I thought I knew unconditional love.
Before I became a parent, I thought I loved my godson and nieces and nephews unconditionally. I brazenly declared that there was nothing I wouldn’t do for them and I do still believe that. However, if I’m truly honest with myself, I recognize that there could be limitations in the lengths I would legitimately go for them. The unconditional love for children who aren’t one’s own is not tested every day with an endless stream of obligations, sacrifices and disappointments — the conditions that can ultimately prove and disprove bona fide unconditional love.
I’ve come to recognize that the willingness to sacrifice and the actuality of sacrifice — while equally selfless — are totally different things. The parenthood experience is day in and day out, night after night, hour to hour and minute to minute, caring for a child to the point of exhaustion. Rocking on a closed toilet seat to soothe a tiny, stuffy nose in a steamy bathroom until 4am, for example, or declining exciting invitations due to parental commitments, or being flexible about when you can actually get your “me” time. Or knowing that there is nothing my daughter could do — even amongst recurring disappointments — that would extinguish my love for her. And a brutal and — quite frankly — frightening recognition that there is literally no one I will choose over her if faced with a deadly circumstance … not even myself.
That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t aspire to love — nor that one can’t believe that one loves — their godchildren, nieces, nephews or students as if they were their own offspring. It was just the awakening of a self-awareness that I never had the depths of my unconditional love genuinely tested until I began to consistently experience the daily constraints that come with caring for my own child from season to season and year to year. There is no one to whom she can be returned when a tantrum begins to erupt or the back of her onesie fills with fecal matter from a blown-out diaper in a grocery store or on an airplane. And as her self control — of both the mind and the bowels — develops, I will be there through every metaphorical shit storm. To the best of my ability and to the extent that I am able, I am willing to weather her every low, every failure and every heartbreak. There will be many issues I can’t fix and problems I can’t solve for her; sometimes I just won’t because the lesson will be in her own resolution, in stretching her own ability, in finding her own bootstraps. But nothing superficial will come before her so that perhaps when it is her time to be a parent, she will be ready and willing to go to profound depths for her own children — whether biological or adopted.
I didn’t have to become a mother in order to love hard. I’ve done so all my life — and proudly; however, as clichés often are, this one — purported to have been expressed by Henry Ward Beecher sometime in the 19th century — is true: We never know the love of a parent till we become parents ourselves. Or as Dave Letterman, father of one, said more recently to George Clooney on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction (Season 1, Episode 2): “I’ll tell you what I felt, George. I felt like now I firmly, fully, [for the] first time know love. You can tell yourself that you love this or that or your wife, your friends, your mother. But to be … to feel it just wash up within you …”
Letterman’s voice trails off, and Clooney — now also a father — finishes the thought for him with a knowing nod, “Yea … that’s a nice feeling.”
There is no measurement for love. The feeling cannot be quantified for comparisons. You don’t have to experience parenthood to believe that you know profound love. One can only know what they think they know … and before we had Sydney, we only thought we knew.
Originally published on Facebook on November 8, 2017.