I know I’m the queen of typos, but this post’s caption isn’t a typo. I didn’t mean to write “mother love,” I meant to write “smother love.” I’ve been thinking about love lately, mostly in connection with dogs. (Do not worry. I am not about to confess to bestiality. This is not my Gene Wilder and Daisy moment.)
What I was thinking about was the perfect symbiosis of a good doggy/owner relationship. Each of us, by giving, gets something. I like to rub a soft, warm, doggy tummy and — what a pleasant coincidence — my doggies both like to have their tummies rubbed. (My sister sometimes calls her dog “Rubber Tummy,” which is a silly play on “rub her tummy.”) I like to snooze on the couch in the evening with a dog on my lap and the dogs, again coincidentally, think a pleasant snooze on my lap is just the thing. Our own desires feed the other’s needs. With dogs, it’s not deep, but it sure is real.
The polar opposite of this mutual love, one that sees us each enjoying what the other wants to give, is need masquerading as love. There’s a lot of that in my life. With the teenagers one expects that “I love you” translates to “I need you to do this for me or give this to me.” It’s less expected and therefore less pleasant coming from others.
Not only is this a “love” without reciprocity, but it’s very burdensome. Because what the other person is really saying is that, “You must do this to make me happy.” And if you love the other person, as I do in many cases, you end up fulfilling obligations without any returning pleasure. It’s as if a dog relentlessly insists on climbing into your lap but you, rather than finding this a cozy, relaxing moment, feel suffocated — but you do it anyway because you love the dog and the dog needs that lap time. (Incidentally, as I write this, I’ve got a dog curled up my lap snoring away. We are both exquisitely happy with the experience.)
Having been raised with smother love, I tend to be exceptionally undemanding and emotionally self-sufficient in relationships. I know that this is off-putting to those who would like more of me, but the fact is that I can’t bear the thought that I’m imposing emotional obligations on people. Nobody should ever feel obligated to do something for me as a sign of love. Moreover, I don’t like the control it gives people if they realize that I love them. Dogs, thankfully, don’t do manipulative power plays.
I know this isn’t a political post, but my mother (the master of smother love) is getting too old lately to manage the subtlety of simultaneously combining love with smother (which is how the masters do it). Instead, she alternates between telling me “You’re the only thing that makes me happy,” and then yelling at me for refusing her increasingly irrational requests, telling me that I’ve failed her.
I know that she’s an old lady and has no control over me, but she still manages to push the buttons that she planted and pressed plenty for a long time. Part of me wants to say “Stop doing that! You always do that.” Yelling at a nonogenarian, however, is mean, vindictive, petty — and I’m dreadfully afraid that I may sink that low.
My rational brain knows that she feels helpless and that smother love is her go-to weapon for dealing with the terrible fear of her own mortality and increased helplessness and dependency, but I still get irritated. Venting elsewhere (i.e., at my blog) ensures that I can always greet her with a smile — and that I can try to separate what she actually needs in terms of attention and care, and cheerfully turn away what she demands, which is impossible for me to sustain.
So thank you for letting me vent. Incidentally, I really do love her and she, bless her heart, poured all her love into me. Since Day One, it’s always been a terribly conditional love, but it was everything she had to offer, and she gave it unstintingly. My Daddy, alav ha-shalom, gave me all his love too, although German orphanages aren’t optimal places to learn how to express that love. I’m a difficult, contrary, opinionated person, but I had the great gift of growing up of knowing that my parents loved me with all their hearts. Smother love, but still love.