Today I heard a story from a man about the moment he first knew he loved his wife. He saw her across the room. She was in the kitchen, making tea, unaware of his presence. He paused and observed her. The color of her hair and how it fell just so across her forehead. The way she held her shoulders, the way she stirred her tea while staring out the window. They were dating at the time and he was suddenly filled with an unexplainable emotion. Strong and pure and deep and true. He was swept away and drawn to her and could essentially feel the essence of her being in every cell of his body. He loved her.
And in that moment, she didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to return the love or be grateful for his love or even know about his love. He loved her just for the sake of loving her. He smiled quietly at the memory. I could tell he could actually feel it in that moment.
As I listened to the story, it resonated profoundly with me.
It immediately brought to mind the feeling that I get when I see my child asleep, or when I watch them from afar. That huge ball of emotion that fills you to the brim, that brings tears to your eyes and raises goose-bumps on your arms. The wave of joy and awe that sucks the breath out of your lungs. For a moment, you can’t breathe, but it’s okay, because you don’t need air when you have pure, life-sustaining, true love. In that moment, you don’t love them because they make you smile, or because they say the funniest things, or because they gave you a hug, or because they need you or don’t need you. You simply love them because you do. Because they exist. They don’t have to earn it or return it or even know about it. You just love them, pure and simple. As I sit here right now, I can feel it. Welling up within me. My kids aren’t even in the room, but I know that the love I have for them is profound and deep and untouchable.
And then the man went on. He talked about how he sometimes wonders whether he is still in love with his wife. About how she doesn’t give him what he needs. About how she frustrates him and doesn’t listen to him and doesn’t appreciate all the things he does for her. And the anger wells up and the frustration grows and the disappointment lingers until he wonders whether or not he really loves her after all. His smile fades.
Countless poets and thinkers and philosophers have long debated the difference between loving and being in love. For me, this man’s story captured the essence of it all. Loving someone is about what you bring to the picture. It is about embracing someone with empathy and awe and a full-hearted connection, simply because. Loving someone requires nothing from the other person. Nothing. No acknowledgement or reward or returned affection. Loving someone simply is.
On the other hand, being “in love” with someone is about what they give you back. It is the mirror they hold up to us that reflects our good and bad. It is about the twinges of excitement we get when we know we are loved. It is about the feeling of security. It is about the things they give us that make us feel amazing, fulfilled, connected. Being in love is tremendous when things are good. But, in the end, no one can give us all these things all the time, so we are destined to also feel disappointed, hurt, frustrated and resentful.
What does this have to do with parenting?
When you think about it, the true-love versus in-love conflict represents one of our deepest struggles—and maybe also one of the simplest solutions to our parenting challenges. An amazing mother I know gave the most beautiful example of this when, in the angst of one of those nights we have all had, said to her child, “Can’t you think about me for once in your life?”
Her painful statement resonated with me, not only because I have surely thought those exact words before, but also because she is speaking to the heart of this issue. We love to love our children, but let’s face it: our children are horrible at giving us what we need. They don’t care about our agenda. They live in the moment and they always put their own needs ahead of everyone else’s. We find ourselves feeling disappointed, hurt, frustrated, and resentful. “Why are you doing this to me? Just get in the car!” “Another meal you refused to eat.” “Don’t you know how exhausted I am?” These thoughts and feelings are hints that we are operating in the what-does-this-relationship-give-to-me mode rather than the pure-true-love mode.
I don’t think it is crazy, unusual or even unhealthy to enjoy the conditional type of love. Our kids give us lots of things that make us feel amazing. The challenge lies in our awareness. Realizing that our feelings of disappointment are impacting our parenting. Understanding when our feelings of resentment get in the way of our ability to be present. Accepting when our feelings of hurt stop us from seeing our children with empathy and awareness.
Mindfulness in parenting means that we become aware of and stop reacting to the internal struggle that wages war on us. We have to work at detaching from our “in-love” reactions, which are based on what our child gives to us, and instead approach and interact with our children from a “true-love” place where our empathy, compassion, love and support of them requires nothing in return.
I find it incredibly difficult to hold two conflicting feelings about someone at the same time. In that moment of complete awe I feel while my children are sleeping, it is almost impossible for me to invoke the feelings of frustration and anger I felt only hours earlier as we struggled through their bedtime routine. In the same way, the feelings of anger and frustration interfere with my ability to feel that no-strings-attached, pure love that I know is somewhere inside of me.
So, this week, I am challenging myself to be aware of which love I am driven by. Is it the one that my children have to live up to? The one that fuels the inner voice that screams, “Why can’t you just think of me for once in your life?” And if it is that one, can I quiet that emotion, acknowledge it and gently put it aside, and invoke the deeper true love I have? Because it is from this space that I will be able to engage with empathy rather than blame, understanding rather than frustration, and patience rather than resentment.
1) In quiet moments, find the image of your child that you hold in your heart, the one that brings up that “true-love” reaction. Let it fill you. Pay attention to it. What is it that really hits home? Is it the way she smells, the sound of her breath, her laugh, the way she scrunches up her nose while reading? Allow it to resonate in your awareness.
2) The next time you notice your frustration, short temper, and anger creeping up, invoke the image. Tell yourself, “This is the same person.”
3) Breathe out, letting go of the frustration.
4) Breathe in, embracing the memory of your true love.
5) Repeat. Remember, usually there is no need for immediate reaction and you have time.
Like the man with the lovely story of his wife, a smile may creep across your face as you connect to your own gentle, compassionate, true love for this little person and are reminded of what is real. The moment, and your child, will undoubtedly look different to you.
Want to take the challenge with me? Give it a try. Please share your experience!