You think when you first get your baby that you finally understand unconditional love. When it is wailing and covered in shit and you haven’t slept in 37 days, you haul yourself out of the first REM sleep you’ve attained in that time and change its diaper and feed it and tell it “shhh, mommy loves you.” Crazy Love. You think that you are getting it. When you power through those times of resentment because that tiny not-quite-human animal is literally sucking the life out of you through your boobs to gently (oh so gently, because we mustn’t shake the baby) swaddle the wretched creature and then walk around the house singing “Hush Little Baby” (or in my case, Metallica’s “Sandman”) until it flops over unconscious in a sweet sleep that you would literally murder anyone other than your baby to have, you believe you’ve actually attained that mystical place of love without requirements. This little thing can literally shit on you and you still love it. That’s powerful.
It still is. But that kind of love isn’t even close to the love you have to grow for your kids as they age. As your kid gets closer and closer to a decade and beyond, you will learn an unconditional love that will make your new mommy love look like a casual hookup.
Because, with an infant (and really until they are 7- to 8-years-old–this age will vary child to child), you are loving with actions that have a fairly immediate outcome. You are trapped in the present with precious little time to actually consider what your actions will do for the future. You change diapers. You provide food. You say no so that they don’t play with the wine glass shards in the garbage. You create safe sleep spaces. You stimulate their minds with puppets and silly songs.
Everything you are doing is for and to your child. You aren’t requiring them to actually work in their engagement with the world. You are a facilitator for things that they are already doing.
All of this changes as your child ages. Now things that are beneficial to them are things that don’t have immediate rewards. They are things that require them to actively participate. And not only participate but to work at. Your kid suddenly has to make effort that you can’t do for it. Yet you are the one who knows the benefit, so you have to find a way to make them make this effort.
All those books out there that say you can find creative ways to spark your kid’s mind, magically making it so excited about–oh, say–piano lessons that it will wake up at 4am JUST TO PRACTICE are lying. Kids hate doing things that they don’t like. They hate anything they perceive as work (and this perception varies from kid to kid). They don’t like discipline (who does?).
At the decade mark, kids are in this weird limbo between child and teenager, and as parents, we have even more responsibility because what we do now will affect how they behave and approach life as adults. These little guys don’t have any grasp that doing chores, managing an allowance, doing homework, learning another language (yes, I should have started younger, I know), and practicing a musical instrument are all essential things that will help them when they have to do all the boring adult things that Mom and Dad are doing. Essential or not, cleaning the litterbox EVERYDAY sucks. So does doing homework. They don’t see that all of these things are going to help them not only function in the real world but be happy, successful, and score an awesome life partner. Those future outcomes don’t matter at the moment. What matters is playing Skylanders, building legos, reading comics, skateboarding, and dressing up in rad costumes (all skills that are still very relevant as adults for sure).
So here is where this new super nova nuclear unconditional love comes in: you have to stop whatever you are doing (which is probably already something that is taking care of your kid’s needs like making dinner or washing its soccer uniform for the game tomorrow) and sit with this small almost-human while it bitches and moans and whines about how tedious whatever activity it is supposed to be doing. There are tears. You have to sit there and listen to all this knowing full well that this being is perfectly capable of doing whatever it is, and if it would just STFU for a minute and actually do the task at hand, it would BE DONE BY NOW and you could go back to providing for its basic needs and it could play Wii. Worse yet, you have to sit there and enforce discipline even though you feel shitty about being so mean to your kid, because despite what you feel, you are not being mean and you know this.
You sit there and sometimes patiently work with (or despite) your child, forcing it to do the things it doesn’t like, because you know that in the future it will actually get some benefit. You count out loudly “one and two and three and four and” over and over at piano lessons. You cry “do it again” even though this little human is sobbing and you are pretty sure that its tiny fingers are probably sprained from all the staccato notes (why so many?). You threaten the loss of the only thing it loves (the Wii) if it doesn’t comply.
I think back to my childhood and the handwriting exercises my mom would force me to complete. I remember it as my son will remember piano lessons and homework: the child perspective as a horrible and painful experience that I dreaded. But now with my parent perspective, I also see what my mom was hoping for my future. What she gave me by sacrificing her precious time for something that didn’t benefit her at all and was actively resisted by me–something that actually pulled her away from the myriad of other obligations that she juggled daily with three kids, a teaching job, a minifarm, and two-hour commute–was unconditional love. True, she gave me the ability to have marginally readable handwriting (I shudder to think about what it would have looked like without the handwriting). But she gave me so much more: huge, immeasurable love.
Love that I am passing onto my son with every quarter note clap.