Didn’t Your Parents Love You?

Didn’t Your Parents Love You?

Far fewer parents actually love their children than we want to know.

Sometimes it simply doesn’t happen, and some try, with or without that creeping, horrifying realization that they can’t and don’t.

Some never try.

We wish childbirth was an ignition switch. That’s what our friend said after watching his son being born: “A light went on inside me which will always shine.”

“Not loving” doesn’t necessarily mean hating. Gray space spans that massive chasm between love and hate, comprising other feelings which are neither/nor.

And no, love can’t be chemically tested, seen, or certified. Thus unlove is unprovable. He said/she said/I said/they said … Who counts as a credible witness?

Unlove doesn’t always look like cruelty or abuse. Often it is simply an absence, as of oxygen or protein, quietly depriving offspring of not just open affection but empathy, trust, approval, equilibrium, support, a sense of safety and/or self, permission to exist.

How many grow up never understanding that they’re starving, what they’re starving for, or why?

We’d like to think we could identify unloving parents at a glance. We’d like to think they are all taloned and Dickensian. We’d like to think they are the ones on Wanted posters because then they’d have nothing to do with us.

But life is complicated. Love is ultimately just a feeling—granted, a transcendent feeling—but not universal, omnipresent, permanent, or guaranteed.

And some parents don’t feel it—consistently or ever.

Not all unloving parents are horrible beasts, although some are. Some are tormented, suffering, blocked, empty, ill, and/or incapable of loving anyone, including or except themselves.

Maybe parenting proved incalculably hard for them. Maybe they’d hoped that having children would repair their partnerships and proffer a sense of purpose—but then it did not.

What if we’re their children? What if we’re those accidents, those mislaid plans, those broken hopes? What if we are their failed experiments?

Studies show that maternal love increases hippocampal growth, and fatherly love strongly fuels children’s confidence, self-acceptance, and mental health.

Whether or not we’ve ever been directly told, “You are unloved,” at some level, this signal reached us, and we started feeling gross, hideous, alien. It reached us when they dodged eye contact with our infant selves or held us only briefly when they must. It reached us when they didn’t tell us: Everything will be OK.

The signal reached us when we realized that their warmth was not a default response but a prize for proper performance. It reached us when they called us chubster, loser, or nothing at all because they weren’t there.

Because so few are told directly, which would at least connect painful dots, most children of unloving parents instead live this signal, making it a worldview and identity, a sovereign “fact.”

Enter the paralytic, sometimes-lethal misery that is clumsily called low self-esteem.

Some parents said I love you at bedtime or to end phone calls. Some said it warningly, like the first half of a seesaw squeal, or droningly, like wind-up dolls.

And maybe we believed those words yet felt gross nonetheless, which barbed our mystery and drove it deep, hiding its apparatus, so that now we blame ourselves for every bad thing without knowing why, without realizing that it’s not our fault.

S. Rufus is the author, under the byline Anneli Rufus, of books including Party of One and Stuck.

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