Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Unconditionally Conditional Love

There are different kinds of love, and most of us endeavor to love deeply and healthily. We know that we are supposed to love without conditions, but I am here to admit that for most of us, unconditional love is an idyll, a myth we strive to attain, but often fall very short of. It is more a question that a condition. 

We claim, while in love, that it is unconditional, that there are no rules, nothing that will ruin or end the love we feel for the other person. Here, though, I’m not just talking about romantic love. For me, love is pretty much the same—you show it differently to different people, but it’s all about wanting what is best for the other person, and doing what we can to help them achieve their goals. Love isn’t feeling. It’s action.

But what if the person we are attempting to love thwarts us at every turn? Purposely makes it a daily, often minute-to-minute challenge? Frequently throws out challenges and tests to see how serious you are, how tenacious you can be with your emotional integrity? Or even does things to hurt you—intentionally—to see how elastic the sides of your metaphorical heart actually are?

This is the walk of the adoptive parent. At least the adoptive parent who has adopted older, what the industry calls “special needs,” kids. I have four adopted children and two foster children. (And just a note about that moniker: I only refer to them as adopted children here to separate them from the two fosterlings. In conversations, I just tell people I have four kids of my own, and two foster.) My adopted children all have done, and continue to do things, to push us away, to test the boundaries of our love and commitment to them.

Today, though, I want to talk about Dawn. We adopted Dawn when she was 12, after abuse from her birth mom, and a disrupted adoption due to more abuse. Clearly, we knew she was going to have issues. When we adopted her, the running joke was that I finally had a daughter because Leigh was so clearly a daddy’s girl. Dawn was outgoing and social while Steph is happy to bury her head at home with video games and books.

So when, at 16, Dawn overdosed at school, plead down the ensuing charges to a single felony and misdemeanor, dropped out of “alternative school” and then ran away with a complete loser, I took it harder than Hubby. When she eventually returned home, after a week in jail and stricter probation, things got better. Superficially, anyway. However, after months of swearing that she wanted to go back and finish school and that she was going to be patient and get prepared to be independent, the day she got off probation, she was gone again. In our state munchkins can leave at 17, but cannot be kicked out.

We didn’t hear from her for about a month, and at my last count, she and Dumbass Boyfriend have moved about 11 times since the end of January. When she finally talked to me, I told her that I loved her no matter what, and that if she wanted my help, all she needed to do was ask for it.

Last night, she asked. Someone dropped her off and she surfed my couch for the night. I don’t expect her to be here long, though. She told me this morning (I’m home sick today), that if I loved her, I’d let Dumbass Boyfriend and her shack up in a tent in the backyard until they saved up enough money to get an apartment of their own.

Because she loves him. And she doesn’t want to miss a minute of being with him because when he likely goes to prison sometime in the next six months for up to twenty years, she doesn’t know what she’ll do without him. Because if we really loved her we’d understand that she really loved him and we’d let them be together.

So now, my unconditional love, in the eyes of my 18 year old daughter, has conditions. That condition being that she be allowed to live in a tent in the backyard.

I know in her adolescent brain, she doesn’t see the complete lack of logic, good sense and maturity that makes her parents say, “No, you and your felonious Dumbass Boyfriend are not moving in together in our home with our other children.” (My actual words to her were much nicer than that, but you get the idea…)

I know she is attempting, through her tears, allergy-reddened nose and clearly sleep-deprived face, to manipulate us. After all, we did promise to help her out in her bid for independence. I guess maybe we should have defined, in writing and in triplicate forms, exactly what that help entails. But hindsight is always better than foresight, and if I am honest with myself, I’ve always known she was hard-headed and destined to only learn things the hard way. And, again with the honesty, I’m not even sure what help I am willing and able to provide.

But how do I explain to her that my love for her is unchanged? That my last thoughts each night are still of her, and that my first in the morning are of her, and that I check the county’s arrest website and the local newspaper each morning at work so that I can see if she’s still alive?

Does the fact that my help for her has conditions means that my love does too?  We have occasionally bought her groceries and medicine. I bought her some pants to wear to work. If she’s around, I’ll indulge her passion for Sonic’s cherry-grape slushes. But I’ve only seen her four times since she left at the beginning of January.

Hubby's and my parents have helped us a lot along the way, and I’m sure in that time, neither side thought their child’s mate was good enough. But still they helped. Granted, we stayed at home until we could support ourselves, and have not boomeranged. Nor have we asked to set up bum camp in the back yard.

Does our unwillingness to let him stay here mean that we have conditions on our love for her?  I don't think so, but how can I convince her of that?  How does one separate the love from the conditions by which we live our lives? How do you stand up for your beliefs and values, while attempting to convince your daughter that the kind of people she's hanging out with are not the kind of people to build a life with?

If I loved unconditionally would I allow Dumbass Boyfriend to stay here until they could get a place of their own? If I loved unconditionally would I pay for the first months’ rent on a cheap apartment and tell them they were responsible for the rest? (If for no other reason than to simply end the discussion?)

Or is it because I love unconditionally that I won’t let him stay in home, for fear of what it will teach my other children, or for fear of what he might bring into our home? What are the conditions of love? Of parenting?

And why the hell didn't anyone warn me about all this before I became a parent? 

Nevermind. They did. I just didn't listen.


  1. to me, unconditional love is (amongst other things) loving whether or not i am loved in return. healthy love DOES have limits and boundaries, whether it's parent/child or relationship love. respect is a HUGE factor. i'm rambling and have no answers except you are doing the right thing. you are an incredible mom and person!

  2. I attended a seminar recently by Katharine Leslie, and to paraphase, she said that for our RAD kids we don't "owe them" unconditional love, they don't understand it and they aren't capable of understanding it until they have healed... a lot... and are able to love us conditionally. Instead we have to be unconditional caregivers - giving them what they NEED. At the same time Katharine is also a RAD parent and she says if it makes your life easier - DO IT! Because of their behavior they may not deserve to go out with friends (or whatever), but you need the break. If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

    I probably didn't express that well. I strongly suggest reading her book, Coming To Grips with Attachment. I love it for dealing with my RAD teens, because it makes me feel a lot less guilty, and helps me "coach" my kids to better behavior, because as we know love is not enough, and our kids cannot be treated like "normal" kids.

    Anyway, I did a series of posts on my blog about what I learned at her seminar (and from reading her books), you can search Katharine Leslie seminar if you're interested.

    Mary in TX


If you are an adoptive parent or have one in your family somewhere, talk to me. I could use some insanity that does NOT call me mom!!