Sometimes the greatest blessings can come from the simplest and even messiest moments. That was certainly true for me this morning.
I was looking into my son’s eyes before the sun rose, as he was lying curled up in the fetal position next to me, feverish and miserable with the stomach flu, when he did something incredible. He smiled at me. He maintained eye contact without the slightest bit of embarrassment or shyness, and he smiled. In that moment, I felt a certainty flood my body, a certainty that I’ve never truly felt before. This little guy next to me loved me. He loved me, and in his vulnerable state he loved being loved by me. We were truly connected at that moment. The cacophony of noise and movement outside the doors of our house were forgotten. All that mattered was this little human and his mother. It was a breathtakingly beautiful moment.
In that space of silence, I was suddenly struck with an unexpected insight. This little guy, who so clearly loves and needs his mother, sees me with truly unconditional love. Even in my messy-bun, no-makeup, disheveled-pajama-wearing condition, with bloodshot eyes and wrinkly skin, my son saw me with love. I think in that moment he even saw me as beautiful.
What does my son see in me that I don’t see? And what can I learn from him about the way he sees me?
When we are born we naturally look at our parents as our heroes. Our parents are our guardians, our nurturers, our suns and our moons. We rely on them for everything – food, shelter, protection, education, emotional and physical support. It’s quite natural that if we look toward them for everything, we see them as capable, mighty, strong and even perfect. It’s no wonder that a little child can look at his mom or dad with unconditional love. This unconditional love is certainly reciprocal, as well. I’ve yet to meet a parent that doesn’t claim to love his or her child/ren unconditionally, with a fierceness that they never expected.
If young children adore and love their parents, and parents adore and love their children – why, then, is it so common for those same children and parents to not quite love themselves?
Why is it so hard for us to extend unconditional love toward ourselves?
I’ve been going through some tough times lately with self-love and self-acceptance. My struggles are the reason this blog was born, after all. I wanted to see if I could start to unconditionally love myself, and what would happen if I actually did. In retrospect, it seems as if I was trying to see myself the way my children already see me.
Like many humans, I struggle with guilt and shame over not being the person I think I should be. There were certain things I wanted to have done by this stage of my life that I haven’t quite accomplished (like publishing that darn novel I talk about so often), and plenty of things I have done that I didn’t want to do (like develop a problematic relationship with alcohol). When I look in the mirror I often see not only the physical flaws, like the pesky puffiness around my boring brown eyes, but I also see what I perceive as mental and spiritual flaws. I see my laziness, my self-centeredness, my greed and my inauthenticity. I see my fears. I see the poor decisions I made and the people that I hurt. I see so many wasted opportunities and so much wasted time and energy. Most overwhelmingly, for me, I see myself as a pathetic alcoholic who made terrible decisions and hurt people she loves. I don’t see myself with unconditional love. I see myself with judgment and disgust.
This morning an important question hit me. What am I teaching my child when I look at myself with such hatred?
I think viewing myself with shame and disgust teaches my children a few things, and none of them are good:
- That being imperfect is shameful
- That having a physical or mental challenge is shameful
- That it’s not okay to make mistakes
- That if they make mistakes and try to correct them, they don’t deserve forgiveness
- That they don’t deserve love, unless they never make mistakes
- That they are stupid, or crazy, or deluded to love me
What does it say to my children that I hate the person that they love? They love me and I model hate for myself. That hardly teaches them to love and accept themselves. Instead, it teaches them doubt, fear, insecurity and intolerance.
Like many parents, I’d like to develop an unconditional self-love in my children. I’d like Huck and The Professor to grow up knowing that they are special, loved and unique – just like all the other beautiful humans around them. But this isn’t something I can teach them with words alone. I need to model it. Children learn by watching what people around them do, not just by listening to what they say. When I look at myself with disgust, I am modeling shame, not love. And that means I’m teaching them shame, as well.
It became very clear to me today that I need to stop this destructive pattern and switch the dynamic in our household. My children are relying on me for love, and they are also relying on me to teach them how to love themselves and others. What they see me do is what they will internalize. Right now, they love me unconditionally, with a purity and rawness that is still malleable – if I start right away. There is no excuse for me wallowing in self-pity. It doesn’t serve me, and it doesn’t serve my children.
I have to start forgiving myself, loving myself, and extending grace and compassion to myself. I have to start loving myself unconditionally. I have to do it for my children.
I have to do it for every child that has ever desired acceptance, approval, connection and love.
If we start to look at ourselves the way a child looks at his mother or father, we can light up the world. We are the warriors of our children’s hearts. Let’s start acting like it.