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Unconditional Love (and other lies my children cured me of.)

Mothering is much like skill games at the state fair. It looks easy until the carny puts the ring into your hand. Then, not only is not easy it is damn near impossible. I’ve been at this mothering gig for 28 years now. My goal was perfection. By the time Jordan turned 18 my goal was simpler: survival. His and mine.

One thing my kids have taught me: Unconditional love is a lie. Short of the love of God Himself, all love is, to some degree, conditional. If you’re reading this and you have children too young to have a drivers license you don’t believe me. But it’s true. There will come a day when your values and rules are trampled like fans at a UK soccer match and you will realize that there are very real conditions on your love.

Behind every “I love you” is an unspoken expectation that the young person who shares your DNA shares your values. Love is sorely tried at 3:00 a.m. when your half of the DNA was left at home while they are in a bar on High Street. Now, hear me on this. You never stop loving. But a child doesn’t separate love from unconditional acceptance and affirmation of who they are as a person, separate and unique, perfect in their imperfection. And when that affirmation is not verbalized, to a child it doesn’t exist. All they see are our attempts to make them mini versions of us and see our sore displeasure when they don’t measure up.

If you don’t believe me line up 10 of your adult friends and ask if they felt loved by their Mother. Two will say yes; six will squirm uncomfortably and answer “Well, I know she loved me but…” and two didn’t show up because they are in therapy trying to find out why they live out their adult lives looking for the approval of others. In truth, you probably had ten friends whose mothers loved them. Really loved them. But if the words of acceptance, affirmation and praise don’t come out of your mouth you leave your child to fill in the blanks and rarely is it pretty.

Very simply, we teach our children what love looks like. Truly. And Scary. And truly scary.

I came to a point when Jordan was 20 that I realized all the electronic trackers in Apple’s toolbox could not track his heart. (And, dammit if he wasn’t always one step ahead of me…) One night on a long drive back to his college dorm I apologized to him. I said something like this. “Jordan, I am asking you to forgive me for lying to you. I have told you for years that I love you unconditionally and then behaved in a contrary manner: attaching conditions to your behavior to earn my approval; which you translated as conditional love. Today I tell you I love you. You are a young adult and stand before God, not me, for your decisions and life choices. I will never again hold up my standard to you. You have lived in the shadow of my values for 20 years – if you don’t know what I think, shame on me. Now it’s up to you to create your own values. I will make you live with the consequence of your choices, but I will no longer correct them, judge them, or penalize you for them. I will love you. I will trust God that whatever is imperfect in you will be made perfect according to His design, not your mother’s. “ It took a while for him to see that I meant it, but it radically changed our relationship – even to this day.

So, mothers: you know that swell of love you feel when your child does anything? (I recently felt that swell in my heart when my 23-year-old spit on the field at first base…yes, ANYTHING.) I’m challenging you to verbalize it, speak it, text it, touch it, face-to-face take it from your heart to their ears.

Sometimes I look at those three young adults who share my last name and (still) say “Do you know that I’m crazy about you? Do you know that I think you’re the greatest and I’m so excited to see what God does with your life! Can I watch?!?” And they roll their eyes. And I know that they won’t be in therapy…at least on that count.

Finally, that motherhood perfection thing? Know this from a mother who is almost three decades in: the best stories come from imperfection. Wildly messy life makes the funniest retelling ten years later. Trust me.

Happy Mothers Day to all of us. God is cheering for you in your imperfection. And loves you unconditionally. Really.

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