Someone on the internet said that if you can’t work things out with your family you will never be able to truly love anyone. My response to that: horse shit.
I think that if you want to be able to truly love someone you have to start with loving yourself. You have to start with figuring out what love means. Love doesn’t mean that you do whatever someone wants. Love doesn’t mean that you take care of someone. Love means that you figure out where you end and the other person begins and you find a way to pad that difference with understanding and compassion. It doesn’t mean that you always work it out.
I love my mother. I think about her every day. We can’t work it out. We can’t work it out because her version of understanding and compassion involve telling me that I must keep my mouth shut about the ways in which I was damaged by my childhood. In her version of understanding and compassion the only thing that matters is that you never make people feel uncomfortable. I make people feel uncomfortable. Thus we will never be able to heal that breech. I can’t be quiet and she can’t tolerate being uncomfortable.
Does this mean I will never be able to love anyone? What about my kids? What about my husband?
I feel like I have had to recreate from scratch what it means to love my kids. I certainly don’t have a good, automatic way of showing such feelings. In my family love was equally mixed with violence and anger. It means that if I want to truly love my kids I have to stop and think every single day “How can I love my children without violence and anger today?” It means I think very carefully about the words I use. I don’t call them names. I will never be able to get it out of my head that my mother thinks I am a stupid little bitch. I don’t want my daughters to have those words in their heads.
Working it out with my family doesn’t work. The only way for me to be part of my family is if I shut my mouth and pretend that reality didn’t happen. The only way for me to be part of my family is for me to turn a blind eye to continual sexual assault. As an adult I found out that the generation after me was hurt too. I didn’t do anything to protect them. I didn’t know how to protect them while maintaining the code of silence I was required to maintain while living at home.
I’m not at “home” any more. Or, rather, I have created a new home. As usual it isn’t a home of my choosing. But unlike every other time I am choosing to stay. Even though I didn’t get to have first choice, I get to decide whether I stay or not. It’s rather novel.
I think that in order to love yourself you have to take a good long look at your life and decide if your interactions help you become a better or worse person. I run because I have to be strong and able to handle anything that happens to me in life. I have to be stronger and more fierce than average. I simply do. A marathon seems like a pretty bad ass way to work on being strong and fierce. I garden because I need to learn patience and consistency. Learning to water plants has been one of the most important lessons I have learned this lifetime. Everything needs care. Even me.
I am learning how to look at my husband as a wounded young man who was desperate for love. I don’t think I saw that before marrying him. He was strong and sure of himself and utterly cocky. I didn’t see all the worry and fear and loneliness. Why did he need someone who was so driven and alone? Why did he need someone who came with a barge-load of baggage and a fierce need to survive? I’m not sure yet. But I know that he and I hold back the dark for one another. We are both used to being alone and terribly lonely. We don’t have to be any more. There is so much gratitude mixed in with our love that I don’t know how to separate them. Someone wants to see me every single day. Someone thinks I am pleasant company. Someone thinks that I am a worthwhile person to spend a life with. How in the hell did that happen?
How do you learn to love yourself? By learning how to say no to things that hurt you. By learning how to tell people that the way they are treating you isn’t good enough. You deserve better. Even if you don’t believe it you have to say it. You have to be able to say, “I can’t do what you want me to do. I have to take care of myself instead of you.” It’s hard. It’s terribly hard and lonely most of the time.
I’ve been reading a lot about attachment theory lately. No wonder I have so many issues. I read that people have to depend on one another. This is a biological need. We have to have people in our lives to work with and be interdependent with. This is deeply at odds with the maxim of, “Never do for other people what they can do for themselves.” That is what I have heard from codependent circles. It’s a hard balance.
How do you have healthy dependence? What is the line? How do I love myself and the people around me enough to care for them and let them care for me? What is a healthy level of dependence? I care for my children and teach them how to do things on their own. I care for my husband. I do his cleaning and laundry and I cook for him. He also cooks for me. And he cleans up after me. And he massages me. And he supports me financially. I “can” support myself. Is there something bad about him supporting me? I think it depends on who you ask.
In my opinion there isn’t a problem with someone deliberately exchanging work. There is more work in a marriage than really should be done by one person. I don’t think that 50/50 parenting/work/etc is mandatory. It’s ok to choose to have different percentages.
The problem, in my opinion, comes when you make an agreement and then don’t follow through. If you say you will do something and you don’t, that’s a problem. If someone else has to come along behind you and get your work done then you aren’t actually in a partnership. I am not going to try and name what it is, but it isn’t a partnership. If Noah told me that he would bring home the paycheck, sure thing, but then he didn’t we would be in trouble. If I told Noah that I would care for the kids but I didn’t put food on the table that would be a problem. In order to love myself I have to only partner with people who are going to keep their agreements.
How does this tie in with my family? You don’t partner with your family anyway, right? If I stayed in contact with my family I would have to agree to being devalued constantly. I would have to be around people who would do absolutely nothing to care for themselves and anyone else while loudly proclaiming that they do everything. Uh, no. I’m not going to do that. I can’t work things out with people who are going to tell me implicitly and explicitly that what they do has more value than what I do when I am doing the vast majority of labor to move life along. I just can’t. That’s not a way to learn about love. That is a way to learn that I deserve a lot of bad. I really don’t.
I think it is funny how many people I know are rabidly anti Ayn Rand. I’m no Philip Reardon--I haven’t gone out and built a business empire. I don’t even feel particularly successful. I’m secure and stable but I will probably never have millions of dollars. I will never be important financially. But I do have a family that will happily drain me dry while talking shit about me the whole time. I have a family who would cheerfully take every dollar I earned at a job while telling me that what I am doing is less important and valuable than what they do. I could never figure out exactly what it is that they did that could hold value. Watch a lot of tv? Just existing is enough for some, I guess. Not for me. I was supposed to earn my place. I was supposed to clean and provide money.
In fact I think that part of learning to love myself going forward is learning how much value my labor has. I should not work night and day for unappreciative people. I should teach my children that we rise or fall together. We should all work together. There should not be one person working and another person watching. Hell no. I don’t think that anyone should be allowed to effectively steal from me.
But then I come back to this idea that I will never be able to “truly love anyone” if I don’t work things out with my family. What I need to work out is the ability to say, “I have limits. I can’t support you.” Once I figure out my limits and can communicate them in a healthy way with my children I will have figured out how to work things out with my family. This is the only family I have obligation to. The family I choose, not the family I am saddled with. As my kids grow up I will change how much I am willing to meet their needs. That will be unavoidable. That’s my job, really: to teach them how to meet their own needs. I can’t teach an adult how to do this. An adult isn’t interested in changing the patterns they have formed. An adult is comfortable. An adult has learned how to cobble together enough in life.
I have learned how to cobble together enough support. When I can emotionally handle it I ask for support from other people. When I can’t handle it I maintain silence about my needs. If I never mention them then I don’t feel disappointment about people not meeting them. Ok, that’s not true. But the disappointment is far less when I don’t say anything.
How do I learn to love me? By knowing that I don’t want my kids to remember me calling them names. So I don’t call them names. By knowing that I want my kids to keep their promises so I keep my promises to them. I am very careful with what I say I will do. If I don’t think I can follow through on something then I don’t bring it up. Or I say in advance that the possibility is low. I make this an ok thing for myself by ensuring that my energy load is such that the needs of the helpless people in my life come before every other thing I spend energy on. I don’t get to run or garden or clean or be social until my children have their needs met. That is the hierarchy of needs that I observe. Sometimes I feel like a martyr but that is how I know that I will not be neglectful. There have been too many neglectful adults in my life who cared more about themselves than the children in their care. I can’t be one of them.
I learn to love me by recognizing that I and the children in my care deserve better treatment. We deserve to be important and prioritized. So I do. I am deliberate in how I choose to divide my time.
There are more things to do than can ever be done. At the end of my life, which things are going to feel more important than others? To me the most important thing I will do is prove that I can adequately care for children. I will do this right. My kids won’t have to deal with financial instability because the grown ups spend money like it grows on trees. My kids won’t have to deal with food insecurity because the adults don’t want to be bothered with thinking about the food needs of growing children. My kids will not be left with unsafe caregivers.
I love my children as a proxy for learning to love myself. I see in them the vulnerability and weakness I must have had. I will keep them safe. They will not think they are bad for being children. I will love them, and myself, enough to allow us to make mistakes and grow. I will love us enough to think hard about the right choices before I make a choice at all. I will choose to be alone instead of being with people who are unable to be honest about their own actions. I have Noah and Shanna and Calli. I’m not really alone any more. I have so much more than many people ever have. It has to be enough.