I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. About how we love and who we love. Which got me thinking about my childhood, which got me thinking about my brothers and sisters, which got me thinking about my parents, which got me thinking about my mother’s approach to love, which got me thinking about Big Love, the HBO show about polygamy starring Bill Paxton. Confused? Good. So am I.
I must be confused if I am equating familial love with polygamy. But in a weird way, it makes sense, like the Oedipus Complex does if you don’t think about it too much:) Most of us cannot comprehend having more than one spouse, but think nothing about people having more than one child. Yet, with each new being brought into a marriage or family, the dynamic changes, hence, all the relationships change. In Big Love, Bill’s first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorne), is like the oldest child: a responsible caretaker; his second wife, Nicolette (Chloe Sevigny), behaves like the troubled middle child; and his third wife, Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), is like the youngest child, playful and carefree. Bill loves each wife for who they are, but each love is different, and their love for one another is different as well. It is reflective of their order in the relationship–of how long they’ve been in the marriage.
Love is very confusing in that we are taught how to love by being loved–or not. When we move on to love others outside our family, we confront the shortcomings of how we love. When and if we have a family of our own, we approach the way we love in the hopes of loving unconditionally. See, that’s one of the problems for me–the concept of unconditional love. I have always been suspicious of unconditional love. Can people really love others without condition? Do I love without condition? I think for a while I did not love myself unconditionally, and I do believe that you can’t love others fully if you don’t fully love yourself. Now that I have children, I am hopeful that I know what unconditional love is. But I remain cautious because so many relationships in our lives seem to be built around conditions, an approach that sounds like “I love you…until.” I love both my boys no matter what, but I think I also love them differently because both of them are different and have different personalities and needs.
I knew I wanted a small family. After our first son was born, my wife was pushing for a second, and I panicked. “I’m already having trouble adjusting to one,” I whined. She persisted, and I’m glad she did. I was against having a lot of kids because I thought that then I would have to divide my love. During this time, I came across a great quote that addressed my concern. I think it was by Michelle Duggar actually,
the woman who lived in a shoe, the one who has nineteen children, and counting! I have so much angst when it comes to large families that I would actually get annoyed if my wife was watching this show. I just can’t imagine that many kids living in a healthy household. Yet, Mother Duggar’s words were quite poignant: “When you have children, the love does not get divided, it gets multiplied.” I love this quote! However, I’m not sure I trust it. And I think if you ask her 19th child, she may be skeptical about the exponential love that surrounds her. Or how about the tenth child–who just happens to be the middle child? These children have a much different love than the Duggar’s firstborn. I think that’s my problem with love–the love we experience–the love we give and receive–is different. With every person we love it is different.
During my childhood, I had the luxury of being the baby the longest. I was the fifth child, and enjoyed my youngest status until I was four, when my mother had fraternal twins. Twins! Back when twins were still an anomaly of sorts. And those little bundles stole all of the attention I enjoyed at home. On walks, everyone would stop to see “the babies”, and say “hello” to me as an afterthought. There is a picture–which I cannot find–where my brother and sister are posed in their baby seats. They are featured from head to toe in adorable matching onesies. But if you look a little more closely, you will see two small hands on either side of their seats, and you will determine that there was another person in the photo. Me. Those are my hands, my arms hugging the babies, yet my head is cut off. Talk about a metaphor. In some ways I’ve been searching for my head ever since.
Recently, I have finally determined what my mother’s problem is: She’s human. As a human, she has serious flaws, as do I and you and the Duggar woman. I came to this realization when trying to sort out all of the fractured elements in my family. There is no unifying sense of love and togetherness for us. Growing up, love seemed very conditional. There was a lot of withholding of love in our house, evidenced by such classically Irish pastimes as the silent treatment and ignoring the elephants that sat in our tiny living room. The Irish seem to be masters of silence, able to avoid any conversation while seething on the inside. My heritage is 100% Irish.
As a boy, I thought my mother was a living saint. She was the heartbeat in our house and we were all her confidants at one time or another. It was always a source of pride to be privy to my mother’s latest struggle or hurt. I remember one Thanksgiving when I was about 9, I accompanied my mom to the cemetery to place flowers on her mother’s grave. On the ride home, the brakes failed. She quickly regained control of the car, and there was no accident, but I knew the potential crash had the intoxicating scent of tragedy for my mother. “WE could have been killed!” she exclaimed to me, then to my family as she regaled them with our adventure over turkey a few hours later. I remember locking eyes with her as she told the table about our now near-death experience–on our way from the cemetery no less! There was a sense of pride in her gaze, a look that said, “Today, I chose you, Michael.” Whether I was the only one who was willing to go with her or not is irrelevant. I wanted that role because it made me feel special, chosen.
My mother was an only child. Her father died when she was five. Her grandfather was a raging alcoholic in their small town. I’d imagine her love as a child was a lonely love–a frightened love. She went on to have seven children. Throughout my life, she has loved each of us, but not evenly. About a month ago, I had an epiphany by way of analogy. My mother is like a mama bird with seven baby birds. At any given time, mama bird has two, maybe three of her babies under her wing, but the other birds are held at a distance. Each bird knows the feeling of warmth and love under that wing, and it becomes their mission to get under that wing once again. They’re not even aware of this desire–it is innate. But if they find themselves there, that means another bird is pushed out. One might argue that the bird’s wingspan is large enough for all the birds, but this has not been the case. Mama bird may not even realize this, for she was the only one under her own mother’s wing. And as a result, the birds care more about being under that wing than being together in the nest. They don’t even notice whose in the nest, they just want to be under that wing.
As I get older, I am amazed at how many families have estrangements. Almost every family I know has people in it that are not on speaking terms. Even very “functional” families, even those with many successes, have people who are ostracized, members who are not welcome, or are perennially absent. What does this say about the nature of family? Of love? Is it naive to think everyone in a family could love each other? Are larger families more susceptible to estrangements? I don’t know (I’m confused, remember?). But for me, the real tragedy in all of this is the fact that it seems to take as much energy to not love those in our lives, energy that could be spent on loving. [Insert frustrating scream here]. Maybe that’s where the unconditional part comes in. When we put conditions on our love we exhaust the love’s potential. If we love no matter what, our love knows no boundaries. I am not capable of doing that with most people, and I’m not even sure it’s healthy. But I have started down this path of unconditional love as a father, and it has allowed me to look back as a son.
MY goal as a father is to love my boys without question, and to teach them how to love one another in kind. In order to do this, I am determined to talk through issues with them as they occur, and face things head-on, openly. Some people have even asked what I would do if they read my blog. Well, I imagine one day they will–and I’ll make damn sure they go back to the beginning. And we will talk about anything they want to talk about that I have written.
As a father, I vow to never exclude them from my life, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that they have a relationship with each other for all of their days. Naturally there will be fighting, there will be resentments, but in the end they will always choose love. That is my hope for them. And for me. And for you, dear reader. And for you.