What is Love?

In the adoption world, at least, there’s a lot of confusion about what a real mother is. I believe that, at our cores, we know a real mother in relationship terms when we see one; to name just a few archetypal incarnations ranging from the mundane to the sublime, she is Harriet, she is Mrs. Cleaver, she is Olivia Walton, she is Celie in The Color Purple, she is Mother Theresa, she is the Virgin Mary. But, because many people are wounded in their families of origin and may even have the added insult of having been separated from their mothers and subsequently adopted (or raised by someone other than their mother), people can become muddled and confused about mothers and mothering. When that happens, it helps to have people who are clear about mothering to say, “This is the behavior of a real mother; that is not the behavior of a real mother.”

Having others in our lives is helpful if they will point us in the direction of truth, even if those others aren’t mothers, but are merely authors or therapists, best friends or sisters-in-law, grannies at church, bosses or other bloggers. People who point us in the direction of truth are helping us to find the way home. And if we never had a true home, a hearth from which to start our hero’s journey, then those who love us enough to help us may also show us how to establish the hearth from which we may leave.

what is love?

I think that any discussion of real or authentic mothering has to eventually arrive at love. What is love? Who is our real friend, the one who is really there for us, the one who truly loves us? Do we know it when we see it? I think, yes. We feel it, we feel deeply satisfied by love; and we feel calm and whole in its presence.

While it may sound odd that I would recommend a book about romantic love for those grappling with adoption issues, I do think that Robert A. Johnson’s book, We, provides an excellent overview of our flawed Western view of love, based on the oldest Western romance that we know of, Tristan and Iseult. Johnson writes this about real love:

Love is the power within us that affirms and values another human being as he or she is. Human love affirms that person who is actually there, rather than the ideal we would like him or her to be or the projection that flows from our minds. Love is the inner god who opens our blind eyes to the beauty, value, and quality of the other person. Love causes us to value that person as a total, individual self, and this means that we accept the negative side as well as the positive, the imperfections as well as the admirable qualities. When one truly loves the human being rather than the projection, one loves the shadow just as one loves the rest. One accepts the other person’s totality.

Johnson goes on to point out that love leads a person to honor and serve the other, rather than to use others for purposes of ego. Love compels us to be concerned for the needs of the other person, for their well-being, rather than merely on our own needs and wants. As the Bible says, “Love does no harm to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

I wrote yesterday about why, in my way of thinking, it’s wrong for a birth mother to tell her adopted child that, if she had it to do over again, she would choose abortion rather than suffer the loss of her child to adoption. What a terrible thing for the adopted person to hear! Though the adoptees I’ve known who have heard this from their birth mothers extended grace to those mothers by sympathizing with their pain, they later confided to others just how deeply such sentiments had wounded them. They didn’t trust their mothers any more after hearing this, for if their birth mothers were given the same choice again, they would want to hear their birth mothers say, “I would do anything to keep and raise you, and be there for you and be your real mother.”

Adopted people also don’t want to be reminded by their adoptive parents, “You’re my child, you know; I raised you!” They don’t want to be party to the paranoia and fear of adoptive parents who never really stepped up to the plate emotionally in the first place, but who assert their parental rights later, when they are getting older and more needy and know they weren’t very good people, but want to continue to pretend that they were. Proving that they still aren’t very good people.

But whether we are orphans or not, injured by separation or not, what we really want is love, isn’t it? Don’t we want to know that sometimes we, and only we, are reflected in the eye of the beholder? Do we not want to be engraved on the palms of someone’s hands, the apple if the other’s eye? Don’t we long to be beamed at by proud parents, to be told that we are more than enough, that we’re blessings beyond measure?

Oh my God, yes. Don’t we? Yes.

Love sees the glory of the other person, and stands in awe.

8 responses

  1. Hello.I have just started reading your blog.You follow my friend Tamara Thomas’s blog and i too am a Thai adoptee.I actually came over with Tamara, in the plane to Australia, all those years ago.I do not have my own blog but would not mind at all if you would like to ask me anything.I think what you and your husband are doing, is a beautiful thing.xo

  2. Hmm, “sometimes real love is doing the love in hopes that someday, it feels authentic too.”

    This gives me something to think about. Maybe I’ve been too hard on mothers who don’t just easily love their children (whether the children are born to them or not). Maybe I assume too much. Maybe sometimes we must “walk by faith, and not by sight.”

    Hoo boy. I can see that you are going to be like some other people who hang around here: you’re going to make me think and thus, eventually, to admit to the error of my ways.

    Sometimes I hate it when that happens. But I thank you for your comment, because I know it’s true.

  3. Part of “real” love to me is saying… “You don’t have to love me, but I love you anyway…” It’s unconditional, which is easier to say and even do, than feel. Sometimes real love is doing the love in hopes that someday, it feels authentic too.

  4. Eve – she would have loved to search for him but she has absolutely no idea who he is. She was born in the second world war, and so the chances are that whoever he was, he didn’t stick around in peacetime. My grandmother refused to tell her anything and no one seems to know.

    I appreciate what you say about days that celebrate and which risk writing over the top (without neutralising) of the dimension of grief that is so bound up with them too. I think it’s all part of our black-and-white culture that eschews the positivity in ambiguity.

    Looking forward to what you have to say in your subsequent posts on this topic!

  5. Thanks, Litlove. I think abandonment and loss in any form, whether through adoption, divorce, death, or otherwise, has a direct and negative impact on the person who suffered the loss. It’s a loss. We can act as though it wasn’t, but it was. It seems so simple to me, but apparently in many fields people seem to want to overlook the actual loss. So you will have “gotcha days,” adoptive parents celebrating the day they got their adopted baby or child. But they do not set aside “your terrible loss days” for grieving the day that same child was separated from his or her birth mother.

    About your mother, she lost one of the two most pivotol and important people in her life: her father. Should she not feel like an orphan? She is Biblically fatherless, isn’t she? That’s loss in Biblical proportions, so to speak. I’m not being religious, I’m just pointing out that there is plenty of foundational spiritual matter to support your mother’s feelings. Parental loss is parental loss.

    Did your mother ever consider searching for her father? She may well need to contact some adoption search experts for help; and DNA is helping people these days, too. I’ll be writing in the next week or so about how DNA tests and registries are changing the face of old-fashioned searching. The days of anonymity will probably be over in our lifetime, or in the next generation, I suspect.

  6. I found all this fascinating (and beautifully written). I’ve just been reading the memoir of a man who searched for (and found his natural mother) and it is most intriguing. It’s called Mother Country by Jeremy Harding and well worth reading. I’m also intrigued to know you think about these issues in relation to a slightly different parental problem: my mother never knew who her father was, and I think she has suffered panic, deep anxiety and a need to attach too deeply as subsequent consequences. She has before expressed a sense of allegiance with those who are adopted. I would love to know whether you have any thoughts on the matter?

  7. Anthromama, I think that being a parent can lead a person to become truly loving, if our children grow up and do what they’re supposed to do, which is to become incredibly smarter than we are around the time they are 16 years old.

    *chuckles*

    And having adult kids who do choose different ways of living (springing from your musing about what if your son were to turn out to be different than you expected) has only nudged me along the way.

    I imagine if I hadn’t had children, I would have learned love in other ways. I’m amazed when I see how we are always growing toward the light in our own ways, even if it’s not so easy to see from another person’s perspective.

  8. Everybody needs and wants love; everyone is afraid of rejection. My (birth) kids could grow up and wholeheartedly reject me and all I stand for. I like to think that I am being as “real” as I can, and so that will not happen. But if I am to fully acknowledge the individual humanity of my children, then I also have to allow them complete freedom in our relationship (as adults–children don’t get to be completely free yet 🙂 )

    I remember when my son was born. I thought about whether he might be gay, and what would be my reaction. I realized very clearly that as long as he is healthy and happy, he could do or be whatever he wants or needs to be (and I’m not taking sides on the nature/nurture question about homosexuality, it’s just an example!). Far be it from me to dictate what a free human being should do! I did draw the line at harmful future activities such as drug runner, pimp, or mercenary 🙂 So indeed, my kids are more than enough in and of themselves. Because they are Selves, not extensions of me. I always recall a friend’s gentle reminder that it is hubris to think our children are reflections of us or that we can really take credit for who they are. They are themselves.

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