, our six year old and I running about in our regular routine when suddenly, “Oh Fuck” rang out from the kitchen. I ran in and blood was dripping from my wife’s hand. It was hard to see how bad the injury was but very quickly my boy scout training came online. I was calm as I grabbed a paper towel, raised her hand above her head, applied direct pressure and escorted her to lay down on the couch. Our six year old asked what happened, I told her that Mommy had been hurt pretty bad and we might need to go to the emergency room. I asked her to get dressed quickly since we might have to leave earlier than usual for school. Our daughter’s main concern at that time was how much time on YouTube she stood to lose as a result of this inconvenience. It was then that it hit me like a ton of bricks. She doesn’t really love her mother.
Just in case you think that our daughter is a heartless, demonic child, please allow me to provide some more background. She gets excited when she sees her mother. She enjoys spending time with mother whether it is playing with her dolls, getting dressed up, or even doing homework together. She still sleeps in the same bed with us and snuggles mom much of the night. She is affectionate, full of hugs, always ready to share some of her goodies with us. She dances and sings like any other 6 year old. We also hear a spontaneous, “I love you mommy” at least once a day.
It is likely that babies are genetically wired to seek out and bond with their mother. A seemingly “helpless” baby is actually working it pretty hard to keep mother’s attention as much as possible as any new parent knows. Keeping that milk coming is critical for the baby’s survival. Fortunately moms also have some genetic wiring that predisposes them to be susceptible to the babies clever tactics. Looking cute with big eyes and miniaturized fingers and toes is their primary weapon. Later on they learn the smile back and perhaps even the most seductive baby move of all, the giggle (followed by a burp).
For a baby and even for a child until they become independent, losing a relationship with their mother is the number one threat to their survival. Children are wired to do whatever it takes to maintain that connection. Their strategy for doing so morphs over literally thousands of hours of interactions with their parents. These interactions are written as a gut level intuitive knowing about their parents. Children know exactly which buttons to push to keep a parent engaged. This “knowing” shapes every interaction and eventually can form into more rigid personality structures as labels are applied to certain repeated behaviors.
Now remember we’ve got some pretty clever babies here. Just barely out of the womb they were already luring in mom and dad. Quickly learning what actions led to a happy smile and which ones led to a disappointed frown. New behaviors are being constantly layered on top as a child’s faculties improve.
Regardless of the actual behavior, one thing is constant. The child seeks signs of a connection with their parents because this is their core survival need. They form habits of behaviors that they use to ensure the connection is still there and solid. These behaviors might include noticing what mom is interested in and taking a similar interest. Behaving well if mom tends to give lots of praise, or behaving poorly if that tends to get mom talking more directly to her.
At some point in many families parents will say, “I love you.” Often their is an expectation or even just an imitation where the child then says, ”I love you, too.”
What can a child possibly know about love at this vulnerable stage in life? Like a slave saying he loves his master, can we ever truly know if the slave loves his master until the slave is set free and no longer required to?
What is this thing that most children feel towards and desire from their parents? A deep desire for their complete attention. Knowing that their parent is at their beck and call. They are like the jealous god of the old testament, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The feeling that they can control their parents to get their needs met is equated with security and feeling of safety. For a child, this feels like life and death. Our ancestors, as children, were the most successful in keeping mom’s attention and not getting picked up by the hyenas while mom was distracted.
The absence of mom’s attention, being unable manipulate mom and dad into getting core needs met and not being feeling protected activate a fear response in children to encourage them to take action and try new strategies to reestablish connection and to get needs met.
So what does this all really mean? Why does this matter?
From my earliest days I learned to label this feeling of fear and survival – love.
As a child when I told my mother I love her, it was with total disregard to her own happiness and well being. That didn’t even factor in unless somehow her being happy meant I got more of her. What I meant when I said, “I love you”, was actually, “please don’t ever leave me I can’t live without you” fear. Feeling so vulnerable and utterly dependent on another human creates many opportunities for being let down. To a child 5 minutes can be a lifetime. Within 5 minutes of a feeling vulnerable and not getting their needs met, this fear can quickly morph into hatred. Hatred at the parent for not listening to me and giving me 100% attention and doing exactly what I say.
So now in the child’s mind, love is defined as the feeling of dependency, vulnerability, fear and even hatred.
We eventually wander away from the nest. Inevitably we feel unloved by our parents to some degree because they were emotionally unavailable, had other priorities in life besides us. Even the most attentive parent did not give 100% attention and couldn’t be manipulated 100% of the time to get a child’s desires met.
Now as teenagers we move beyond parents but still have this love which is defined in fear and insecurity. We are told to find someone we love. What does that mean? Someone that I feel like I can’t live without?
They meet someone that makes them feel safe and comfortable, just like mom did. That must be love!! Actually, no, that is fear.
We unconsciously seek out relationships with people with similar patterns to our parents and we call this “love” because what we feel is extreme fear, possessiveness, a sense of feeling safe. It is rare to actually examine what the actual feelings of this “love” are and also what the fruits of this love yield. Is it greater joy for all? Greater freedom? Or is the fruit the same as with our parents. Sibling jealousy, a desire to control my partner, getting their attention, a fleeting sense of safety.
Now society buys into this child->parent fearful love as the highest form of love. We call white, black and black, white. Should we be surprised that few people are deeply content in long term relationships when they are basically looking to recreate their relationship with mom?
I felt a lot of shame in acknowledging to myself that I what I felt for my mother growing up was not love. I wasn’t keeping up my end of the bargain. She loves me so I must love her back. These shameful notions are incompatible with the concepts of selfless love that we layer on top with the language we learn later. For most of my life I had to hide the deep feelings of fear, possessiveness, anger, jealousy, survival and even hatred because that is not how one is supposed to feel about their mothers.
What if I just accept that what I felt as a child toward my mother isn’t love? Perhaps then I might stop seeking after fear and hatred disguised as love. I could say that I’m seeking fear and desiring to hate someone, but I think I would tire of that pretty quickly.
It was only in my mid thirties or so that I started growing to love my mother. What does that mean to me? I enjoy watching her be herself and wouldn’t want her to be any other way. I don’t need or want anything from her. I just delight in seeing any authentic expression that shines through.