A Lesson in Love that I Learned from my Child

25 Jun 2019

Having a child changes you – unless, that is, you are a Narcissist. (Nothing changes a Narcissist.)  “Having a child, my mother often said, “requires you to become selfless.” My mother did – and didn’t – have a point.  

Having a child opens your eyes to your own childhood

Having a child requires you put another person’s physical and emotional well-being at the very heart of your life, certainly. On the other hand, my mother was quite Narcissistic and anything but selfless. As she saw it, children were burdens whose incessant demands she resented.  Having my own child taught me an important lesson about love that I had never encountered in my family of origin.  Learning it enables you to create healthy loving relationships, with a partner also, and recognise the modus operandi of toxic people before they break your heart.  That is what we shall be looking at in this article.

I learned something new about my family when I observed how friends, acquaintances and even strangers, treated my little daughter.  I learned about their emotional range – or more correctly their lack of range. Nurture and cherishing were not a part of that range. I learned that my own child’s happiness depended on expanding that range to include nurture and cherishing.  I had to learn to do the thing that I had not experienced – either in my family of origin or my marriage. 

My parents had a problem with children. They didn’t get them. They saw them as a burden rather than a marvel.  My parents could not and did not hide that.  As grandparents, facing fewer demands but more kudos, they were better able to cover their limitations. 

A childhood revisited

As a new parent I started a long, difficult journey down memory lane, revisiting my own childhood.  I needed to make sense of my own fractured relationship with my parents so as not to repeat it.  My parents had always focused on my failings as a child.  They believed in shaming their children into virtue. 

I was terrified of repeating their mistakes. I wanted my child to have a rather better experience than I had had. That meant thinking deeply about every aspect of parenting, in order not to mess up.  I had no framework of certainties that I could fall back on. Instead, before acting, I always had to work through the possible responses to different situations, with a view to choosing the most constructive one.  

Two decades later, I had to resort to the same process when it came to building a healthy, loving relationship with my lovely partner.  Not because he was in any way difficult. He wasn’t.  But I could easily be defensive, hyper-vigilant and tempted to revert to an old pattern of hopelessness.

I had had a profound, lived experience of what did not work as regards parenting and intimate relationships. I was prepared to go to the ends of the earth and back not to repeat it.

The parental debt of love and care

When my daughter was tiny, the thing that stood out for me was that people treated her like she was precious.  Of course, she was precious.  However I would stand on the sidelines and marvel.  That was not an experience that I had ever seem in the bosom of my family of origin. (It was not something that I saw in my abusive partner, her dad.  He adored her – for which I was truly grateful.  However, he was habitually either too tired to want to connect with her,  or else in full Smother mode.)

From my vantage point on the sidelines (there is nothing like growing up in a toxic, neglectful family to teach you to live your life on the sidelines) I could see that most people outside the family saw my daughter – and children in general – as precious.  That response did not have to be earned. That corroborated my own thinking that since my daughter had never asked to be born, I owed her a huge debt of love and care. Again that was not how it worked in my family of origin where the argument ran, “I brought you into this world, so you owe me. For the rest of your life.”

That all happened back in the day before the concept of abuse had entered my life and before nurture and cherishing had really entered my vocabulary.  I had a sense of what was not right as regards her (rather less so as regards my own treatment) but I lacked the concepts on which to pin it.

The foundation of healthy love 

As time has gone on and I have become clearer and clearer about the aspects of toxic love, I become more and more convinced that the foundation of healthy love is cherishing and nurture.  

Who would have thought it?

When I met my abusive partner my best definition of love was, someone who says he loves me, wants to have  life with me and shows more interest in me than my parents did.

I wasn’t exactly setting the bar high.  But who does when the don’t know what the hell they should be looking out for – and protecting themselves from – given an unsatisfactory childhood induction into the world of love?

It is because we don’t know any better that most of us fall into, and then subsist in, an abusive relationship. 

When we finally leave, we face the difficult problem of how we put back together the broken pieces of our world.  This is only made harder by the fact that we lack a few vital pieces of the puzzle of wholeness, like self-worth, and a concept of what healthy love is. 

When you don’t know what healthy love looks like

When you don’t know what healthy love looks like, you have a couple of choices.  You can either 

a) take a punt on the next person along who declares love and promises you a brighter future or 

b) you can forswear romantic relationships forever.  

I am a great advocate of taking a sabbatical from romantic relationships while you work out what a healthy, constructive definition of love looks like to you. However, forever is a long time to deny yourself the joy of a loving relationship.

That is where nurture and cherishing come in.  A quick Google search defines nurture as – among other things – “encouraging, supporting, caring for, attending to and looking after”. (Curiously, to my mind, it points to this as a parental attribute, when adults as much as children thrive with nurturance.) Cherishing includes such explanations as, “hold dear, revere, esteem, admire and appreciate”.

The one-way traffic of an abusive relationship

Where does any of that happen – to you – in an abusive relationship?  

Established abusive relationships only tolerate one-way traffic of positive emotion – from you, the victim, to your abuser. 

It is only in the early, lovebombing phase, that you experience attention and praise. A lot of it.  However, it mostly feels wonderful BUT a little pushy and overwhelming – possibly even a tad creepy.  None of it is really about supporting and encouraging you in your own right. 

Abusers promise you the earth but it is a shared earth (which later becomes a scorched earth).  They will give you whatever you want (provided you “earn” it).  But they do not offer to walk beside you and support you while you pursue your dreams and ambitions in your own right and your own way.  

The promise all abusers hold out is, essentially, “I will drip-feed you everything you could ever want – provided you serve me, every which way, to my complete satisfaction.”

Nurture and cherishing never demand that you play second fiddle to another person.  Nurture and cherishing are more likely to ask, “How can we make this work?”  meaning “How can I support you to make this work – for you?”

If you don’t know how to do it, start here.  

The lesson I learned from my child was all about what love is and what it is not.  I learned how not to be a parent from observing all the ways in which my own parents failed me.  Maybe you did, too. I learned how love holds you through the bad times and the good, without stabbing you in the back – or the front. I learned how to love myself as a human being by gradually working around to realising that I was as deserving of nurture and cherishing as anyone else. I learned to reparent myself constructively.  That love learning is a huge part of the journey of healing from abuse. 

Everyone on a healing journey from emotional abuse struggles with the whole issue of learning to love themselves. If that feels too much like a big stretch for you, right now, then start small.  Really look at the kind of love that you lavish on all the precious beings in your life and open to the idea that, whether or not you can feel it, you are deserving of the same quality of love.  

If you need help in building that foundation of nurture and cherishing in your own life, get in touch.

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