Parental Anxiety

There seem to be a few themes to this parenting thing. The first theme seemed to have developed over the past forty or fifty years of, “you’re doing it wrong.” The experts tell you how to care for your baby and half of the ‘advice’ conflicts, and what doesn’t conflict just doesn’t seem to work. So you put your baby to bed on his stomach, and feel guilty about it all afternoon, and who knows what else you are doing wrong. But you are sure there will be plenty of people to tell you. And if you don’t know enough people then the articles you read online will make you feel like you are doing it wrong enough.

But then, over the past five or ten years, there seems to have been a strong backlash against the, “you are doing it wrong,” fad. Mothers speaking out on blogs and online forums (why are there SO MANY online mother forums?) that say, “Mind your own business, raise your own kids, I know what is best for mine.” So things are being challenged. From vaccines to attachment parenting, there doesn’t seem to be a right way to do things. Everyone has their opinion, but there is enough support out there for any choice you make. Except one.

One parenting myth is not spoken of or challenged. It is accepted as truth. The myth of unconditional, overwhelming, parental love that is locked into place at birth between mother and baby.

I have spent the large majority of my life questioning the construct of romantic love. I never believed in Romeo and Juliet, Prince and Princess, head over feet love. Instead I worked out problems of love and came to accept Sternberg’s Theory of Love as the closest model that made sense to me. Love was not something that just popped up between two people. It was something that was cultivated and grew. It ebbed and flowed. Above all, I realized, that love was about a commitment to the future. Whether that commitment was to stay in a relationship, or to respect a person in the morning, it was about that choice, and the follow through. My relationship with Nikola has been all about that choice. We both loved each other quickly and deeply. It was the most simple choice of my life, probably because there was an equal amount of commitment reflected from him.

I think that many people would love more easily if there was not a constant need for reciprocity. Our relationships are played out as a delicate dance of give and take. No one wants to feel more than their partner. No one wants to admit to greater love than their partner returns. For most people the most disappointing thing to hear when they say, “I love you,” is silence. I thought that I had gotten over that. My queer years in San Francisco taught me, among other things, that love could be given without a return. Love was not a thing of scarcity but abundance. It was meant to be shared. Of course, moving out of the bay area I encountered a world of suspicion- no one believed that I could love them without wanting love in return. So I felt awkward and I went back to the pre-free-love state of giving only as much as my partner would not, “think was weird.” Nikola never thought it was weird that I loved him. Maybe it was his self-confidence. Maybe it was because he was raised to believe that he was worthy of love. Whatever. It seemed perfectly natural to him that I would love him, and love him I did.

Then Peatuk came around, and I find myself questioning a whole other type of love that I always took for granted.

I never really liked babies before. I am not that type of girl. I don’t have a very motherly or nurturing nature. I like to solve puzzles though, and for that reason I love working with older kids. I find children and adolescents fascinating as their world views develop. But to get a child of my own I either have to have a baby or adopt a child. For some reason having a baby felt like the right way to go about it (not to mention the easiest.), but I was still nervous about how I would care for a baby. I wasn’t nervous about how I would feel about him. I never even considered it. Unconditional parental love, of course.

Except I don’t. When Peatuk was born I was amazed and relieved, but I did not feel this extreme love for him. I feel responsibility and fondness. I think he is overwhelmingly adorable. But love? I still wasn’t sure. The other day I found myself stressing over this. Am I a sociopath, to not love my own child? Why don’t I feel the way the storybooks make it sound? Is it postpartum depression? Exhaustion? Perhaps I am emotionally stunted. Or perhaps this whole love thing is just another lie.

Perhaps parental love is just like romantic love. It is a choice we make. Except, unlike romantic love we do not have to be afraid of lavishing it onto a baby with no return. Babies are pretty much appreciative of any attention. They ‘love’ anyone. So parents can feel free to give them all of their love without fear of rejection. Finally, we have someone who accepts all of our love, who doesn’t think it is weird when we make them the center of our lives. With a child we are free to love, and so, relieved, we do. Most people don’t realize the choice they make because there is no risk involved in loving their own child (or rather, the greatest risk, but not a risk most people consider), but it is still a choice. Right then I made that choice, and I felt suddenly reassured.

I love my son, I really, really do. No fairytale bells and whistles, just a lifelong commitment to his wellbeing and as much adoration as he can stand.

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