I just heard from my editor at Floris Books (the publisher of my forthcoming book, Walk With Me: A Companion and Guide for Parents), that she will have my manuscript back to me in about two weeks. So I was was looking through my old files and found this article that I wrote a few years ago. It was the first thing I wrote when my friend Melanie urged me: “Just write,” she said. “Write about anything.” Did she send me the NYTimes article? I don’t remember. But I don’t read the NYTimes, so someone must have. I originally included this in my introduction but cut it in order to streamline.
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Is Love Enough?
The NY Times just published an article, powerful and gut-wrenching, written by a mother whose beloved son is going to die of Tay-Sachs syndrome by the age of three. She has, as we all might imagine in our worst nightmares, some things to say about what it is to be a parent with such knowledge: knowledge that there is no future; there is only today. With tenderness and ferocity, she exhorts us parents– who do presume to have a future with our children– to love our children today. Always today. For all of us, that is all there is. (Emily Rapp, “Notes from a Dragon Mom,” NY Times Sunday Review, Oct 15, 2011)
She is right. There is nothing without love.
The mother (or father) who traces the sweet, soft curve of her baby’s cheek knows this. The mother who cheerfully packs sweaty boys into her car after a game knows this. The mother who sits beside her teenager during every court date knows this. The mother who listens and comforts and shares the accomplishments and discoveries and burdens and is there, always there, knows this. Like them, we know that at the bottom of it all, our role, our duty, our joy, our sorrow, our destiny is to love our children.
In the stark world of the mother who knows that she will soon lose her son, there are no expectations beyond love, and this life sentence of inevitable loss and grief frees her to always seek joy and comfort in the moments that she does have left with him. I can’t think of a more compelling plea for us to live each day as if it were our last, to plunge into loving our children with reckless abandon and utter gratitude, with no caveats, no conditions.
But there is a danger here. Most of us, thankfully, will have more than three years with our children, and we must act with faith that our children do have a future. If we are lucky, we are in it for the long haul. And that means that our love has to be the kind that will carry us on such a long journey. Love for the long haul looks a bit different than the piercing, single-minded love that impending tragedy compels.
We too have to let go of our children, but ours is a slow process, one that dawns on us as a rising tide, rather than as a tsunami that steals away all earthly existence. We can’t just hold tight no matter what. We too want to protect our children from pain and know that we can’t always do this. But what’s more, a parent looking to the future knows that she shouldn’t always protect her children, and she will need wisdom to know when this is so and her own kind of bravery to see it through. We know that what we do today will have an affect days, weeks, even years later, and we know that while it is tempting to seek only happiness and comfort, we must teach our children to be patient, to be able to see beyond the immediate moment.
The challenge of loving for the long haul is that we have to make choices, so many choices. The mother about to lose her son has few, if any. Her path is clear, simple and awful. For the rest of us, we must decide which path to take, and we must do so every day in a thousand different ways, some of which are of great consequence, some seemingly minor, but all adding up to a life.
We must love our children always and with the fullness of our hearts–as if today were our last day.
But we must do more than that.
Love is a good and necessary guide, but we must also have a clear understanding of the choices we must make and will enough to see them through. There is a trap hidden in the idea that love alone is enough. It is tempting to believe that love will free us from the risks we must take and the responsibility we must shoulder in making choices, day in and day out, about how to be a parent. Every decision we make must be held up against a template of love, but you can have a heart bursting with love for your child and still be lost and frustrated. Striving involves doing our best to love our children on a grand scale, and it also means seeking understanding of ourselves and the children before us. The future entrusts us with the freedom to choose our way, but there is no map, no manual and no guarantees.
So how do we know what to do? Clearly, the terrain of raising children is well-known to all those who have done it before us, but in our fast-paced world where newness is the only given, we want to do it our way. Most of us are loathe to look behind us for guidance and are reluctant to raise our children the way we ourselves were raised. And do we really even know how we were raised? Maybe we remember a parent yelling, or singing, or helping us with homework, or not helping us with homework. But do we really know how it was that our parents taught us the things that we know? Do we really know what choices they faced and why they chose as they did? In a world in which we have gained so much freedom, in which we are not bound by tradition and the constraints inherent in it, we have lost our collective knowledge of “what to do.” We have generally, as a culture, abandoned a reliance on the way things were done, and often we have done so with very good reason, but there is a lot to piece together when starting over from scratch.
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And then I wrote my book. Not because I know the right way, but because I think I can shine some light on your way, whatever and wherever it is. So I could walk with you and you could walk with me, for just a little bit of it. So we could all enjoy the blessing of companionship on what is a challenging and glorious journey.