Yes, I love the Beatles – I often think I was born 20 years too late. And, yes, I love the sometimes synchronicity of the writing process, when I’m feeling spacious and attentive enough to notice it, that is. Having been fortunate enough to guest blog once for this excellent World Childless Week – I’ve written a piece coming up at the end of the month – I also felt compelled to respond to today’s theme on ‘comments that hurt’.
This year’s comment is "you never know true love until you have a child". Grrr. I feel a twist in my gut re-reading it. I know I should have grown beyond that reaction, I should know better etc., but I haven’t and I don’t - and we are advised to ignore the ‘shoulds’, right? When I read this comment the first time I was simultaneously repelled and called to write. I knew I had something to write, I knew words would come, I just didn’t know which words, in what order and whether I would simply add fuel to the furious fire of judgements, most likely not helping to ease the polarisation sometimes found between parents and the rest of us, childless or childfree.
Then the synchronicity started to happen - firstly on a friend’s Twitter feed. “I feel a burning love for our dog” he said “is that the same as the unconditional love that a parent feels?” The replies were swift to appear. Some were all too predictable. “No”. “Not comparable mate”. “Nothing like”. You get the picture. I replied and I’ve just gone back to Twitter to see exactly what I wrote, to find that the original tweet thread has been deleted. Maybe it got a bit controversial. Anyway, I responded by writing this: “Maybe your unconditional love for your dog is stronger, even, than your love would be for a child?! It bugs me how often human, parental love is automatically held up as the one and only - but you probably know that already! #loverofallbeings” followed by a little upside down smiley emoticon.
I lose patience with the easy bandying around of the term ‘unconditional love’ and the often unquestioned assumption that all (and only?) parents feel it. I felt proud of my friend raising the theme on Twitter, even though I’ve yet to hear the story of why he later chose to delete the tweet. I guess it is the automatic assumption of unconditional parental love that gives rise to parents saying “you never know true love until you have a child”. Immediately I am unequivocally reminded that: 1) I am not in the parent club 2) I do not know true love. Ouch, even after all these years. Ouch, and, sometimes, a desire to retaliate.
Luckily there are other parts of me that know that I know true love. I mean ‘true’ as in very human, not always constant – I don’t actually think any humans experience 100% unconditional love, but that’s maybe a blog post for another day – yet heartfelt and deep down and all of me. It’s true that it’s not true love for a little person that my partner and I have created. It’s the true love I felt when I held my first born nephew for the first time, feeling an uprising of lioness-like protection and duty. It’s the true love I still feel when I remember my first dog and our endless conversations and long walks in all weathers. It’s the true love I feel when I look into my partner’s crinkly eyes and enjoy our ‘old love’. None of the gushy, breath-taking, urgency of new love, but all the depth of a song that has been sung over and over and over until the singer’s voice is cello-like, melding with all the other sounds in the universe.
Rebecca Solnit says it well, in another welcome moment of synchronicity online this morning:
“People locked onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfil your capacity to love, even though the list of monstrous ice-hearted mothers is extensive. There are so many other things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world” Solnit, 2018.
There’s “so much other work love has to do in the world” so it saddens me that love has become over-associated with motherhood, with parenthood, and, in particular, with the fetishisation of motherhood. As far as I can see, this fetishisation isn’t healthy for anyone concerned: the ‘ideal’ mothers, the ‘perfect’ parent, the ‘model’ children, the grinding pressure to achieve and conform, the comparison with the childless and childfree who, apparently, will never know deep love. That fetishisation is no good for society as a whole.
When I first started thinking about this article what sprang to my mind was a debate we had when I was studying for ‘A’ levels. My best friend Vicky and I were debating against each other on the proposition that ‘all you need is love’ - see, I told you I was born 20 years too late! I was defending: I believed that all you need is love, Vicky was opposing, and she definitely didn’t. We were both passionate in our positions. I argued that when love underlies absolutely everything we do, underlies society, the details fall into place. Vicky argued that we need money, jobs, education and health care etc.
It made me smile remembering that debate, and how hard it was arguing against my best friend – especially as her arguments were far more eloquently put and less woolly-sounding than mine! I would like to think that all you need is love, all I need is love, all we need is love. Yet we live in a society governed by values so far removed from love that I find it hard to believe myself, these days, harder still to put into practice.
“We are far more united than the things that divide us” the late Jo Cox reminded us in her maiden speech to parliament delivered a little over three year ago, before her untimely murder. Perhaps the popularity of Jo Cox’s message is precisely because we are hungry to unite, to reclaim a greater relatedness, strengthening communities in this fast-moving world where individual striving for prosperity, status and the endless pursuit of happiness often comes at the cost of not knowing our neighbours, our local community, our extended families and forgetting to hang out with old friends. Acting for our nuclear family unit and forgetting the good of the whole – including the wellbeing of this beautiful planet.
Holding close to heart Cox’s statement “we are far more united that the things that divide us”, how do I, how do we response when we hear the comment “you never know true love until you have a child”? Or, almost as tricky, those statements that begin “as a mother I (insert strong feelings a person without children couldn’t possibly share, apparently).…” Do I actually want to further condemn someone who thinks that we never know true love until we have a child? Aren’t the folk saying that already condemned, in that moment, to a narrow viewpoint, a defensive position, an un-founded sense of superiority? Will arguing back work? Is there any point anyway? Can I be bothered? Better, maybe, to spend the time deepening our capacity for true love, wherever that’s expressed. Sometimes stepping away is far more powerful than engaging (it only took me four decades to start figuring that one out!)
Perhaps some parents are so creaking under the strain of this crazy notion of ‘unconditional love’ they are expected to live up to – which no mere mortal can live up to 24/7 – that they feel the need to defend and to pitch above non-parents, their idealised version of love? I’ve no idea, I’m speculating wilding, in the wish to try and understand the mind set from which that comment comes, especially as I’ve heard it from a couple of people I deeply respect. I scratch my head. We’re complex, aren’t we? (And me.)
In conclusion, I like to think of parental love as more akin to ‘parental mind’ as conceived of in the Zen Buddhist tradition in which I practice. ‘Parental mind’ can be embraced by parents and non-
parents alike. When we embrace or act from parental mind whatever we encounter, whoever we encounter, is our life, becomes our life and our concern, as if we are a parent caring for our deeply cherished child. This universal, infinitely expansive view of being a ‘parent’ flies in the face of narrower, biological conceptions of parenthood. It’s mind-blowing. As Brenda Shoshanna points out in her book Zen miracles: finding peace in an insane world:
"Just stop looking for what is wrong with the other and what is right with us. Stop looking out for number one. In fact, number one includes everyone....In order to develop Parental Mind, we must take ultimate responsibility for everything that appears in our lives. We do not choose one thing and reject another - the homeless man on the street is just as precious as our own child".
Out of curiosity I emailed my Twitter friend to find out why he had deleted that Twitter conversation I referred to at the beginning. He just replied ‘’I can't remember why I deleted it Em. I think it annoyed me that people said it was nothing close to being a parent. I'm sure you can empathise with that!”