I suspect that if hunger, thirst, and fatigue were perfectly mixed, I could be on fire and one of my kids might still ask me for milk. “I can’t do that right now, I’m on fire.” “But I want milk! Pleeeeasssse?” “Ok, Ok, I’ll get the milk and THEN extinguish myself.”
It makes no sense, but it’s the only way our species can survive. It’s as if my love for them was soldered onto my brain like hunger and fatigue. “Did you just try to poke my eye out? Come back here and give me a giant hug.” The fact that they’re cute definitely has something to do with it, but I know they might only be cute to me. As hard as that is to fathom, it must be true because I’ve never seen another child I thought was better looking. I honestly don’t find any other children cute enough for me to even consider being their father — “Nope, don’t like the shape of that kid’s toes.” I’m sure if I actually owned the child for a month or two and let him wipe his nose on my bare thigh while I made him a peanut butter sandwich in the shape of a horse, I would eventually love him as if he were my own.
The ridiculous downside to parenting is clear and visceral: that’s why it’s so easy and funny to complain about it. But how can I explain the upside; that enormous emotional experience, which compels us to persevere? I can say that I love their smiles, and laughs; the way they smell; how they dance, and mispronounce their own name, or become shy on the phone. That list would never end. But why I feel like that is a mystery. Some say it’s the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, but how long can that last? Parents feel like this about their kids even when they’re old. I could shave my dad’s head and cover his suits in John McCain campaign buttons while he slept, and though he would be angry, embarrassed, disappointed and shocked, he wouldn’t stop loving me. That can’t just be a chemical. Someone would have taken its incredible ability to make people act against their own interests and weaponized it by now. “If we spray the country with oxytocin before we bomb them, they retaliate by sending us love letters. It’s the weirdest thing.”
A child does not show love through required acts of giving, but instead through their honesty of spirit. He is too real and true not to be loved, but one must experience that fact relentlessly for the love to become unconditional. And once it’s set, it’s there forever. It’s why parents refer to their adult sons as their little boys even after they’ve become obese Rush fans who live in the spare room and steal their pain meds. Our parents know who we really are. They know what we were like when we first came off the assembly line, before other people, school, work, Wendy’s biggie fries, and progressive rock radio stations started changing us. We’ll always be fresh and unconditioned to them, just like my kids will be to me when they grow up and become just like George Clooney.