Unconditional Love, Elucidated
“Food, water, shelter, and unconditional love. Those are the four basic requirements of children,” pronounced the cheerful Attending Psychologist at the Center for Foster Care Health. Though tall, Mike looked too young to be an authority on much beyond dorm life, much less to be guiding makeshift families in crisis. “That’s it,” he finished, as if he’d imparted a simple pancake recipe.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” I said, chimpanzee-like. I raised my hand, though only my husband and I sat before him. Our eight-year-old foster son, Ben, was down the hall with crayons and a nurse. She’d given me a scanned copy of the stick figures he’d drawn here five years ago with a different foster mother.
“Yes?” Mike pointed at me, as if picking me out of a large audience.
“I’m sorry, but I need a definition of unconditional love!” I yelled over the helicopter touching down outside our window on the landing pad of the hospital where the Pediatric Trauma Center was located. “I hear that term a lot, but what does it mean? Exactly. I have no idea, anymore.”
Normally I would have been too mortified to call attention to my incompetence, my missing the boat on the instinctive stuff that comes with pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. “Poor mothering skills,” Mike might note on his report, adding to Ben’s 2,000-page social services file. Foster-adopt mother doesn’t know the meaning of unconditional love. What harebrain licensed her to care for a kid?
But it had taken months for us to be slotted into this specialist’s schedule. I couldn’t hold back now: He could be the one to tell me what I needed to know, to give me the key to preserving our tenuous family. His askew bowtie projected harmless. It had to be for the kids, but the crooked knot worked its clown magic on me, too, emphasized by his higher-than-expected-voice and the awkwardness of his long legs cramped by a classroom-like chair.
“I mean, isn’t all love conditional, if we’re honest?” I babbled before he could respond. Didn’t I place conditions on loving my spouse of over two decades? Richard must limit himself to seven banjos and, God help me, one accordion. He must not leave the gas tank or toilet paper roll or Saltine’s box empty. He must remember my birthday.
Didn’t we expect women to leave abusive partners? Weren’t we teaching Ben that his love should be conditional? That he should be treated with respect by those who professed to love him, unlike the biological parents who had mistreated him? That those he loved in the future should expect to be treated better than how he treated us? That, no matter the humor in his calling my thin husband a “fat bitch,” Ben’s other parroted behaviors were conditions no healthy relationship should endure?
Two years with Ben and the foster care system had muddled all my ideas: wasn’t the notion of unconditional love a crock of malarkey we’ve smeared all over ourselves like pricey anti-aging face cream? An unrealistic concept propagated by the likes of Nicholas Sparks and Disney and Eleanor of Aquitaine?
We placed conditions on Ben every day. Despite the happy stuff—nightly hugs and weekly hotdogs at the farmers market, teaching him to ride a bike, bounce on a pogo stick, and swim—on most days we felt we were running a boot camp. To keep him out of the secured group boys’ home—a step down from juvenile detention—that he came close to being sent to during his first year with us, we implemented a zero tolerance policy on infractions. If he couldn’t stop slamming his door, the door came off. If he couldn’t stop throwing his toys, the toys were removed. When he was caught stealing, we cut the pockets out of his jeans so he had nowhere to hide smuggled goods. We kept to a strict schedule, even on holidays, since he did better, understandably, with consistency. Not what our rose-colored glasses had envisioned parenting would be in the fourteen years it took us to finally have a child, this child, the boy we’d envisioned adopting since the day we met him at a Kids Fest, where kids needing homes met couples desperate to become parents. Ben dropped his pizza, tripped and fell a few times, and sized us up with the crossed eyes nobody had addressed. We fell hard for him. Though there was a long line for the curly-haired girl toddler, nobody else wanted Ben.
For foster parents, the state had exact definitions regarding food—we could never, for any reason, skip a meal for our little monster. No bed without supper. We had exact definitions of shelter: a minimum of fifty square feet of bedroom space. We had exact definitions for proper bathtub mats, water heater temperature, haircuts, certified fire extinguisher class, posted exit routes, safety ladders, smoke detectors, outlet plugs, furniture positioning, car inspection, pet vaccinations, and unacceptable yard receptacles that might hold water.
But what was unconditional love? His counselors and therapists, his social workers and teachers…all were unified in telling him that his behavior must change. As is, he had learned he was unlovable. Eleven other families had not loved him enough to keep him.
Now Richard and I were dragging our heels on adoption proceedings. When we described Ben’s issues to an adoption lawyer, she urged us to delay finalization for as long as possible. Let the state remain responsible for a child who couldn’t safely be left alone with other children. “Do you love him?” she’d asked us. Into our long pause she answered, “You love him,” her brusque demeanor softening with the sagging of her broad shoulders as she observed our faces.
Our inability to commit to Ben forever, to be legally responsible for his actions, is why an understanding judge had sent us to consult with Mike. The state was chomping at the bit to either unload Ben onto us permanently or move him on to another foster family who might adopt him, though the odds were unlikely with his history and increasing age.
None of this seemed like unconditional love—this calculated decision by us, this being a cog-in-the-wheel of a system that needed to move Ben to a different column in a database.
In response to my question, Mike didn’t probe or belittle my maternal ineptitude.
Neither did he give me a definition of unconditional love.
He gave me a story.
He had another patient, about Ben’s age, also a foster son placed with a couple who planned to adopt him. Mike had spoken extensively with the excited father and child about the adoption plans; the mother didn’t attend the meeting. All that remained in the adoption proceedings were formalities. Paperwork. Like us.
When Mike next saw the child a month later, the boy was accompanied by a different man. Though a mother had been mentioned, Mike thought perhaps he’d misunderstood and that two gay fathers made up the adoptive couple.
But, no. There had been a mother. She and the boy had quarreled, and the boy had scratched her arm. He was sent packing that night. The boy had returned to Mike with a new foster father.
“That was conditional love,” Mike said. “But, unconditional love means that, no matter what he does, he knows that you still love him.”
Unlike that vanished mother, I was quick on my feet around Ben, though I was otherwise nimble as a fireplug. Ben had never managed to punch or kick or spit on me, despite his halfhearted efforts, though he’d socked his last foster mother in the stomach because his bathing suit didn’t fit. I had never allowed myself to be scared of him and his understandable fury—I was his twelfth mother; why wouldn’t he be angry? I had decided that when he would someday certainly top me by over a foot, I would never cower. I would be a powerhouse mom with superpowers, like my own five-foot-tall mother, who had vision from the back of her head and could swat us in the back seat of the car while she safely drove a stick shift without ever turning around. Ben had seen women harmed and belittled and intimidated, and I was determined to remap Ben’s notion of how women should be treated—more conditions of what love should look like.
After Mike’s anecdote, I felt an overwhelming sense of validation and relief. I was a mother. The essential true and right thing I had done was not give up on Ben. Not when he lied, broke things, urinated on the rugs, endangered other children, and threatened to kill me.
We had considered giving up on him. Every night after Ben was in bed during our first few months with him, my husband and I poured ourselves stiff drinks and debated in low murmurs: Should we call our social worker the next day and say we couldn’t do it? The question itself was killing us. Biological parents didn’t get to ask that question, although I’m sure at times many would consider a trade-in.
One night while we sat cross-legged in bed with our tumblers, I decreed that we would not permit ourselves to ask that question again until Ben has been with us for one year. We will keep him for a year, no matter what, no matter how bad it gets.
Taking the question—the doubt, the vacillating, the back and forth—off the table took away the easy safety raft of being able to pass him on to someone else. By placing it out of reach, we’d focus instead on staying afloat.
On the one-year anniversary of Ben’s move-in with us, his anger had vanished. He’d chosen on his own to call us Mom and Dad instead of our first names, and we forgot to revisit the question. But two years later, the foster care designation remained our life preserver. We had lacked the faith, in ourselves and in Ben, to cut it loose. Ben had changed, but we were stuck.
Unconditional love meant that seeing the trauma center’s drawings from three-year-old Ben had colored over my qualms with indelible ink. Unconditional love meant that I’d known the moment the nurse had handed me Ben’s drawings from five years ago that his artwork would henceforth be only on our fridge, and not tucked into the next stranger’s purse.
Jennifer D. Munro’s blog won First Place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Top Ten Finalist in the Erma Bombeck Humor Competition. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Salon; Alaska Airlines Beyond; Full Grown People; Literary Mama; Brain, Child; and the Seal Press anthology The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty and Body Image.