When we speak of love, we like to feel warm and fuzzy. We think romance. We envision gentle, even-tempered mothers with an endless supply of lavender-fluffed hugs. We imagine sensitive husbands, consistently in tune with the soul-needs of their wives. But true love is so much more, as any striving mother or wife can tell you. It is about doing what you think is best for the people you love, even if it means going against the current and donning the iron glove.
Mothers probably know this best. After holding your firstborn for the first time, you are suffused with a kind of love you have never known. But soon enough, the depth of this love is put to the test. It begins with sleepless nights, aching breasts, and unrelenting fatigue. The birth of a child launches new family dynamics that tend to be enlivening but also complicated. How do you meet everyone’s needs? When the enormity of the task hits you– somewhere between the midnight and early morning feedings– you feel small and alone. It dawns on you that the cooing, hugging and kissing are the easiest part and there are days you will run out. How can you raise your child to be a responsible, loving, productive, compassionate human being? How do you love your child to uprightness?
My recent houseguest shared how she put her television set in a friend’s garage because she felt it was the most loving thing to do for her son whose world was beginning to contract because of it. She also shared the example of a friend who says he loves his daughter to pieces, yet makes her sit in the front seat of his car without a seatbelt. My guest suggested he love her to wholeness. She also gave the amusing example of people who will plant a tree and then stand around in a circle and beam light into it, when the most loving thing to do is water it! We laughed but knew exactly what she meant.
True love is in the deed. It is not enough to love someone in your heart. You must manifest this love in your will for it to be made true and alive. You love your spouse but you cannot stay faithful. Is that love? You love your child and give her everything in the way of toys and gadgets but nothing in the way of discipline and boundaries. Is that love? Not entirely and you will feel its effects soon enough. I have experienced children whose parents are all warm and fluffy but lack in structure and boundaries. The children are brats and have difficulty being with others. Both parents and children suffer. Children feel loved when given boundaries because they rely on their parents to show them what is right and wrong.
Love is being able to do the difficult thing for the health and well-being of the other. It means taking the television away even if your teenage son hates you—for now anyway. It means insisting on truth-living in the family. It means not buying that super high-tech toy everyone has because you know it will harm the developing senses of your little boy.
When I think about what inhibits us from doing the most loving thing, the biggest culprit seems to be the need to be liked. It is not easy being the person who sets rules and boundaries, says no, makes big eyes, and takes the role of the one who seems to give—or give in–the least. I am the one my boys fight with. I am the one who has to say no to cute little faces begging and pleading for one last game before bedtime or another slice of cake, but I hold my ground because I gave up my need to be liked a long time ago. I am their mother and I take that role seriously. I am the adult. I take full responsibility.
During a luncheon with friends at home, one of my sons did not finish his food. He looked at me inquiringly as usual and I said, “Okay, but no dessert.” He simply nodded and took his plate to the kitchen. But a friend asked how I could do that; there was a table full of dessert. If you are so full you cannot finish your meal, surely you have no space for dessert. It is a rule everyone follows quite seamlessly. We already try to get just a little food at a time to make sure we have just enough, but there are times they cannot manage the food on their plates anyway, so they will look at me sheepishly and say “Mama, no dessert.” There is no fuss.
We all understand the rules. These rules also help them value food and learn to eat conscientiously. There are rules I have bent, of course, but never randomly. When they are sick they have unlimited amounts of healthy juices. But on other days, one glass is enough. As they get older, too, rules about certain things adjust with them. Saying no to unhealthy habits can be a very loving response. One only needs to take the long view to see this clearly.
There are parents who insist on sleeping with their kids whenever they can (every night, even, for working parents who feel this is a way of compensating for lost time). I see why this can be so wonderful—at least on the feeling level—but I also see that it can be detrimental to the developing independence of the children. Childhood is really about guiding our children through a process of weaning—from the womb, the breast, our bed, diapers, milk, training wheels– and keeping them with you at night (especially when they are grown) just because it makes you feel good may not be the most loving thing to do for them.
I think we often mistake our needs for the needs of others. The parent who insists on sleeping with their child– even when they are asking for their own space– is probably trying to fill his own need to be with them. The spouse who refuses to leave a toxic marriage has also succumbed to a lower need—material comfort, status, fear, or the false impression that staying in a bad marriage is kinder to the children. These are all valid feelings, of course, but through deeper introspection, one can see that the responses have not been the most loving for anyone.
Do children really benefit from their parents’ morally rotten and untrue marriage? If the marriage is already full of layer upon layer of untruth and the people in it are not strong enough to begin living the truth, the children will only learn to live in the shadows. Does this serve them? Is staying in the marriage the most loving thing to do for everyone?
Making a practice of asking ourselves, “What is the most loving thing to do?” is one way of behaving with more consciousness towards others. It gives us enough pause to move away from sentimentality. It allows us a moment to consider the longer and deeper view. Is it the child’s need that is being met or mine? Is this solution good for my ego but not that great for others? Am I unable to make the difficult but clear decision because I am afraid to be rejected? Is this truly what I think is best for the other in the long term?
Asking just the right question can help us bring the warm fuzzies down into the will through conscious deed. Only then can love be made truly alive.