Love. Now there is a loaded word. People say ‘I love you’ and then beat their partner black and blue. People say ‘I love you’ and then leave their kids to follow their new beau to the other side of the world. Do we even have any shared consensus of what that word means?
For me love is a verb not an adjective. It’s our behaviours and actions that tell the true story. And people’s capacity for loving differs. As a psychologist I have worked with narcissists whose concept of love is about control or what others can do for them, who cannot see the needs of another or extend empathy. Some of them are parents too.
So when I hear that phrase ‘you’ll never know true love until you have a child’ I flinch. Maybe it was true for the person who was saying it, maybe they never knew love like the love they feel for their child. But it is not true that all parents love their kids in the same way, and nor is it true that non-parents can all be categorised as having the same experience of love.
I think our capacity for love is influenced by many things, including how much love has been shown to us, particularly in our formative childhood years. I think it’s closely related to our capacity for empathy, our ability to see another as separate from ourselves, to recognise their needs and to care about their happiness, even when it might conflict with our own.
People have children for many and varied reasons. This includes ‘selfless’ reasons, such as a desire to nurture others, feeling they have love and care to give, a desire to contribute to the next generation. It also includes more self-serving motivations such as companionship for themselves, someone to care about them, or an achievement that they can feel proud of. Not to mention those kids who arrive as an unwanted accident and whose parents sometimes remain ambivalent towards them.
I’m painting a somewhat bleak picture in order to make a point. We idealise and fetishise parenthood as though it is the ultimate act of selflessness. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. I have worked with kids in care, kids who were neglected, abused, unwanted, unloved. It’s a far from simple picture.
And if we can only know true love through parenthood, what does that mean for those of us who don’t get to have kids for many and varied (and often painful) reasons? If it means we can never really know love then I might just end it all now, because love is and has always been the central driving force in my life and if I can’t know it fully then what is the point?
I believe there are many ways to love and that a loving heart will always find an outlet to express its devotion, be it through partners, family, friends, pets or other caring roles. Mother Teresa never had children of her own, but would anyone say she did not know true love? In my mind her selfless service to others is the very definition of ‘true’ love.
So can we please think twice before throwing around platitudes that may be true for some but hurtful and invalidating to others, and certainly do not reflect the whole human experience.