Our son, Leo, had a bit of a hard time the first few weeks of first grade. By that I mean I had two phone calls from the Principal in less than five days. They don’t call about just any little thing either. When the school’s phone number shows up on caller I.D., I take a deep breath and pray that it’s because one of them has a fever or has pooped themselves and needs a change of clothes. That wasn’t the case either time. Both phone calls were about some impulsive and not-so-great choices he made. In fact, the phone calls were in addition to a couple of emails from his teacher about completely different infractions.
It was clear that we needed to speak with him about his behavior before it got out of hand. A few slip ups are acceptable and expected but two trips to the Office within the first couple of weeks of school tells me it’s time for a chat.
We sat in chairs opposite each other, our knees touching. He knew that shit was about to get real and he began to tear up. I’d been conscious to keep my face soft, my brow relaxed and my eyes forgiving. I hadn’t said a single word yet when he hung his head in shame and fear and asked if I still loved him. I answered him with the same words I’ve told all of our children “There is nothing you could ever do to make me not love you.” Am I proud of you for dropping your pants at school and showing your friends your junk? No. Do I delight in the fact that you shoved a kid who tried to take over your role as ‘line leader’ that day? Of course not. Will I call our out of town family to brag because I am exultant that you snuck into an empty classroom just to “check it out”, got busted by the teacher, and then claimed to have no recollection of going in there? Never.
After our talk, he dried his eyes, promised to do better (and he has!) and let out a great sigh of relief. There were hugs and kisses and talk of his reward when he reached his goals. He bounced out of the room knowing that my love hadn’t wavered and that I’m in his corner. We both felt better.
His question, though, “Do you still love me?” played over and over in my head. Had he really wondered that?
The day after our heart to heart, a video surfaced and flooded social media of a young man named Daniel who recorded a conversation with family members while he “came out” to them as gay. The first thing one of the family members told him was that they “love him” but the situation quickly became heated and verbally abusive. Family members told him they could no longer “support” him because he is gay and they didn’t want their friends thinking and believing that they condone such behavior. He was told that he’d have to move out of the family home. At one point, the mother mentions that she has “a lot of friends who are gay but that “they’re ‘friends’; they’re not related to me.”
I don’t mention the video to start a debate about homosexuality. No, to me the video was a painful glimpse into the life a child being rejected and his parent’s love not being whole and absolute.
My heart broke for that young man. What he was told is “I love you… with the condition that you’re who I want you to be. I love you as long as you’re behaving and making the choices that I feel are appropriate and that I can feel proud of.”
Is that part of the deal when we are given the gift of parenthood? That we can reserve our love and support if our kids aren’t who we expected them to be? That the way our peers view us and our children’s behavior is more important than the child?
While we are certainly entitled to raise our own children as we see fit, that is not what I agreed to when I became a parent. I’ve never for a moment considered deferring my love unless my kids are what I consider to be well-behaved, exceptional, physically or mentally “normal”, cause me no pain or embarrassment or take a path in life that I think is best for them.
Parenthood can be brutal and uncomfortable. Our children will do things that will enrage, mortify, perplex and confound us. They will make choices that suck. They will go through phases in life that we find bizarre or appear to us to be nonsensical and absurd. They may end up being gay, the valedictorian, a drug addict, a heart surgeon, an inmate or a priest. No matter, it seems our love should be steady, ever present, accessible and on display at all times.
I think we sometimes worry more about what other people think of our kids or us or the parenting choices we make than we should. No one enjoys being judged or gossiped about, but there will never be a lack of people willing to do just that. Other parents who are certain that they know what’s best for your particular child in any given situation. On the occasions that I’ve been met with criticism about how we choose to raise our children, I mentally (or verbally, if I’m feeling intrepid that day) tell my critics to stuff it. Their opinion of me and my children is none of my business.
I choose my children and I choose devotion to them without condition.
So, yes, Leo, I still love you. Not only ‘still’ but always and without ceasing- no matter who you become or what you do. Please keep your pants on, though…at least until you get home.