I thought I knew what love was. I thought I understood the unconditional sort of love that I was taught created healthy, intimate relationships.
I was skilled at forgiveness, at compassion, at total and complete acceptance. I loved my parents and tried to honor them. I loved my husband with the kind of unconditional commitment that stuck by his side despite disagreements, differences, betrayals. I loved my first-born with the self-sacrificing attentiveness and nurturing that we hope for from mothers. I understood love. Or so I thought.
My daughter was born in 2008. I’d had 3 years in the mommy hood by that point, and so I thought I knew how to love as a caring mother. I continued on with my loving behaviors much as I had with her older brother before. But, over the months and years it became abundantly clear that my feelings toward her were very different than they were toward her brother. There was a distance somehow and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
As the years passed and we encountered the more challenging behaviors and were obtaining diagnoses and therapies and transforming our home and family and routines into a sensory friendly life, that distance became more poignant. There was some sort of disconnect and it was a disconnect that got me wondering if I truly loved my daughter.
In one of my more vulnerable and real moments, I remember talking to my best friend through tears and saying, “I must love her, right? I mean, I wouldn’t do all this stuff for her if I didn’t love her?” But it seemed so much more in my head than in my heart. I had days and weeks, when we were in our hardest moments and ALL of my interactions with her were filled with trials and sensory meltdowns and defiance and her screaming awful names at me while she physically attacked me with her feet, hands, teeth. In those days and weeks I felt so stuck. Part of me didn’t want to do this anymore. Part of me fantasized about finding a different set of parents for her, or at least a different mom. But, the other part of me knew that I couldn’t ever do that. That part of me knew that I couldn’t imagine anyone else being with her or understanding her the way I do.
I couldn’t keep parenting her and I couldn’t not parent her. I was stuck. And because I had these feelings and because my parenting of her felt different than my parenting of my boys and because I often felt like I was parenting her from my mind and not my heart, I wondered if I really, actually, deep down loved her.
There was a single night in the midst of this torrential storm that changed everything. I was laying next to her in bed, watching a movie with her. KBear turned around, reached her little arm up around my neck in an awkward half hug, looked me straight in the eye, and said with intense sincerity, “I love you, mom.” I started to cry. I started to cry at that moment when it happened and I’m starting to cry now as I type it. It was the most bittersweet moment in my life as a parent so far. My heart melted at her spontaneous act of affection. And my heart broke, because for the first time I realized, in 7 years of her life, this was the only time she’d initiated a genuine hug. It’s the first time she had feeling and connection and intimacy behind her words.
My mind flashed back to the rest of our relationship. As a baby her social smile came “late”. I didn’t realize what that meant at the time, but I remember joking about the fact that we had the world’s only curmudgeon of a baby.
When she was 2, I would get so angry because she would demand that I stay and “snuggle” her at bedtime, but when I tried to wrap my arms around her, she’d yell at me not to touch her. At one point, in desperation, I remember saying, “I don’t know what you want. To snuggle means we are touching. You want me to just lie next to you. That isn’t snuggling.”
At 4, she’d bring me dandelion bouquets and would suffer through my grateful hug, but she wouldn’t reciprocate. She’d sit on my lap, but wouldn’t wrap her legs or arms around me tight – I felt more like a chair to her than a warm and cuddly lap. When I asked for a kiss, because she would never ask, she’d simply lean her forehead in or lean her body into mine.
In that beautiful first moment, when at age 7, my KBear initiated affection I realized why I had questioned whether I loved her. It’s because my love for her had been truly, and completely, unconditional and self-less. Over the years I had not received any of the warm fuzzy feelings or affections from her that I thought love was.
Sure, loving my sons has been more self-less than other types of love. I’m their mom, so I’m giving them more of my time, service, heart and soul than they give me. But, the key difference: they do give back to me in warm and fuzzy ways. From them I’ve received the pudgy arm hugs. They spontaneously and genuinely tell me that they love me. They push into my hugs instead of pulling away. Just today Chimp said, “Mom – I love you. You are important to me. You are so special.” I’ve always gotten something back from my boys. They do things that trigger the lovey-dovey, ooey-gooey, heart-melting feelings that I thought was love. I thought having those feelings meant I love someone.
Associating love only with tender feelings sets us up for trouble. The ooey-gooey-ness of emotional love is temporary. Being infatuatingly, googly-eyed “in love” with a spouse fades over time. Kids and spouses and friends and family get crabby. I get crabby. And in those moments, I don’t feel very lovey-dovey, warm, tender, “in love”. When my understanding of love is based on my feeling, well, at those moments I don’t feel like I love them. I don’t feel like they love me. I am more apt to try to fix them or shame them back into doing the sorts of things that feel loving, that feel worthy of being loved. My love becomes conditional on the state of my relationship or on the mood of myself or my beloved.
And so, with that understanding of love, no wonder I questioned whether or not I loved KBear. But, in reality, it has never been that I’ve lacked love for her. The truth is I lacked true unconditional love for everyone. It just took her and her autism to show me that.
I recently heard someone define the Greek term agape (love) as an intelligent, purposeful attitude of esteem and devotion. In other words, love is mindfully choosing to regard someone favorably and to act with loyalty or enthusiasm for a person. It is a choice. It is a mind-thing. It really has very little to do with the feeling.
I’m grateful that my daughter has been capable of being affectionate a bit more often over the past year. But, mostly, I’m grateful that she has taught me what love really looks like.