My son turned seven in February and my daughter turned two in March. Since that time I have already forgotten what unconditional love feels like. Let me explain:
It is really only our children who show us unconditional love—and for a very limited time at that. They have not asked to be born, and they enter the world in a state of near helplessness. Our newborns and infants depend upon us for everything. They also show us unconditional love on every level. This is the most powerful experience I have ever felt, and I now know that it is unmercifully brief.
Now that my youngest child has turned two, I have already detected a change in her toward my wife and me. Although she is only two, she is already an expert negotiator. When she wants something, which is pretty much all of the time, she usually gets it one way or another. Most of the time I give in to her just to keep the peace. Now she is at the stage where she is wearing diapers only at night, and she refuses to wear them. Whenever we try to get her into pajamas she struggles and screams as if she were a character from the Exorcist. This change in attitude seems to have happened overnight. I know that she is only testing and that this is a very normal psychological development—intellectually, I get it. Yet, this does not make our days and nights any easier. My daughter was the perfect newborn. I brought her to numerous meetings on campus and she slept through all of them. Now that she is two we can no longer go out to eat as a family without some sort of bribe.
My son, on the other hand, has never really been a problem in the way that my daughter has. He has his own needs that are quite different than my daughter’s and this is due mainly to the fact that he is five years older than she. My son does, however, negotiate with the skill of a union representative. I usually give in to him because I always have. This must have something to do with being the first-born. He is a very clever child who knows what buttons to push and when to push them. My son’s skills at negotiation are less combative than my daughter’s, but in a way they are much more sinister and cut-throat. When I die I want to come back as my son.
My children no longer show me unconditional love, and for that I am a little sad and a little happy. I am sad for obvious reasons, and happy to see that they are developing the way that they should. But what about that other love?
Our lovers, to be honest, never show us unconditional love. I have a theory that whenever we say “I love you” to someone other than our children, or our parents when we are very young, we say it just so that we can hear it back. In a way, saying “I love you” is an attempt to feel loved ourselves; the “I love you” seeks self-validation in the form of an exchange. Some of you will doubtless think that my theory is nonsense, or cynical at best. But, and I mean this sincerely, the “I love you” is nothing more than a boomerang—we want it back. This is not to say that we don’t mean it when we tell our lovers that we love them. Most of the time we do. Yet, I think that whenever we say, “I love you,” especially for the first time, we are expecting to hear it back. Perhaps that first time is a pathetic attempt at putting our feelings out in the open; perhaps it’s a romantic attempt at the idea of love. I don’t pretend to know.
So, in the end where do we find unconditional love? In the eyes of our infants, before they develop enough to recognize that they are a separate entity. In the end we may just love ourselves the most, and the least. The recognition of unconditional love is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing comes in the eyes of our children being held in our arms. The curse comes when we finally discover that the unconditional love we once felt for our own parents is as fleeting as the unconditional love staring up at our adult selves.