On “unconditional” love with conditions

To all of you who comment – I love you guys. You frequently say things that are really insightful, things that make me think. Reader Anotherone made just such a comment recently regarding fundamentalist parents and conditional love:

I think a lot of fundamentalist parents love their children in supremely conditional ways, and the lightning fast retraction of that love comes right after the phrase, spoken with sickening gravity, “we need to talk.” At least, that’s how it was for my family.

Of course, parents like mine say that they will always love us no matter what we do. But the “love” that remained once we didn’t toe that oh-so-narrow line of their expectations was so abstract and theoretical as to be meaningless. When I strayed from the very narrow margin of acceptable behavior, attitude, or belief, the “we need to talk” line would come out, and *everything* about our relationship would change.

That phrase always ushered in the emotional shitstorm of them trying to get me to behave and believe like they wanted. The dire warnings about what befalls the Biblical fool would come out (God, even after all these years I can quote Proverbs like nobody’s business).

The two siblings nearest my age and I suffered under this pattern for years. We’d buckle under the pressure and acquiesce when they pulled out all the emotional stops. (Who wants to be the hell-destined fool, after all?). But in college, when I had the space I needed away from the toxicity, I wouldn’t buckle any longer, and the relationship all but ended. There was the cold distance, the open disapproval, the anger, talk of my ingratitude and foolishness, warnings about broad path of destruction. No more emotional support, no physical support, and the limiting of contact with my siblings.

It was a de facto shunning, papered over at the end with a deadly calm politeness (on their part, not mine–I was a hysterical mess). Of course, the craziest part was that my “rebellion” would have been utterly unnoticeable to anyone outside my family. By the standards of larger society I was the goodiest of goody two shoes.

Life out of my family’s web is *so* much better–so much happier, and more peaceful, and sane. But damned if those emotional shitstorms didn’t leave their mark.

For years I have bristled at the suggestion that my parents’ love for me was only conditional. After all, they always told us they would always love us no matter what, and who am I to question a parent’s love? I long connected their anger when I didn’t toe the line to their fear that I was taking a path that would bring myself pain, both in this life and in the next. The doctrine of hell, after all, justifies just about any action here on this earth if it will keep someone from eternal torture.

Anotherone’s comment made me rethink some of that. This part is the key:

Of course, parents like mine say that they will always love us no matter what we do. But the “love” that remained once we didn’t toe that oh-so-narrow line of their expectations was so abstract and theoretical as to be meaningless. When I strayed from the very narrow margin of acceptable behavior, attitude, or belief, the “we need to talk” line would come out, and *everything* about our relationship would change.

My relationship with my parents went from sunshine to thunderstorms the moment I stepped outside of their narrow margin of acceptable behavior. Everything changed. What remained sure didn’t feel like love. It felt like manipulation, pain, and degradation. “Shunning” is a good word for it – being treated like a pariah. All for what? For stepping off the narrow margin of acceptable behavior.

Throughout that period, my parents assured me that they loved me. The pain they felt, they said, was because of how much they loved me. Their tears, their anger, their efforts to make me live my life the way they wanted – it was all because they loved me.

But in practice it felt like they were pulling out all stops to make me do what they wanted, live like they wanted, say what they wanted – it felt like it was all about them, not about me. In practice it was like they couldn’t see me, this person they said they loved. In practice it was like they didn’t want to get to know the person I had become, and kept imagining me to be the person I had been – and working to force me to be that person once again. It was like what they loved was a figment of their imagination, an image they had dreamed up in their minds, not me. It was like they loved an idea rather than a person.

This is tricky, because love is so very hard to define. The dictionary says “a feeling of warm, personal attachment or great affection.” Even that, though, doesn’t say very much. My parents would definitely have said they felt “warm, personal attachment” and “great affection” towards me. But what does that mean in practice? Anyone can say they love someone, after all. In abusive relationships, abusers often maintain their hold over their victims by expounding on how much they “love” them. How, then, are we to define what love is and what it isn’t?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that trying to force someone to be something they don’t want to be isn’t love. Using manipulation in an attempt to make someone do what you want isn’t love. Withholding affection and smiles until someone conforms to your desires isn’t love. Only treating a person kindly if they do exactly what you want them to do isn’t love. Preferring to imagine an image of who someone is rather than actually getting to know them as a person isn’t love. Trying to force someone into a box isn’t love.

I think Anotherone is onto something. Fundamentalist parents may claim to love their children unconditionally, but there are conditions: stay on the straight and narrow and we will shower you with love and affection; step off the straight and narrow and all hell will break lose. And let me tell you, that second option is not fun.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com Latebloomer

    YES!! I’m dealing with this with my mom, the only fundamentalist left in the family, and it sucks. It’s pretty easy to tell that she despises me deep down and occasionally has the spiritual need to tell me what a terrible person I am….even though “by the standards of larger society I [am] the goodiest of goody two shoes” too. Somehow she thinks that everything should be ok between us if she pretends to love me with the power of the grace of God. :(

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    The Bible, especially the NT, talks about love a lot. It makes a lot of remarks about what love is, how to love, what love should entail, etc. It repeats the word very frequently, but it should not be confused into thinking that it actually has the first clue what love really is. It moreso misuses the word and misuses the concept and gives people misleading ideas about it. John 14:15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” As another atheist noted, that statement amounts to nothing more than emotional blackmail. Christianity, to no surprise, lays guilt on people who decide to make their own decisions and use their own values and judgment, getting them to think that not obeying means that they are not loving. They are separate issues though, and humans are fully capable of loving others without considering themselves obedient or submissive to those that they love. A husband can love his wife without considering himself obedient to her. A mother can love her daughter without considering herself obedient to her daughter. A friend can love another friend without the notion of obedience to each other entering into their relationship. Christianity just blurs the distinctions and blends it all together, creating a confused misunderstanding by its adherents. Even when a relationship does appropriately contain some measure of obedience, submission, and authority (employer to employee, parent to child, military general to soldiers, etc.) there is something else in that relationship that accounts for the command structure besides love. A person may both love and be obedient to the same person, but that is just because they overlap. Love does not imply obedience.

    Brian

    • josephine

      You totally nailed it with this comment. I had never thought of the “if you love me, you will obey me” thing as emotional blackmail (probably because I was raised with it and just accepted it as truth!) — it totally is.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I doubt such a thing as unconditional love, in the strongest sense, really exists. Everyone has at least some minimal standards of behavior they expect from others, though they differ from individual to individual. I doubt “love” will last very long in the face of an egregious crime, for instance.

    As has been said, I think what is being discussed here is more unconditional obedience. Perhaps the two concepts have been conflated due to the Bible, as Brian points out. One way or the other, obedience in the absolute sense has no proper connection to love at all. It’s a little frightening to even consider it.

    If we try to define exactly what love is, I think we will come to many different answers. Emotions do not seem to be defined by logic or evidence. To me, love does involve some substantial degree of acceptance and conformity toward the other party’s wishes. However, it’s not wholly altruistic to the point of sheer submission. There have to be some reasonable boundaries drawn between two people’s desires and how they will intersect, and this has to be worked out carefully and independently for each couple.

    • Jeremy

      I think I would refine it, though, and say too-conditional love is the problem. Of course all parents have conditions. You might not stop loving your murderer child, or your rapist child, but your love would certainly change in important ways.

      The problem occurs when the conditions become too narrow — when the parents cut off love as a punishment, or decide you are a lost cause when your transgressions are relatively minimal. I definitely experienced that, and unconditional love was what I identified that I wanted and was lacking.

  • Kevin Alexander

    ” It was like what they loved was a figment of their imagination, an image they had dreamed up in their minds, not me. It was like they loved an idea rather than a person.”

    That’s not just a fundamentalist thing. It comes from the way your brain works.

    • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

      Yes, but with religion we have a cultural institution that enshrines this unhealthy human tendency. Religion takes our existing natural human biases and codifies them, amplifies them, and creates some new ones as well, even when they lead to harmful attitudes and behaviors. Religion renders people oblivious to their own biases.

      Brian

      • Kevin Alexander

        Yup

  • shadowspring

    Thanks for posting this, Libby. It helps me to hold fast to what I believe in the face of tremendous pressure to love the fundamentalist way instead.

    You are dead on correct. The Christian parenting advice business has sold Christian parents a bill of goods. It came with an unenforceable guarantee that our children would turn out to be ideal evangelical persons who conformed to all the current evangelical trends, expectations, doctrines, etc. if we followed their plan for parenting our children. The Christian home school movement is the mother lode for the Christian parenting advice industry. Gullible parents keep forking over more and more money, tightening the controls on what/where/who is allowed into their children’s lives, all to ensure this outcome. Every time a family has an unexpected outcome (which is all the time) a new author or new book comes along to make excuses and assure the fearful crowd that if they add one more facet of control, all will be well.

    The “bad” family wasn’t consistent enough in applying discipline, or allowed too much “worldliness” into their families sphere of existence. It was blamed on the television, music and movies of “the world” back in the 80s, and so Christian television, Christian radio/music and Christian videos were all that good parents allowed into their homes. Still some (many) kids did not grow up to fit the evangelical ideal.

    It must be the public schools fault! And so all truly good parents would home school or send their kids to Christian school. And still some (many) kids did not grow up to fit the evangelical ideal.

    So then, since these home schooled children weren’t going anywhere that the label “Christian” hadn’t already sanitized, the label itself became suspect. It must the Sunday school classes and youth groups that are spoiling the product of all our hard work, er, the children. So family integrated church came along.

    And still some (many) kids grew up refusing to fit the evangelical ideal. So whose fault is it now? I guarantee you that the Christian parenting industry will come up with some bogeyman to blame, and market it, and make big bank off of it and then finally, FINALLY…

    (Sarcasm on) all children of evangelical homes will grow up to be conforming evangelicals without variation. You’ll see! The formula just needs tweaked a little bit more….(Sarcasm off).

    I wish my friends played more video games, because then they would understand me when I try to tell them:

    The cake is a lie.

    There are no guarantees in parenting. Zero, zip, nada. There are way too many uncontrollable variables involved: genetics, internal environment, microenvironment, macroenvironment. And the question occurs to me, why would you want to pre-determine who your children will grow up to be?

    Isn’t the joy of parenting in watching these beloved human beings unfold in front of your eyes? People are always changing. I am always changing. Families are supposed to be people groups who encourage and love one another through all the changes. The story of the prodigal son is the greatest story of how families are supposed to support one another no matter what.

    The father in that story didn’t make any demands on his returning son. He embraced him, welcoming him with a huge party. It amazes how this story seems to be completely misinterpreted as requiring admission of wrong-doing on the returning son’s part. The father in the story didn’t demand any such thing. He was just so happy to see his son again.

    That’s how I love my children. They are not following the evangelical ideal, at least not according to the Christian business empire here in the USA. But they are living life fully alive, loving people, loving God, growing in experience and ability and is wonderful to behold.

    So my daughter smokes, drinks, dances till daylight and is sexually active. My son has also smoked, drank and danced till daylight, but as far as I know isn’t sexually active. These habits/experiences do NOT DEFINE my children. People are way more complex than that. But to the evangelical community, these things DO define my children. It earns them a big red stamp ACCEPTANCE DENIED and earns me a big fat stamp FAILURE as a Christian parent.

    The truly tragic part is that their stamps once meant something to me. The truly wonderful part is that is no longer true. I’m still a Christian by my standards and by (I believe) God’s standards, but not by the standards imposed on my by American Christianity.

    Long live real unconditional love!

    • Kevin Alexander

      “So my daughter smokes, drinks, dances till daylight and is sexually active. ”
      You could shorten that sentence to ‘So my daughter is alive.’

      • shadowspring

        Well, not really. There are lots of people who are alive who don’t engage in any of those activities. Evangelicals have no problem with people living, it’s their engaging in unapproved activities (like the ones listed above) that get the red rejection stamp.

        It was probably not a good idea for me to respond here. Red stamps of disapproval for me all around!

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

        As long as this is my blog – and it is! – you are welcome to comment here, Shadowspring. I’ve missed having you comment, actually! Sure, other commenters might disagree with something you have to say, but that’s life! :-)

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        +1 on this! As a fellow commenter, I have missed you too, Shadowspring, and I was thrilled to see that you commented here. As always, I enjoy reading your clear-eyed, articulate analysis. You have a power of observation if human behavior and a humility that I think is rare and which I really admire. I can only speak for myself but you sure get MY stamp of approval.

  • Ursula L

    I believe it was Heinlein who defined love as “a subjective condition in which the welfare and happiness of another person are essential to one’s own happiness.” (In “Stranger in a Strange Land.”)

    Which is about as good of a working definition of “love” of another person that I’ve found.

    I do consider it asperational, rather than a purely descriptive definition. Few people manage to be completely focused on another’s welfare and happiness for their own happiness. They have their own welfare to consider, and a balance to strike between the different welfares and happinesses of the many people one loves as one goes through life.

    It sounds, to me, as if your parents’ happiness was very much tied to your “welfare” for a narrow definition of “welfare” as defined by their religious belief.

    But your happiness, and your consideration of your own welfare, what would keep you happy and mentally and physically healthy, wasn’t something they considered, and didn’t really fit in their understanding of how to love someone.

    • Ursula L

      To expand on this:

      Your parents, from their subjective position, loved you, because their happiness was conditional on your welfare (according to the dictates of what their religion considered best for you) and your happiness (in accepting the ways of their religion.)

      From your subjective position, they didn’t really love you as they cared neither for your welfare (what was actually good for you) or your happiness (what actually made you happy.)

      What they loved was an imaginary daughter, not the one they had. You’re related to that imaginary daughter, in some sideways way, but only distantly related.

  • http://wonderingwanderingthoughts.blogspot.com OneSmallStep

    It seems that fundamentalist parents are “unconditionally” loving their children in the same way that God “unconditionally” loves His. Do exactly what He wants, or He’ll throw you away in Hell.

  • http://fallenfromgrace.net Bruce Gerencser

    I am of the opinion that unconditional love is a myth. Like all things in life, love has conditions. I have heard countless spouses say, I love my spouse unconditionally. Really? Will you still love them if they start have affairs with all the women in your neighborhood?

    I suppose a parents love is the closest to unconditional love but even then I suspect there is a line, when crossed, that the love becomes quite conditional. Would I still love my son if he murdered my wife? I don’t know.

    I think unconditional love talk is rooted in pop psychology and it often denies the realities of the human condition.

  • Ryanne

    Libby, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and a lot of things you’ve posted have really hit home with me. This post is just the icing on the cake. It brought tears to my eyes because I can completely relate to those feelings, I KNOW how it all feels.

    It’s kind of a crushing moment when it hits you, that the people who are SUPPOSED to love you unconditionally…don’t. Or at least, don’t show it unless you are doing what they want. I’ve really been experiencing that over the last few months.

    I left home at 18, 5 years ago, with the support of my boyfriend (who is now my husband) . It was a really hard thing to do, because it unleashed a shitstorm with my parents–them trying to coax me back home and control me again, me trying to be respectful of them but yet be my own person…and my siblings were in the middle. I hated to leave them, because I felt like I’d abandoned them. Eventually, it got to where I could be around the family again, I was allowed back into the fold…a little bit. My engagement and wedding were hard too–my parents were really uninvolved and my dad almost didn’t walk me down the aisle. It was awkward when it should have been the happiest day of my life. On a lot of levels, it was, and I was thrilled beyond words to have all my family there. But it was obvious that my parents weren’t as happy as I was.

    A year or so after that, my sister turned 18 and left home under very similar circumstances. I was blamed for her leaving, and so the whole cycle started again.

    That too, got better, although my mom didn’t even attend my sister’s wedding or reception. My dad and other siblings came, but only to the ceremony. Again. Awkward when it should have been joyful.

    Now, about 2 years later, our brother has left home. Their oldest son. My sister is somehow still in my parents good graces, but I am not. For some reason, I’m to blame for my brother’s wayward behavior. I haven’t really talked to my parents in months because of it, and when I have, it’s been to hear about all the ways I betrayed my parents by not taking their side in this. I can’t talk to my sisters at home very much because my parents think I’m undermining them.

    From what I understand, my parents are shutting me out for those reasons, and because I’m not sorry for hurting them when I left home (I have apologized, but since I won’t completely take their side, apparently I don’t really mean it.)

    So for all those reasons…I KNOW. And I can’t begin to express the hurt I carry with me everyday, and all the times I’ve wondered what I did that was so bad that my own parents don’t love me. My husband can’t stand my parents anymore, and doesn’t want our kids around them–and that kills me. I definitely never imagined this in my life plan. Funny how that all works out.

    What I’ve learned though, is how NOT to parent my children. And for that…I’m grateful.

  • Laura G

    Thank you for writing about this! I struggle with some of the same patterns and habits instilled by my own fundamentalist upbringing, and it helps to hear you describe the ways in which you work through it. Both because you articulate it so well, and because it means I’m not the only one stuck in this mess.
    One of the hardest things for me is that, like you, I am confident that my parents love me (and loved me all along), and I struggle to reconcile that with the way they stifled my growth and ideas when they went in “the wrong direction”. Although I don’t think they had any bad intentions, the years of manipulation and disapproval caused a lot of damage that I’m still working to repair in myself.
    Anyway, thank you for capturing something that’s been on my mind a lot lately.

  • http://www.sustainablemommy.wordpress.com Naomi

    With many of your commenters, I too can so well identify with what you’ve said here. Of course, I can’t read my parents’ hearts, much less other patriarchalist parents who claim to have unconditional love for their children. That said, it would appear that that claim serves more as a manipulative tactic than anything else–as you’ve pointed out, that “love” turns very cold as soon as a child wanders off the very narrow path. By impressing on children that their parents have this “deep love” for them, parents condition their children to cooperate with abusive conditions and feel guilt for making any efforts to escape them.

    Who else follows this pattern of behavior? Oh, that’s right–cult leaders, domestic abusers, totalitarian dictators, and most anyone attempting mind control.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      This is why I love my commenters! I hadn’t even thought of that, Naomi, but you’re right! I may have to turn this into another post!

    • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

      Sounds a lot like Stockholm Syndrome.

    • jennmaureen@hotmail.com

      To me, the moment kids definitively fail to fit the mold is when parents get to show their true colors: love their kids, let go of some of the theology, or hold tight to their convictions and lose their kids.

      I’ve seen families go both ways. The thing is, inside the strict churches/theological groups, you only find the ones who’ve chosen theology over children. The other families have left, gone into less strict churches or given it up entirely.

  • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila

    It sounds like “unconditional love” means “I’ll love you as long as you’re somebody else.”

    The more I read of quiverful parents, the more grateful I am to my own.

  • machintelligence

    A triad of aphorisms:
    Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur Clarke)
    Don’t impute malice where ignorance or stupidity will suffice.

    Although I don’t think they had any bad intentions…

    Sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice.

  • AnotherOne

    Wow, thanks Libby Anne.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    “I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that trying to force someone to be something they don’t want to be isn’t love. Using manipulation in an attempt to make someone do what you want isn’t love…”

    Actually, I disagree. And that’s because I actually don’t see love is an innately good thing. I see it as a morally neutral emotion that pretty much all people are capable of and whether it’s good or bad depends on the source. Thus, I don’t see “I do x because I love you” as an excuse. Because love is not, in and of itself, redeeming of any action. It’s merely a motive. Some people do good things out of love. Some people do bad things. The love of an abusive person is destructive. Toni Morrison makes this point better than I can in “The Bluest Eye.”

    “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover along possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”

    Manipulative and controlling people love manipulatively and controllingly. This is why nobody will ever acquit themselves of hurting others in my eyes by saying that love was their motive. I don’t care to argue with people over why they do cruel things. I’m not concerned with the “why,” not concerned with the love, I’m concerned with the cruelty. Love doesn’t make cruelty something other than what it is.

    This is the conclusion that I came too after getting out of a relationship with an abusive guy years ago. And it was very freeing.

    • Meghan

      Your idea has given me a lot to think about. I’ve never thought of love as a neutral emotion.

      For me love has always been actions, not feelings. Sure one feels love, but you express that love through action and commitment. Which I guess is similar to your definition, just that I have never been in an abusive relationship, either familial or romantic.

  • Bee 6

    Wow.

    Loooong story coming up before I actually comment.

    I read these ex-quiverfull blogs like a starving child would feast when presented with a buffet. I read yours particularly because you produce new material every day, which feeds my desperate need to read something every day that justifies the way I feel. Reading your blog has become as essential to me as eating a daily meal, because sometimes I don’t know if I would survive (mentally) if I didn’t feel that someone was stepping through the same tangled, dark, tear-stained mess that I constantly do. I consider myself as much a regular as the frequent commenters, but I rarely comment because my responses are so long and discordant that I would rather not fool myself into thinking people will actually read the entire thing (I am familiar with tl;dr, so I want to spare everyone the nuisance). I guess I’m making a change this time, because I think I need to start speaking now. Holding it all in has made me a miser of thoughts, a hoarder of words, and it’s made me somber and sullen in my mind.

    (Man, seeing the length of this already makes me feel this isn’t getting posted.)

    This post speaks the most to me because I feel the same way. Maybe I feel even more strongly. It almost feels as though my parents are lying to me when they tell me they love me. My mother will cry and clutch me tearfully in her fluffy embrace, pleading with me to make sure I understand how much she loves me and how I’ll always be her baby girl. Thinking of it now makes me want to cry, but I only realize how disenchanted and broken I become when she professes her love for me. Because every time she does, it feels like a lie, as though she is compelled to say it because I was expelled from her birth canal 20 years ago and human nature dictates that mothers nearly always have a natural attachment for their spawn.

    Her actions are so different. She is quick to express displeasure whenever I stray slightly from the supposed “righteous” path. My feelings don’t matter to her as long as I cheerfully obey. My choices are not taken seriously if they are made while I am “in love,” because following your heart means there’s a pretty good chance you aren’t thinking properly (in a sense, she’s right, because following my heart opened my eyes). She believes it is her spiritual DUTY to incite a full, proper, 100% repentance from all her children, yet swiftly pounces when they commit the same sin again, guilt-tripping them every step of the way.

    But she LOVES me so much. She does all this BECAUSE she loves me.

    I can’t finish typing that sarcastic rant anymore, because even my fingertips don’t believe it.

    And this horrifying guilt I feel over having disappointed them? The heart-choking, paralyzing guilt that clenches me from having become the very person they warned us against? The knee-knocking guilt that rots my soul from having never truly believed that they would ever have to choose God over me? That’s all due to guilt over my sin, according to her, so it would all just go away if I ran back to their “loving” arms.

    They wonder why I can’t just apologize and come back. It’s funny how my mom, who thinks she is good at figuring out motives behind why people do things, really can’t see how impossible that would be for me to do. I’m all out of sorry’s. I can only apologize for being the rude, rebellious daughter so many times before I simply just don’t crave the genuine “I love you’s” anymore. I’m spent, mentally, physically, and emotionally.

    Maybe I don’t need their unconditional love. They will always love their religion more than they love me, so I guess it won’t happen. I would settle for unconditional approval. To finally tell them about a decision I’ve made and not have to shirk under their withering glare. To finally tell them I’m not sorry and never will be, and to not be afraid of the highly emotional, tear-jerking, soul-wringing response I will receive. To tell them, at long last, that I don’t believe in their god the way they do and to not be afraid.

    • AnotherOne

      Hang in there, Bee. It gets easier, it really does. Like you said, you probably won’t get their unconditional love, and if they’re anything like my parents, you won’t get their unconditional approval either. But as the years go by and you forge your own life, they’ll likely get used to the fact that your decisions are your own, and that they don’t have a say in them. And you’ll gradually form your own life and community apart from them, and in the process get more calloused to their disapproval. It just takes a long time for those callouses to form over the raw pain. Many hugs and best wishes.

    • http://sheilacrosby.com Sheila

      Not too long. Did read. :-)

      I’m so, so sorry, but I don’t think your Mom loves you, at least not as most people understand the word. I think she loves a label that she’s attached to you.

      I really, really hope you can find love and approval elsewhere. She might change – people do, but meanwhile I suggest you get all the support you can from other people. I’m happy to listen, and I’m sure other people here are too.

      Hugs.

    • Jeremy

      A thought: if you’re concerned that people will think your comments are too long (and I don’t think they are), why not start your own blog? That would allow you to express yourself much more thoroughly, I think, and give readers a chance to benefit from your experiences by reading about them in a single, easy-to-find place.

      • Jean Paul-Marat

        I’ve encouraged her to do so, believe me! She’s a great writer (then again, I’m quite biased.)

        Bee6 is my honey. Hang in there, darling!

  • purpleshoes

    So I read this after making one of my periodic forays to the Jeub blog, and catching up on the Elsie Dinsmore deconstruction that I think you recommended. And it occurred to me that this is my rubric: yes, children are a blessing. I’m not a conservative Christian and I don’t believe in original sin – I believe children are born basically innocent – and they smell nice and they’re cute and of course every child is a blessing.

    But every parent is not a blessing. Parents have had a lot more time to become real messes then children have. Parents are not basically innocent, they can’t be, they’ve been alive too long. It’s narcissistic to want your children to be an extension of yourself, instead of being people who you may or may not get along with at any given time. It’s narcissistic to want them to act as testaments to the goodness of your political views. It’s a pretty perfect extension of a worldview in which we were all created to gratify supernatural vanity. It’s basically self-serving to think that because children are blessing they exist for no other reason then to prove you’re blessed. It makes me sad.

  • Skjaere

    In practice it was like they couldn’t see me, this person they said they loved. In practice it was like they didn’t want to get to know the person I had become, and kept imagining me to be the person I had been – and working to force me to be that person once again. It was like what they loved was a figment of their imagination, an image they had dreamed up in their minds, not me. It was like they loved an idea rather than a person.

    I have had this exact thought about my own parents. It’s like you went into my brain and pulled words out.

    • shadowspring

      In some aspects, all parents face the day that they are confronted with the truth that the cute little girl with curls and dollies is not coming back. This is normal. You hear all kinds of parents of all different beliefs say things like,”Whatever happened to the sweet little kid who tried so hard to please me in everything? How did that turn into this human being with thoughts, desires, plans of their own?”

      They are supposed to be saying this to the older wiser parent and friend who can than reassure them that this is normal, and it’s actually a GOOD thing! It’s all part of growing up, and we want our children to grow up, right? Right?

      Only Christian parents, at least the ones who are under the influence of the Christian parenting industry, don’t have these talks. They are all pretending that their teens are still cooperative and compliant, or afraid to admit that they are not. What a shame. A strong dose of reality could help them all understand that growing up is not only inevitable, it’s preferable.

  • AnotherOne

    I was thinking about this issue more, especially since fundamentalist homeschooling parents are hardly alone in having expectations for their children and being disappointed when they’re not fulfilled. I have lots of friends with upbringings completely different than my own whose parents disapprove of their career choices, romantic partners, spouses, childrearing practices, and so on.

    But there’s something about homeschooling and fundamentalist childrearing that makes the conditional love of parents like my particularly damaging. If you grow up in broader circles of interaction, where you have friends and teachers at school and a more diverse community of people you’re involved in, your parents’ disapproval may loom large, but it isn’t necessarily overwhelming.

    When you’re a sheltered homeschooler, your entire life is comprised of your family, and maybe a small handful of other “likeminded” people. So, when your parents reject you, you lose everything. The twin psychological pressures of 1) being afraid that you’re rejecting an Almighty God who can send you to hell, and 2) losing the love and support of quite literally every human being you know, are nearly impossible to stand strong against.

    This is why I think so many homeschooled fundamentalist kids can only leave/rebel when other people come into the picture–usually college friends or a romantic interest. Psychologically you need to have other people in your life so that when you finally “rebel” you’re not losing literally everything. Which of course opens you to charges from your parents that you’re only doing what you’re doing because of evil peer influences and/or misguided, foolish romantic feelings that are leading you astray.

    It’s no accident that my parents no longer believe in sending their kids to college, or that my youngest sisters, in their upper teens through mid twenties, live at home with no romantic prospects. I think my parents unconsciously realize that the only way to keep their kids toeing the line is to make sure that they have no community of support outside the family. Raise the stakes of leaving high enough, and maybe they won’t leave.

    • Kalipay

      another aspect to this is that our families are often so large that the sheer number of people disapproving and shunning is exponential compared to ‘normal’ families. when a ‘normal’ family disapproves of a ‘normal’ child’s choice of career, for example, it’s what, two parents and maybe two siblings, maybe a grandparent?

      but in my family it’s two parents, four grandparents, and six siblings (for now) who aren’t allowed to be in contact with me. a dozen people who i care about with all my being are not easily replaced.

    • jennmaureen@hotmail.com

      There’s more pressure on the parents, too – my mom is disappointed in my life choices, but along with being a stay at home mom for more than a decade, she had a career for 3 times as long, and two marriages, each quite long. So when we kids let her down, it wasn’t a failure of her life’s work, it was just one thing out of many.

  • AnotherOne

    paragraph two–it should be “parents like *mine*”

  • AnyBeth

    I’m familiar with similar expressions of conditional “unconditional” love for another reason. Mom is a sort of narcissist. Example: If you disagree with her, you’re bad; if you’re close to her and disagree with her, you’re evil… unless you change your mind and apologize for having a different opinion. As I grew up, she had problems with me having my own thoughts and feelings.
    Mom liked to yell (and to threaten, but mostly yell). She’d yell love between berating me for feeling or thinking various things I didn’t (and chastising me for my insolence if I said I didn’t feel or think whatever she said: “Are you calling me a liar?!”) Once, just once, she coldly said she hated me. More often, she’d snarl in a most disgusted, impertinent tone, “I love you, but I don’t like you!”

    One outcome I’m sure these parents never think of is what it means for their children’s relationships down the line. I was taught that someone who loved me could berate me, could force me to do things I didn’t want to do, could tell me what I should think, how I should feel, who I should be. The skewed definition of love did me no favors. I was a ripe target for abusers and after leaving home, I had a series of increasingly abusive boyfriends, culminating with one who thought it proper for him to have the power of life and death over me.
    When love is dependent on following the parents’ dictates, the child grows up to have nothing of their own to stand on. Easy targets, ones looking for authority and not realizing they have any power of their own. Perhaps unconditional love is an unreachable ideal, but loving only those who meet strict, narrow standards such that may impede a child developing into their own person? Aside from it being heinous, I simply can’t see how it could lead to a good result.

  • http://rollforpainting.wordpress.com Evs

    I’m reading a lot of books about parenting to learn how to be a better mom for my 2year old son. Neither me, nor my husband had particularly good role models growing up.

    But there was a bit in one of the book that really spoke to me and put a lot of things into perspective.

    It was about love. And how it is important for a child to feel loved. But for child to feel the love, parent needs to learn to express it in such a way that a child can really feel it.
    For example, it’s no use saying you love your child just as they are and then turn around and tell them that you’ll disown them if they don’t do what you want. It doesn’t matter what’s deep inside parent’s heart, what good intentions they have. If the child does not really feel loved, all of that does not matter.

    I found this really powerful and I try to use it in everyday life…

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

    This is what I struggle with every day about my transgenderism. No one in my family knows (or if they do, they’re remarkably quiet about it) that I feel uncomfortable in my skin. I’m not happy, but I put on this Stepford Smile and act like everything is sunshine and posies when inside I’m really torn up. I want to be who I am, but I’m afraid every day that if I let my family know, I’ll be rejected.

    I love my family, I love my family regardless of who they are right now. I want to be with them, to laugh and to talk, to visit and have fun times, but if I come out as being who I am, I don’t want that to stop. They had a hard enough time with my pansexuality and my atheism. I don’t know how they’ll handle transgenderism and eventual transition.

  • Adele

    This post made me very sad. I feel so bad for you and all the other children subjected to this “love with conditions” emotional blackmail. What I found most surprising however, is your statement that your parents and other fundamentalist parents claimed that they do love their children unconditionally. Earlier you posted that evangelical Christians are supposed to love God more than anyone or anything else. Parents are supposed to love God more than their children. I think loving someone unconditionally is incompatible with loving someone or something else more. All these parents who love God more than their own children would, I’m sure, stop loving their children if they came to believe that’s what God wanted them to do. Such love is of necessity conditional.

    Adele

  • Jeremy

    Word, Libby. My experiences are just the same as yours on this score. Ken Adams writes (in Silently Seduced) that parents in emotional-incest relationships often claim they are offering unconditional love, when they are really giving unconditional need. That was my experience, certainly.

  • Sal Bro

    With no disrespect intended, when you describe your parents’ behavior and say that X behavior “isn’t love”, I feel like you’re flirting with a no-true-Scotsman fallacy. What your parents (and my own, to a lesser degree) are exhibiting is love as it commonly occurs within fundamentalist Christianity. Is it a type of love that fosters healthy relationships with children who’ve left the fold? No. But you have, obviously, aptly described the version of love experienced by many people who have fundamentalist Christian family members, so your parents’ behavior can hardly be described as an anomaly. Which makes me think that it’s best described, not as “not love”, but as “fairly typical fundamentalist Christian love”.

    Maybe that seems like a minor bone to pick, but it popped into my head when I read your post, and maybe some others will find the distinction to be helpful.

    • Kalipay

      this is helpful, and is something that i have come to realize. my dad, who doesn’t talk to me and doesn’t allow my siblings to have any contact with me, does in his own heart and mind love me and believe that he is doing the right thing for me. i don’t think he is consciously deluding himself or intentionally manipulating me. he truly believes he is being loving; and it is, as you say, “fairly typical fundamentalist Christian love”.

  • http://dynamicita.tumblr.com dynamicita

    Emotional blackmail isn’t limited to fundamentalist parents, sadly. For non-religious reasons, my non-custodial parent pulled the shun-you-if-you-don’t-tow-my-line move more times than I care to remember. The underlying motivation may be the same, though. Namely, that the actions or thoughts of the child threaten the adult’s firmly-held conviction or worldview, and holding onto that uncertain certainty trumps the child’s happiness and/or wellbeing.

  • Sal Bro

    my dad…does in his own heart and mind love me and believe that he is doing the right thing for me.

    I believe the same thing about my mom. I acknowledge that her pain over me is real and that it comes from some twisted view how she thinks love works, but I reject that it’s compatible with a healthy mother–daughter relationship. To call it “not love” denies what she’s feeling.

    If we want to try to change the pattern, denying people their emotions isn’t going to be productive—we can acknowledge that they feel love while also trying to change how they express it. Kind of like anger management, but for love. (Now we need remedial love classes!)

  • Jessica

    I’m desperately afraid even to ask my parents if they’ll love me no matter what, let alone ask if they’ll still love me even if I’m gay (I’m not, actually; I’m bisexual, but I think that’s an even more loaded question). I think they could deal with me being a liberal, maybe even non-Christian, but queer? I’m not eager to find out.


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