Last weekend, at the end of a short trip to Boston with my family, we were dining al fresco at a lovely joint in the North End. It had been a long day of sightseeing (we don’t do touristy all that well) and had walked until we reached full exhaustion. My younger son, at the mature age of 9 1/2, was miserable. He is fundamentally a lazy kid who has come to enjoy the luxuries of being chauffeured around and exerts energy only when he feels it is absolutely required. He reported several times after the trip that his greatest enjoyment from our getaway was lounging in the hot tub at the indoor pool in our hotel. “It was relaxing, mommy. I needed to relax.” When I inquired about his overwhelming need to unburden himself in the jacuzzi, he indicated that his stress was a result of the relentless taunting from his older brother. I couldn’t argue with him because my older son, 12 going on 40, left no stone unturned when it came to finding opportunities to harass his baby brother. It was a long-winded episode of “everything you do is wrong and you should do everything like I do so that I will be happy and content but even then that won’t be ok so I will nag you about how you are not actually doing it exactly like I do it and why are you copying me anyway?”
By the time we sat down to dinner, everyone was fried and my younger son was nearly at the end of his rope. You could see in his eyes that he was about to snap and God forgive the next person that directed any critique his way. And then it happened. I don’t even recall who said what but my young son mustered all the rage that had built up inside of him and he pushed his metal chair back, loudly scraping the concrete below, threw his napkin down on the table and stormed out of the courtyard where we were sitting. The loving and supportive family that we are, we all initially laughed, calling after him to come back but he growled loudly and kept on his way down the street. I fully expected that, before his exit, he would have taken his glass of water and tossed it in my older son’s face but he has not yet mastered the art of a dramatic exit.
I waited a minute or so to see if he would return and, upon realization that he might simply wander down the street in search of a new family, I decided to rescue him and return him to the safety of our clearly dysfunctional familial love. When I caught up with him on the street, he was in full meltdown. He would barely look at me and I could tell that his little heart was in pain. He felt abandoned and alone. “None of you love me,” were the only words he would muster. Ouch. When I tried to talk to him and console him, he would turn his back towards me and grunt. I quickly understood what was happening and what he was experiencing. While it was all fun and games for us, we had let him down. We had pushed him too far. What he believed to be his safe zone where unconditional love was paramount had been breached by those very people he trusted the most. He felt dejected, unwanted, unaccepted and simply exhausted by the relentless hammering from his brother and, to some degree, from his dad and me too. He typically worships his older brother and this is usually matched with disdain and judgment. It is all normal sibling dynamics but, let’s face it, when you’re the younger one, it sucks.
I finally got him to return to the table with us where everyone apologized for giving him a hard time and we all tried really hard to get along for the rest of the delicious dinner. And, sure enough, by the time we finished our entrees, everything was back to normal and, by the time we returned to the hotel, they were at it again (although we had a nice trip to the jacuzzi to help mitigate his growing stress).
The experience really stayed with me because I recognized that we had contributed to my son’s unhappiness in that moment and had abandoned our commitment to making each other feel loved no matter what. Sure, we are all a sarcastic bunch and, ultimately, love prevails but to see the look in my son’s eyes when he declared that no one in his family loved him was heartbreaking and, of course, a wee bit familiar. It is a look that I vowed I would never see from my children but, alas, I had no idea how little control I had over that. Life is going to hurt you no matter how much people love you. And, while maybe not intentionally, even those who love you the most are going to cause you pain.
In my mind, I have debated the topic of unconditional love over and over. I have looked at it from every angle. Unfortunately, growing up in my family, there was no evidence of unconditional love. Because of my parents’ respective illnesses, they did not have the capacity to offer love freely. Everything was always predicated by what they were experiencing. How much had my father had to drink? Was my mother falling into a slump of anxiety or depression? When in the throes of their own demons, they had no ability to see past the cloudiness in front of their eyes and my siblings and I were simply innocent victims. Without the luxury of feeling like I could step outside the lines or disappoint my parents and still be loved and accepted, I forced myself to follow a stringent set of rules that I expected would ensure that I would never screw up enough to be rejected or discarded. My belief was that as long as I continually did everything I was told and toed the line, I’d be ok. I just didn’t realize what a moving target that line might be and never really knew when I might be crossing it. Perhaps, in some ways, I still carry that burden with me. I still struggle with doing the right thing in order to ensure that I can receive love unconditionally.
Several years ago, my husband and I were discussing this and he proclaimed that he loved me unconditionally. I challenged him, explaining that it was impossible because there are very clear rules that govern our relationship. No cheating, no abuse, no exploitation, for starters. The presence of any of those infractions would most certainly impact our love for one another. The same holds true for our friends. Despite how tethered we might be and how highly we regard them, there are clear boundaries that, when crossed, will alter the construct of the relationship. Our closest friends and allies can quickly become our biggest adversaries of worst enemies when egregious offenses take place.
Typically, I enter into relationships without first reading the fine print. I am never asked the check the box to ensure that I have read and understood the terms of the agreement. When I am drawn to another person, I move forward blindly, focused only on what attracts me to them. I often become selfless, looking to make bonds that replace what proved to be less than durable with my own family. I hungrily seek out the replacements – those individuals who will love me and accept me and fill some of the giant holes that are burned so deep inside me. Oddly and thankfully, after enduring so much pain from my own family, I am still capable of opening myself up and trusting. It is not until later on, when I get through the haze, that I begin to make assessments and understand what rules might apply in this dynamic. And, even though I intellectually understand the rules, emotionally I am always caught off guard when things go awry.
On the bright side, I feel really fortunate that I get to pick my friends whom I engage like family members. I am often magnetically drawn to those who, like me, have a deep understanding of their own obstacles and share my desire to repair what is broken. We help each other to grow and build beyond the damage to create bonds that, while maybe not completely unconditional, are weather-resistant and can endure some really rough storms.
But, not every relationship is like that. In fact, despite my intuition and allowing my gut to navigate me through relationships, I do find myself confronting some startling realities about relationships that I believed to be bullet-proof. I am often taken by surprise when the honeymoon comes to a close and I finally have the chance to read the fine print of those terms and conditions. First, I tend to look inward and am disappointed in myself for not realizing that we were playing a game with two different sets of rules. Then I recognize that, while some type of love and trust are present in the relationship, both can be broken much more easily than I originally believed. That is when I become crushed. Nope, I wasn’t duped. Nobody played me. I just chose not to see it because I wanted to heal the pain of the past. This awareness thrusts me back into a darker place in my life and I am suddenly my son standing on that street in Boston feeling hurt and alone. Except, no one is coming after me to make sure I am ok. I was truly all alone, left to figure it all out for myself. In those moments, I feel wholly unloved and betrayed. The pain is deep and dark and difficult to imagine overcoming. And, even months later, after the healing has commenced, the sting and the pain of the loss of that wish to be loved without any strings attached, still lingers.
Is there a lesson in here? Maybe. Maybe not. I see my young son and he is me. He is vulnerable and loving and willing to put his heart on the line – for lots of different reasons and in many different ways than me. I’ve thought about how to help him navigate this path as he gets older. Watching his struggle last weekend was a precursor to every experience where someone underestimates his sensitivity and he engages without fully understanding the rules of engagement. I am not sure I would encourage him to change (nor do I think I could force that kind of change). Perhaps I will lead by example and continue to do my best to be clear about who I am and what I need – putting my terms and conditions out there for all to read in big block letters rather than in indecipherable fine print. I will continue to hope that I make good choices when inviting people into my inner circle and count on my gut to guide me down the right pathways to find others who can play by the same rules. As for my son, I will continue to hold his hand and do my best to show him that he has unconditional love from us so he does not need to find it anywhere else.