Yeah, this should be a quick one-off post, right?
What brings this on is a phrase used in Moody’s Hater, wherein the main character, who is firmly established as a bullied and henpecked barrel of nerves, states, “I love my kids, but –“ then proceeds to complain about how painful life is with his kids. How they were all unplanned, how his and his wife’s plans for a house of their own and powerful careers have been shriven short in favor of a tiny apartment in a slummy council high-rise filled with the endless screams, arguments, questions, and responsibilities of three children all under the age of seven.
Let me state a few things before I dive into this analysis just to get them out of the way:
- I understand the difference between real and fictional characters, and I understand that the character Danny speaks in patterns and phrases to cast him in a particular and predictable light in the reader’s mind. One of those patterns may intentionally be an ambiguity in his feelings towards his children.
- I understand that any given fictional character does not speak for most, or even any, of the population of parents.
- I understand that it is no longer fashionable to talk about positive aspects of one’s life. In everyday conversation, 95% of people will only say negative things, or things that will make them appear overworked and/or miserable. I have no evidence as to how often this is actually the case. I understand that as a result of this, any information gleaned from real-life modern parents through conversation may be severely biased by modern forms of speaking.
- I understand that any given non-fictional person does not speak for most, or even any, of the population of parents.
- I accept the possibility that the nature of parental love is completely 100% bizarre, unique and orthogonal to any other known human emotion. However, one of the points of this article is that I do not accept this as very likely at all.
Obviously, love comes in different flavors, and I can only try to understand what the character in Hater means by “love” by applying my own experiences. I have no children, so the kinds of love I’m familiar with are (in no particular order, or perhaps I should say, in a very particular order decided by my subconscious):
- Romantic love (for a woman)
- Physical love (for a woman)
- Love of an animal at a distance (such as at a zoo)
- Love of an animal in contact (such as in your arms)
- Love of a pet
- Love of a parent
- Love of a family member (probably a linear combination of ‘love of a parent’ and ‘love of an animal at a distance’)
- Love of a movie
- Love of a food or flavor
- Love of a religion or a religious figure
- Love of a friend (male and female, young and old)
- Love of a sport or activity
- Love of a song or auditory pattern
(N.B. – I only include interpersonal forms of love in this list. While narcissism plays a very large part in my (and probably your) life, I will refrain from considering it a legitimate ‘form of love’. At least until I get up the nerve to blog about masturbation.)
When I read or hear someone, fictional or otherwise, speak of love of an offspring, the mental construct that I form about the nature of their relationship is some derivative or coagulation of the above thirteen Personal Elementary Love Forms, or PELFs.
Now, we’ve all heard people (in real life) complain about their kids, and in all likelihood a good percentage of these complaints start with the caveat “I love my kids, but…”. The point I’m trying to make is that I were to start a series of complaints about any one instantiation of a PELF with the phrase “I love so-and-so, but…”, I would feel inauthentic and disingenuous applying the word “love” in that context. It would sound like I’m desperate to convince you and myself that, yes, I do in fact feel love. Like there is some doubt floating around somewhere.
So, do parents feel like they are not allowed to complain about their kids lest they be accused of not loving them, so they curtail any accusations by checking off the “love” box at the beginning of the sentence, thus providing carte blanche for the rest?
“I love my kids, but I hope they die in a fire.”
No, see, that doesn’t work. My clever application of the slippery slope fallacy here illustrates that it is quite possible indeed to invalidate the first clause with the contents of the second. And I’ve heard some constructions (some even concerning children) that do this very thing.
So, I pose, the “love” clause is superfluous. It doesn’t help to temper the overall impact of the sentence’s sentiment, and, moreover, it suggests that, since one had to state it explicitly, the speaker was under the assumption that there was some doubt on the matter.
I’m gonna go ahead and take this a step further. Do as many parents love their kids as say they do? What are the odds that the relationship between what are essentially two random human beings is some form of universally recognized organic love, in the Satrean sense? If parent and child were separated at birth, then met coincidentally at some point after that, unaware of their biological relationship, would a relationship be formed that could be called love?
Frankly, I’d say that yes, that’s exactly what would happen in at least 50% of the cases. I’d say that, on average, biology would encourage a certain extent of compatibility between the entities, independent of environment and history. It’s in evolution’s best interests to have this happen.
But what about the rest of the cases? I have the sense that there is at least a sizeable minority of parent-child relationships that are called love by their members and by society strictly on the basis of biology. Let me reassure, I am not invalidating that relationship; in fact, it might be said that I’m strengthening it because I am defining the relationship in terms of empirical and nonsubjective factors, whereas all of my PELFs are kind of formless, undefined whims based on moonbeams and tide cycles. But that is what I have a hard time reconciling with parental love. There just is no precedent in my experience for dealing with love that is in ANY part non-subjective, that is, that is not a mutual choice (at some level).
What if my kid turns out to be a real jerk with whom I have nothing in common? Oh, gee, that never happens, right? Would I still be compelled to say that I “loved” them, although what I would mean is, “This being is my offspring and I will protect them from harm”?
When a child is born, they are essentially a non-human animal for a while, in terms of how they interact with grown humans. So during that phase, say for the first 4-5 days, it’s possible (one might say probable, based on my evolutionary argument above) that our relationship would be similar if not identical to PELF #4, love of an animal with which one is in contact. That kind of love is based on a kind of nonverbal interchange of affection, protection, and completeness arising from body language, eye contact, and pheromones (probably). However, this kind of relationship does not develop with every single animal that I’ve ever held. Sometimes the animal resents my presence and tries to get away. Sometimes it attacks me. Sometimes it is completely unaffected by and apathetic to my presence. As I see it, all of these eventualities are very real probabilities with any small animal, human or otherwise, that I happen to pick up and hold. How much does it really matter who’s sperm is responsible for their presence? Do male parents present some kind of discernible credentials to a child?
And then there’s the possibility that I’ll be the one to do the rejecting. A terrifying thought, as one imagines oneself holding one’s descendent. But a possibility, right? Sometimes things just don’t click, even with animals.
Jump forward 6-10 years. The kid has a personality now. I’ve done my best to form them in my image like any good god would do, but there are trillions of influences on the child’s development, more influences every day. So in many (most?) ways the child is now an independent human being who is nonetheless dependent on me for certain things.
What if we just don’t like each other? What if our interests and personalities just diverge, as sometimes happens between any two people? Or is this divergence almost guaranteed to not happen if I do my job as a father to consciously build a rewarding and reciprocal relationship? Intentionally building a meaningful relationship is hard work, as anyone familiar with romantic love can tell you. Are kids worth that?
It’s just hard to believe that despite all of the questions and variables I’ve enumerated, all of the loving parent-child relationships are totally genuinely love (of a sort). I mean, I’d say that, in this society, 99% of parents would strongly indicate that they love their children. What I’m saying is that maybe the word is being misused. Maybe some of them feel strongly protective and ‘related’ (in a literal sense) to their offspring, and maybe some of them would even still feel this way if society didn’t demand that they do so.
But “love”? Really? All of them? None of these parents, of the “I love my kids, but” school especially, none of them are just using the word “love” because that’s what our society expects to hear? That in fact their children have taken away so much freedom and have introduced so much pain and aggravation, that the emotional benefits no longer outweigh the costs?
But then, what linguistic and behavioral options does such a parent have in our society?
To be continued….