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Can We Really Love Our Children Unconditionally?

This year, my two oldest sons asked me to sign them up for piano lessons. For reasons that a therapist might be better placed to untangle, I decided it would also be a good time for me to take up the piano again, after 30 years.

“Man hands on misery to man,” Philip Larkin wrote in his chirpy-desolate poem “This Be the Verse.” In our house, this transfer now happens with predictable efficiency on Monday afternoons between after-school pickup and dinner.

Every week, our teacher, Jaren, comes to our home to give us each a lesson: First me, then 12-year-old Solly, then 9-year-old Zephy. And every week, those 90 minutes feel like a Russian novel unspooling in my mind, a sweeping multigenerational saga charting the handover of hope and pain and love and terror down from parent to child.

I had my last piano lesson as a child when I was around their age, sometime in the late ’80s. I can still conjure up the chemical overload of my teacher’s after-shave — synthetic floral with a base note of trickle-down economics. Overpowering, but not quite able to drown out the background scent of my mother’s expectations.

As a child, I learned not just the piano, but the cello. I played in two orchestras and sang in the school choir. No one forced me to do any of it, but it wasn’t quite a free choice either. When you are the approval-addicted daughter of an overinvested mother, no one needs to apply force. My mom and I were well matched partners in the dance of unspoken expectation and validation-seeking. I did her forcing for her.

For my mother, my musical industriousness wasn’t so much about achievement as identity. She was American by birth, and after marrying my university professor father and moving to London, she spent a decade working to be accepted into the snippy, fraught world of British intellectual society. This was a culture full of invisible class-markers, of snubs and tripwires and baited traps. Tiny blunders could mark you as “petit bourgeois” — saying, for example, “serviette” instead of “napkin” or “lounge” instead of “sitting room.” Or serving tea in a mug (except, of course, for the times when serving it in anything other than a mug would be a ludicrous pretension).

In this environment, a diligent daughter lugging a giant cello was a tiny smidge of cultural capital, a ticket to belonging. As much as anything could, music made me into the person my mother needed me to be, so that she could be the person she needed to be, in order to escape who she actually was.

And for my part, although I never truly believed that my mother’s love was conditional, I did have the nagging suspicion that there was a performance-related bonus in there.

It was foolish to think that taking up the piano at the same time as my own children would be emotionally uncomplicated. Or perhaps the complication was exactly why I sought it out. Freud called it “repetition compulsion.” While claiming we want a drama-free life, we instead end up hunting down our most torturous patterns over and over, like heat-seeking missiles. Somehow, the piano lessons turn me into both my childhood self, seeking my mother’s approval, and into my mother herself, putting the same heavily freighted expectations on my own children.

My mother was lucky, in that I was temperamentally suited to the role she assigned me. My sons are not so much so. They are rambunctious and fidgety, not wired for lengthy sessions of sitting still and reflecting well on me.

Or perhaps for them it’s not an inability but a choice. My eldest son, Solly, sniffs out my neediness and pushes back hard. Usually sweet-natured and polite, on Mondays he becomes surly and tight, pushing ancient buttons. He replies to Jaren’s perky questions in curt monosyllables. “The only music I like is meme music or video game music,” he announces, both sulky and gleeful at the mortification he has unleashed in my soul.

Jaren does his best. He is joyful and attentive, balancing out the French minuets and Swedish fugues with songs from Imagine Dragons and the theme tune from Super Mario Bros. But even joyfully taught piano is hard work. And even harder than mastering the piano is staying focused while your emotionally bristling mother high-beams her issues from the next room.

Practice is excruciating. Jaren has assigned Solly the task of singing and playing “Home on the Range” for three weeks in a row. Solly has a fair amount of musical talent, and he should be able to do this easily. But it has become a battle of wills.

Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam, he sings, resentfully. He hits a wrong note on home.

“Um, I think that might be an E?” I bleat, in my faux-casual voice, jaunty with an undertone of desperation. Solly senses the age-old demands embedded in the words.

He lets out an “URRGH” and turns back to the keys.

Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word

He looks pointedly in my direction.

People say that being a parent is like having your heart walking around outside your body. But it can also be like having your reputation, your basic self-image, running rampant out there, too. Our children are our tiny deranged ambassadors, without the prospect of diplomatic immunity.

Unconditional love may be at the defining heart of parenthood, but sometimes it can feel impossible to reconcile unconditional love with the tawdry machinations of day-to-day parenting. The whole job seems set up for conditionality: It would be disingenuous to pretend that we have no stake in wanting our children to reflect our own values and preferences. Sometimes the basic task can seem like an impossible contradiction: to both accept your children exactly as they are and also spend 18 years working to turn them into something fit for purpose in the wider world.

Given the familiar guilty exhaustion that the phrase “unconditional love” evokes in me, I should have sniffed out that there was some sexism buried in the idea. The nagging sense that this emotional requirement is both essential to everyone else’s well-being yet impossible to achieve in practice certainly seems to be drawn from the file labeled “Unachievable Expectations Placed Mainly on Women. ”

And so it was. The concept is believed to have originated with the German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1934, as a way of distinguishing the unwavering, selfless love of a mother from the inherently more conditional love of a father, whose love needs to be “earned” with good behavior and success.

Although Fromm stressed that these were “ideals” and not necessarily how any individual mother or father feels, the gendering is hardly incidental. It’s no coincidence that Fromm didn’t refer to those types of love as, say, A and B.

American parenting philosophies tend to fall into two basic camps, a split that my friend Yael sums up as “Participation Trophies versus Tiger Mother.” Most of us lean a little in one direction or the other. But somehow, they both kind of miss the point. We contain both impulses within us, and many more. Parenthood isn’t a strategic direction or a position statement. It’s a complex, constantly evolving relationship between two unique humans. Ambivalence — the push-pull of love and hate, of self and other — is an inevitable part of all meaningful human relationships.

Rather than burying these contradictions in shame, we might do better to hold them up to the light, and examine them with honesty and self reflection. It’s when we fail to look at things that we do the most harm.

Embracing complexity should benefit our children too. As the British psychoanalyst Roszika Parker argued, a mother’s ambivalence is not just inevitable but also desirable, helping her respond to her child as a separate person, not just as an extension of herself.

I still like to believe that there is an essential truth to unconditional love, a demented devotion that we have for our children that endures independent of anything they do, or anything we feel in any given moment. But conditionality is the grist.

The demands that we place on our children to meet our own needs are the very force that powers through the generations, urging us all to keep going, to put it right. We go from parent to child, responding and bristling, correcting and overcorrecting. Our own foibles are the engine propelling our descendants to push forward, to choose life.

I’m disappointed when my sons won’t play their role in the script I have written for them, but deep down, I’m also a little thrilled. They are maddeningly, gloriously resistant to the pressure. A secret part of me is delighted by their raging demands for full personhood — beyond my projections and hopes and fears. By the life they claim.

The next night, I sit beside Solly as he hammers through verse 3 of “Home on the Range.”

I stood there amazed, and I asked as I gazed,

Does their glory exceed that of ours?

He hits a wrong note on glory. It’s a work in progress, as we all are. I love him. I bite my tongue.

Ruth Whippman, the author of “America the Anxious,” is currently working on a book about raising boys in the age of #metoo, misogyny and male rage.

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