Written April 5th in Princeville, Hawaii. Ida Luna is 10 weeks old.
On Love and Obligation
I have experienced two new realizations about love lately.
One is that I have never felt love anything like this before. This full, this large, this deep. It is not intense in the way that falling into romantic love is intense – like a bonfire, like an explosion. It is, rather, a slow flame that can’t ever be extinguished. It feels as though it comes burbling up from a fuel source deep inside my body and beyond my body (I think people call that the soul) and it fills me up, fills my head and face and chest and gut. I love this baby with my heart splayed open. I love this baby with my hands held open, always ready to pull her to my chest, to respond. Which brings me to the second realization…
I think that love and responsibility come from the same source. They’re intertwined in a way that makes them feel like the same emotion, the same physiological and psychological and spiritual process. My obligation to Ida, to meet her needs and let her know always that she is loved and safe, to stimulate her brain and make sure that she is healthy and strong and smart, my obligation to follow her through all of her growth and protect her and teach her the skills to protect herself, this feeling arises in me just as the feeling of love does.
Although this is my first time feeling this so strongly and certainly my first time being the primary person responsible for any child, I have encountered this nature of responsibility-love before. As a third-grade teacher, I felt a deep debt of responsibility to my students, and I loved them. I suppose I shouldn’t have played favorites in any way, but I couldn’t help but love most those who needed it most, those for whom I felt the most responsibility to offer help with socio-emotional and academic needs. Especially S, who would run to my classroom crying because the children in her classroom bullied her and she would fight with them, S who eventually just joined my class even though she didn’t speak Spanish because I made sure that my students treated her with respect and that she could learn in peace, S whose grandmother beat her and then punished her after I reported it to Child Protective Services. I loved her the most because her soul was radiant and full of kindness and hope despite everything, and I loved her most because I felt the most responsibility to her. (Little 23-year-old me, I wanted to adopt her, but it wasn’t an option.)
This love–responsibility feeling is something born out of our evolution as a species. Empathy, compassion, and protection of the young is a requisite for our survival. As I heard a biologist once say, it is “survival of the kindest.” It is produced by pregnancy, by the prolactin and oxytocin that flow through us as we labor and give birth and breastfeed and hold our babies to our chests, by the hormones present in our partners and family members who surround our children’s birth and early life, by the hormones and impulses that can be produced in anybody—blood kin or not—who cares for a child.
But obviously, that isn’t all. If that were all, everybody would be a responsible parent (well, except that high intervention birth and formula feeding do, on a population level, place some barriers between many parents and these natural processes—nothing impossible to overcome, but a formidable issue). We have to be well enough cared for ourselves and with the resources to offer such care to children. Our brains, if they are too damaged by our own childhood torment or by drug addictions or severe depression, struggle to produce those same impulses. And we have to be equipped to translate those brain/hormone messages into action; that is, we have to be supported in our roles as caregivers, with knowledge of successful and culturally-affirming parenting passed on, with practical and emotional support available, and without an endless torrent of competing demands placed on us by a callous economic system. There are, unfortunately, many things historical, political, economic, familial and intergenerational, that interfere with this love-responsibility feeling for children and being able to put it into action. And of course, even when we do try to put this into action, we will mess up in all sorts of ways. Lord knows I can attest to that –especially as a teacher. Or we will do our best but the messages we receive about how best to raise children places contradictory demands on us (this is what I am going to write about next). We are up against a lot in caring for children, especially in countries with a high degree of inequality.
This means, I think, that part of this love-responsibility feeling for my baby Ida Luna must extend beyond her and add to my motivation to undo the many barriers that stand in the way of good parenting and healthy childhoods.
But for now, for these last two weeks of maternity leave that we are spending here in Kaua’i, my focus will simply be on feeding and connecting to our baby girl as much as possible, filling her body and brain with a sense of connection and security, holding her to my chest as she is right now, asleep, and observing this well of love that keeps burbling up. (Okay, admittedly, I am also reading a book about trauma and addiction, and also working on getting back in shape, but Ida attachment is my main focus).