How love isn’t irrevocably connected to our personal preferences
Many years ago I was driving down Highway 101 in Marin County, California while listening to National Public Radio in my vehicle. They were broadcasting their weekly interview in which an National Public Radio journalist would talk to a well-known author.
The previous week they’d had an award-winning British writer on the show. Unfortunately the NPR journalist had asked merely banal and tedious questions, so by the third question the author had lost his patience with his NPR hostess. When she’d asked her fourth stock question the writer had replied, “I think a far more interesting question would be…” and proceeded to supply both the question and his answer.
The following week another British author, Mary Wesley, was on the show and she must have heard the previous broadcast because she likewise was answering her own questions in lieu of anything interesting from the NPR journalist. She began to talk about the recurring theme of families and fragmentation in her novels. I was particularly struck by her comment, “We always love our children, but we don’t necessarily like them very much.”
I knew Wesley’s work, having appreciated her first novel (written at the age of seventy) Jumping The Queue, which combined mordant wit with a perceptive insight into human behavior. I was struck by her assertion. At the time my own children were small and I adored them unreservedly. But I could imagine how a parent could look at their adult offspring with disappointment and even dislike. I just hoped I’d never experience such a thing myself.
Today, alas, I understand only too well what she meant.
I grew up in what may euphemistically be called “difficult circumstances” in a wide range of third-world countries in which violence was always boiling away just under the surface, breaking out sporadically without notice. My family life was likewise unstable with an alcoholic father and a codependent mother.
Most people use the word “starving” without any knowledge of what it feels like to go without food for several days at a time and not know when, if at all, there would ever again be something (anything) to eat. I know what it feels like, at age seven, to stand in an empty house and stare at an empty cupboard while desperately wondering how to stop my younger brother crying from hunger and fear. I know what it feels like to decide the only solution is to carve off a piece of one’s own flesh and cook it so he can have something to eat, yet to be too afraid of bleeding out to go through with the plan and thereafter to despise oneself (for years) for cowardice.
At age ten I saw my first dead children, all younger than me, lying by the roadside with their bellies bloated from starvation and their faces pulped by rifle-butts. I’ve since spent a significant part of my life trying, in various ways, to help those born into less comfortable and secure circumstances than those we’re fortunate enough to take for granted in the West.
So I have very little sympathy with the whining of spoiled pampered Westerners whose greatest challenge in life is to choose the color of their next automobile or decide which sort of Italian marble to use for their kitchen makeover.
When my own children were born I wanted more than anything to ensure that their lives wouldn’t be the nightmare mine had too often been. They would grow up never knowing what it was like to have one’s nose broken at the age of four by one’s father, lashing out angrily at a small child who only wanted to play.
So I loved my children and I did everything I could to ensure they felt loved and secure and safe.
My son had natural empathy, so even though his life was infinitely better than mine he was still able to feel sorrow for those whose lives are more precarious. Unfortunately my daughter defaulted to a self-centered view of the world, perhaps a consequence of her innate indolence. She appeared entirely incapable of empathy or even of imagining how life can be for others less fortunate than her. For my daughter, life was hard because we weren’t fabulously rich. Life was hard because she couldn’t always have ice-cream and candies and cakes whenever she wanted, at any time of the day or night. For her, life was hard because, well, because it was!
Fast-forward to the present day and my son is highly accomplished. He has a wide circle of friends drawn from many different domains; he’s excelling at university where he’s studying a STEM subject, he has great athletic prowess in consequence of his self-discipline, and he’s emotionally mature. We enjoy spending time with each other when schedules allow. He accepts me despite my flaws and I likewise embrace him.
My daughter, on the other hand, remains trapped in a perpetual thirteen-year-old-teen’s petulant solipsistic world of whining and judging others for their tiniest transgressions against her notion of how life ought to be. She’s overweight, indolent, self-absorbed to an astonishing degree, and remains incapable of empathizing with others. She can only see the negative in people, perhaps because she’s so busy projecting onto others the things she can’t face inside herself.
In short, I admire my son and I like him very much as a human being. I can’t say the same about my daughter. In fact, I don’t like her. Objectively, she’s not a very nice person.
Yet I love her.
When she was small, she was for a time convinced that I loved her brother more than I loved her. So we went down to Carmel for a few days for some father-daughter time. The first morning after our arrival we were having breakfast at one of the cafés and I brought up the subject of love. She confirmed that she believed I loved her brother more than I loved her. So I said, “You know how you love ice-cream, and you also love chocolate? I mean, you couldn’t choose not to have ice-cream and you couldn’t choose not to have chocolate. You love them the same amount, but in different ways, right? Well, that’s how I love you and your brother. I love you more than I could love anyone else, and I love him more than I could love anyone else, but I love each of you completely in different ways. Just like you love ice-cream and chocolate the same but in different ways.”
Fortunately this analogy seemed to work for her, and although she never wanted to be as close to me as she wanted to be close to her mother, we rubbed along OK for the next eight years or so. But the teen years were increasingly difficult and she became increasingly awful. Today she’s not someone that most people would want to spend time with.
Yet I love her.
It’s likely we will never see each other nor communicate with each other again. Over the last few years she’s rejected every attempt I’ve made to reach out to her. She hasn’t even bothered to respond. Trapped in her self-centered simplistic universe of anime characters and black/white thinking, I have no doubt she’s both miserable and yet certain of her own infallibility. She’s cast off most of her friends, or perhaps more accurately they each decided in their own way to stop engaging in their one-way attempts to maintain connection with her.
I hear from various people who’ve seen her from time to time that she’s not doing well. I yearn with all my heart to be able to help her in some way. But I can’t make her respond to my overtures and I can’t force her to grow up.
So here we are: I don’t like my daughter but I continue to love her. I would literally lay down my life for her even while knowing she’d regard it as totally insufficient and complain afterwards about my supposed omissions and failure to die in what she would deem to be a suitable manner.
Perhaps only parents can feel this strange polarity. But we do, and we grieve for those of our children who’ve lost their way and who resolutely refuse an outstretched hand.
Worst of all, spoiled pampered self-indulgent children are totally unaware of the inexorable passing of time. Each moment that slips by will never come again, and soon enough there will be no more moments. Love slips through the cracks of lost time and the most precious thing we have is squandered as though of no importance.
I fear my daughter will learn this lesson only far, far too late.