Love That's Better Than Bug Juice
I was standing in a gas station on Saturday staring at a line of drinks in the cooler when I felt my eyes getting misty.
Yes, I love certain beverages enough to develop serious emotions about them (I’m looking at you, coffee), but it was bug juice I was looking at. Bug juice, for those of you who are not parents of toddlers, is essentially pure flavored sugar, mildly diluted with water, and put in a plastic bottle. It’s 8 ounces of hyper behavior, targeted right at your preschool-aged child.
For the uninitiated, here's what bug juice looks like:
When my daughters were in preschool, they loved bug juice with a fiery passion.
Sometimes I’d leave work and pick my two tow-headed daughters up from preschool and we’d stop by a convenience store and they’d pick out a snack and bug juice. I remember snaggle-toothed expressions of delight, chubby little hands reaching for snacks with no nutritional value, impromptu songs about bug juice chortled tunelessly as we left the store.
On Saturday, in that row of diabetes-in-a-bottle beverages, I saw the little girls who owned every part of my heart. In an instant, my soul returned to countless nights of “read me just one more chapter,” to the mornings when they proudly dressed themselves in a bathing suit and cowboy boots for school, to the afternoon tickle fights, to my youngest daughter claiming credit for every landmark built in the city of Birmingham (“Do you see that big statue, mommy?” 3-year-old Lily asked, meaning Vulcan. “I made that for you. Isn’t that remarkable?”). In those bug juice days, I was everything to them as they were to me (“You’re my best friend,” Violet murmured, curling into my arms at age ten. “I can tell you everything.”)
Those preschoolers elongated into tweens, then teens. Nights of “just one more chapter” turned into meltdowns over grades, friends, romances gone wrong. Bug juice gave way to sprite, then diet coke, then coffee. Blond hair was dyed blue or pink or black, shaved, regrown. Princess dresses became pencil skirts and leather jackets. And then came the day when boxes full of 18 years of memories were shoved into my Kia Optima and driven southwest to Louisiana, so Violet could transition into pseudo-adulthood at a University. My text messages are sometimes returned, sometimes ignored, by young women who are queued up on the runway to launch into lives of their own and for whom I am not even the voice in the air traffic control tower.
The bug juice days are gone for good.
Thinking about my love for my daughters as little girls, and about my love for them now, as occasionally difficult young women, helped me to a realization of some key aspects of love. These realizations, I think, had been percolating for a while but needed some bug juice to roil to the surface.
1. Real love isn't conditional - no matter how much the object of your love changes.
Love, or what passes for love, is very easy when there’s nothing challenging going on. It’s just like exercise is pretty easy when you’re in perfect health and well rested and already in great shape, conditions which I don’t really think exist for anyone. Love becomes more difficult when it’s one-sided, when it’s filled with drama, when one of the people is growing in a direction that is hard for the other person to accept.
I realized in the gas station (and probably before) that I could love the they that my children were, when they were tiny and trusting and I was their whole world as they were mine, and love as deeply the young women they are now. They’re more complicated, sure – and heaven knows they have the power to hurt me far more now than they did then. In reaching out for adulthood, they’ve come through an in-between fraught with difficulties, so that the eyes I look into are no longer the trusting, naïve eyes of two preschoolers chugging barely diluted sugar but the occasionally hard, humorous, and knowing eyes of independent people.
In many ways, our love for each other was simpler then. They didn’t question my role as their mother, and I could care for them with a soul unencumbered with worries about teenage existence that sometimes feels impossible to navigate effectively. Our love is more complex. I am not their everything anymore, and I never will be again. Sociological research shows that parents fall behind friends and social circle in the lives of teenagers, and we barely outdistance celebrities and movies.
But if my love for my daughters in any way relies upon where they are in life, or whether they love me with the focused devotion of acolytes, it really wasn’t love at all. Rather, I was using my children as mirrors to reflect me back to myself the way I wanted to see me.
I’m sure that many of us have seen at least one video of a teenager coming out as gay, trans, or bisexual to a parent or close family member. Many of the videos that I’ve seen show the parent opening their arms to the anxious and tearful child, assuring them that they’re loved even as the teen worried that the truth of them made them unlovable. Tragically, far too many LGBTQ children tell their truth only to be rejected by their parents and family members. I would argue that a love which changes under those conditions wasn’t much of a love to begin with.
“Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” William Shakespeare wrote, “Or bends with the remover to remove: O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”
The thing with love is that if some other person, circumstance, or reality can change it, it wasn’t love to begin with.
2. Love grows and adapts.
“A play is like a relationship,” I tell the young Shakespearian actors in my theatre company. “It’s either moving forward, or it’s moving backward.”
Love doesn’t hold still. It can’t. If my best friend decides that she wants to become a master carpenter, then my love grows to be the sort of love that supports the dreams of a master carpenter. I read articles about carpentry, develop an interest in different kinds of saws, listen to endless tales about wood grain – because love means growing into the beloved’s growth.
And sometimes it means loving in increasing trial and limitation. Brian Piergrossi tells the story of his grandfather, Charles, who lived the same sort of unexceptional, honorable life that many hundreds of millions of men have lived. In his elder years, his wife of nearly 50 years developed Alzheimer’s. Charles fed her, bathed her, dressed her, brushed her hair, put her to bed at night, got her out of bed in the morning – even though, toward the end, she no longer knew his name – or indeed, could speak at all.
He did this because love adapts to circumstance. It doesn’t require that a situation or a person remain the same in order to be loved.
Because of this, love also challenges. My best friend, Moira, is possibly the most conflict averse person I know. She would rather suffer congestive heart failure than make someone she cares about feel badly. She hates confrontation more than death and taxes.
Six or seven years ago, I did something – neither of us remember what exactly – which made Moira upset. Given that I have the personal grace and interpersonal skills of a feral troll at the ballet, this part isn’t surprising.
The surprising part was that Moira called me out on it.
She sat down with me and told me exactly why she was upset, and what I had done to hurt her. She was shaking while she spoke. Her eyes filled with tears.
At first I was stung. I knew I was in the wrong, and I knew an apology was called for, which I gave. But then I realized something. She loved me. I mean, she really, REALLY loved me.
Loved me, like, more than a sister.
Because it took all of her courage to confront me instead of walking away and giving up on our relationship. Walking away would have been easier for her. But she loved me enough to NOT do that. It was in that moment, in that time of hearing something unpleasant about myself for which I was ashamed, that I realized how profoundly I was loved. She loved me too much to let me do something harmful and get away with it.
She’s been my best friend for 13 years now. I’d help her move a body. I’d like to say that time six or seven years ago was the last time I disappointed her. It wasn’t. But she’s always loved me enough to tell me she’s upset and let me try to make things right.
She loves me enough to help me change.
When we say we love people, or things, or places, or institutions, we usually mean that we love the way they make us feel about ourselves. We wouldn’t continue to love them if they required us to confront something ugly, or difficult, or unpleasant. Those who are courageous enough to protest respectfully during the national anthem are showing tremendous love. If they didn’t love their country, they wouldn’t care enough to want to make it better.
If your love doesn’t grow, adapt, change, and challenge, maybe It’s not love at all. Maybe it’s something else.
3. Love sets boundaries.
Blogger Mark Manson, in his viral essay “Love is Not Enough,” writes about a friend of his who was recently married. She said she was madly in love with the man she planned to share her life with. And in spite of the fact that he was “between jobs,” and had been for more than a year, ditched her in favor of surfing trips with his friends, and showed other red-flag behaviors, she married him. A year into their marriage, he still hasn’t achieved employment, he gets angry if she doesn’t cook dinner for him, calls her names, trashes the house while she’s working, and still ditches her for surfing trips with his friends.
It’s obvious to the casual reader that whatever the husband feels for his wife, it’s not love. What may be less obvious is that whatever the wife feels, it’s probably not love, either.
Love sets boundaries. Love says no.
I wouldn’t have been much of a mother if I set no curfew for my children, failed to hold them accountable for their grades, gave them a beer with their 6th-grade dinner, and let them buy whatever they wanted. Most people would agree that this was toxic behavior and if my children grew into poisonous adults, I bore a great deal of blame. But we don’t carry these lessons over into other areas of our lives nearly as well. Would it really be love if my sister was okay with her boyfriend hitting her? What if he only slapped her?
Would I be acting out of love if I covered up for my father embezzling funds?
All love for others must come from a place of profound self-love, and self-acceptance, a place of realizing that you are enough and you are worthy of love. As social science researcher and writer Brene Brown says, “If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.”
Allowing bad behavior in the name of love isn’t love, it’s enabling.
And love can say, “I love you, and I no longer want you in my life.”
My brother is a convicted sex offender. He’s not allowed to see my children, and never has been. We don’t stay in contact. I believe he is a sociopath; I believe that he is dangerous. I still love him. But he is not a part of my life, and he never will be.
Love doesn’t invite others to take advantage of you, to hurt you, to hurt themselves.
If, when Moira had confronted me about the way in which I had hurt her, I’d said, “Yeah, you’re overreacting, also WAY too sensitive, also I’m going to do what I want and you need to get over it” and then persisted in my damaging behavior, she could have continued to love me without having a relationship with me. In fact, it would have been far healthier for her to cut off contact than to have to excuse, tolerate, or rationalize my bad actions.
I love my daughters with the fire of a thousand suns. But they are not allowed to verbally abuse me, to disrespect me, to hurt me, because I am showing them how to love themselves in how I love myself.
Love must have boundaries, or self-love isn’t present. And self-love is the pre-requisite to everything.
“If you have it [love], you don’t need to have anything else, and if you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter what else you have,” J.M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan,” wrote.
When love is true, and strong, and unconditional; when it grows, when it grapples, when it sets limits; when it survives circumstances and transcends personalities, it is the best thing imaginable.
Even better than bug juice.
(If you have time to cry, I strongly recommend taking the time to view the following video, which formed the starting point for the movie, "Up.")