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Relationships • Parenting

Three Kinds of Parental Love

The moment babies are born, their minds are dominated by a powerful implicit question: What do I need to do in order to be loved?

We have to remember that babies are entirely at the mercy of the prevailing environment, and therefore, knowing what exactly the people in this environment want from them in exchange for keeping them alive is central to their very survival. Furthermore, how the question is answered will shape their entire personality and sense of adult priorities; who we are is predominantly the result of what we needed to do to capture and sustain the interest of the people who put us on the earth.

Photo by Alex Hockett on Unsplash

There are broadly three answers to the baby’s question. Let’s go through them in turn:

1. Nothing very much

A certain sort of parent immediately makes it clear: the baby doesn’t need to do anything to deserve to exist. They are allowed to be; they don’t need to do.

Their own needs come first, who they are and what they want is the priority in those early fragile months and years.

From such a base, a child can grow up liking themselves, being in touch with their needs and adjusting to the needs of others without too great a loss of creativity or individuality. They don’t have to do anything extraordinary to feel they are OK; and if they happen to do it anyway, it will simply be out of a sense of inherent curiosity and appetite. 

This is, needless to say, the love we should all want — and have had. 

Then comes another kind of answer.

2. To earn love, you must succeed. 

For a certain kind of parent, the baby’s existence is premised on an enormous requirement. The child has to help the parent to feel much better about themselves, they have to help them to paper over their own inadequacies, compromises and insecurities.

For example, to ward off any risk the parent might be thought stupid, the child has to demonstrate extreme intelligence. To compensate for the parent’s lack of stellar career, the child has to shine globally. To appease the parent’s fear of ugliness, the child has to be blatantly pretty. To ward off fears of dullness and the pull of depression, the child needs to be a cheerful comic. The child is a compensatory object at the behest of the parent’s disguised vulnerabilities. They are not allowed to be shy, hesitant, confused, quiet or unimpressive to strangers — for all this would devastate and madden an already precariously balanced parent.

From such an upbringing, the child will be constantly be left wondering what they can do next to generate applause and acclaim. They will exhaust themselves in the pursuit of a love that should have been theirs from the first.

Then there is a third kind of answer to the baby’s question.

3. To earn love, you must fail

Some children have to succeed in order to be loved; some — even more darkly — are commanded to fail.

There are parents who will only tolerate children who don’t threaten their place in the world. They are not allowed to be any happier, more beautiful or more successful — and if they come anywhere close to being so, a vengeful aggression will make itself felt.

The child understands well enough the rule they have been placed under. They can be expected to grow up with advanced tendencies to self-sabotage and underperformance. If they promise to be beautiful, they’ll be sure not to take any pleasure in their physical appearance; if they are on track to do well at school, they’ll ensure they manage always to fail the final exam. If they end up with a good career, they’ll do their utmost to show their rivalrous parent that it isn’t any fun really — perhaps by developing a psychological disorder that guarantees a demonstrable misery.

Sometimes — even more perplexingly — more than one message emanates from a single parent. The parent swings between wanting a child to shore them up and fearing that they are threatening them. The child will be under pressure to both succeed and fail. There will be nowhere for the benighted soul to turn.

Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

What we can be sure is that anything other than the first message will leave us with a highly complex and unfortunate legacy. We need to be extremely compassionate towards ourselves and the babies we once were who heard such a puzzling and devastating answer to that powerless urgent first question: What do I need to do to be allowed to live?

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