Love and care

Reading Oprah magazine can be a dangerous thing, especially when one is prone to adopting all self-help spiels within a ten yard radius. I have to gently remind myself that these articles are not direct personal missives that I must immediately employ.

I have a great idea for a memoir! I'll follow all the advice ever given by Oprah and her minions for a year and .... oh wait.

Martha Beck's work, though, often speaks to me. I loved her memoir about the birth of her child, "Expecting Adam", and her monthly Oprah columns always seem to highlight something I struggle with.

This latest one- about the difference between loving someone and caring for them- is no exception. In it, Ms. Beck recounts telling a client of hers: "I love you. I don't care what happens to you."

Now I think Ms. Beck is clearly going for shock value here. To the overly sincere among us, the thought of saying "I don't care what you do" to someone we love is incomprehensible. Of course we care what they do. We care about everything.

Caring, Ms. Beck says, "with it's shades of sadness, fear and insistence on specific outcomes- is not love. In fact, when care appears, unconditional love often vanishes."

She is not talking about parenting here, clearly. As parents we need to care, do we not? I care whether my kids brush their teeth, act safely, treat others respectfully. I believe it is my job to do so. How else will they become healthy, loving, productive members of society? Aren't we supposed to keep our eyes, at least partially, on "specific outcomes", if only of the "don't wind up an axe-murderer" variety?

Or maybe this reveals an inherently cynical, Calvinist, pessimistic view of humanity on my part. On some level, I assume that if parents loosen their grip on their child's every behavior, the next generation will fall into a pit of depravity.

I know this is an essential part of my work as a mother: to detach just enough, to give my kids the space to be their own imperfectly perfect snowflake selves. As Ms. Beck tells us: "Real healing, real love comes from people who are both totally committed to helping- and able to emotionally detach."

This has long been my problem. This is why I didn't go into social work when I graduated from college: I had no ability to emotionally detach from the people I met when working in my social work internships. I cried into my pillow every night about the kids I worked with in the special ed classroom. I overextended myself when working as an advocate for battered women, taking their calls late at night in my dorm room, never saying no. I have always been committed to helping- and completely unable to emotionally detach.

Is emotional detachment, on some level, a healthy thing for a mother to have? And if so, how the heck can I get some?

I get invested in the people I love. So invested that I begin to think that I know best how they should be living. So invested that I think if they would just do xyz....

I've been noticing this since I read the article: when I have an internal reaction to the behavior of someone I love, am I trying to control their behavior? Can I let go of what I think they should be doing and how I think they should be doing it and just let them be? Can I do all that and still love them, unconditionally? This has been so helpful in dealing with the adults in my life. I believe this bit of Ms. Beck's advice is deeply useful.

But, of course, as a mother of young children, I immediately come back to my relationship with my girls. I am struck by how much time and effort and CARE I put into mothering them. So much so that I care deeply about what they do and how they do it. That investment is part of mothering, in these younger years, isn't it? They are still learning so much and it is my job as a parent to teach them what is expected of them.

So how and when do I move to loving them unconditionally, emotionally detaching from what exactly they are doing? How and when do I know to relax the reigns of correcting and structuring and teaching and just let them be who they are?

It seems obvious that we as parents will get this balance wrong at some point. We will not care enough about what our kids are doing, not give them enough structure or high enough expectations and they will never learn manners or self protection or the satisfaction of achievement.

And if we care too much for too long? We will surely foster dependence and resentment, stunting their self-awareness and our own lives in the process.

I do not want to be a mother who lives for her kids. I do not want to be so invested in their lives that I fall apart at their eventual departure from this nest. I do not want to care so much what they do and how they do it that I forget to just love them.


Nik-Nak said...

I like the example she used with her child that has Down Syndrome. I was trudging along thinking she wasn;t making any sense until she said that.

Cortney said...

How is it that most of your posts have to do with the very thing I've been struggling with at the time?!

My struggle as of late is: how do I love my child unconditionally when developmentally, at the moment, I really don't *like* her...?

I'm finding it impossible to not be attached to her actions, when I feel they reflect directly on my parenting.

Sigh... I want to know the same thing: can I love her and not care?

pamela said...

oh my. You have spoken directly to my biggest fears here but much more eloquently than I could have. Yes. I worry about all of these things. Once a friend of mine told me frankly, "You care too much." today my 2 year old was painting and for the first 10 minutes, I was so focused on having him paint the "right" way, getting him to rinse his brush, etc. Then I was like, what am I doing?????

thank you for this!

and I think you should write that memoir!!

Hillary said...

I don't think I've ever really thought about this in regards to my boys. They're very little yet. Care is a lot of what they still need.

But I have gone over and over this with my grandmother and biological father. Each made some very bad and hurtful choices. I love them, but at some point, I had to decide whether to stop caring or to have my heart ripped out over and over. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it's the people you love who can hurt you the worst and vice versa.

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