As my children are adopted, they don’t look like me (and luckily for them haven’t inherited my funny feet).
I look at them with love (of course) even though I can’t see my physical resemblance in them – or perhaps because I can’t.
So I am free to pile on the praise about how beautiful my daughter is (skin deep) because she has this gorgeous soft caramel latte skin, as compared to my paler shade, that these days tends to blotchy and red (and wrinkled). Her inner beauty, genetic, nurtured and uniquely her own, shines through when she smiles – although I don’t like it when I see my frown on her face. I wish life hadn’t taught her to frown.
My son (IMHO) is the cutest three year old with the most captivating smile that shows off his perfect teeth. He gets told he’s cute at least a dozen times a day. Clearly he looks nothing like me.
I wonder sometimes whether in reaching out to connect with them, minus the genetic link, I look harder for the things in my children that reflect who I am.
As they grow into their own identities, I worry about them clutching to find the common ground amidst the differences that are spelled out in our faces, our races, and the personality differences adolescence will inevitably only accentuate.
I worry about those negative things about myself that I don’t want to see staring back at me.
(I know I worry a lot – for those who don’t know, long years of infertility, eight failed IVF cycles, an ectopic pregnancy and years navigating the adoption system will do that to you).
It’s only human to seek ourselves in others, especially those we love – a reconfirmation that we ourselves are lovable.
And when people rub us up the wrong way, they hold a mirror for us to examine the things about ourselves that we’d really like to change. The things that most annoy us in others are the very things that we need to change most about ourselves.
But still we search for our own reflection, to remake people we love in our own image. And this isn’t love – or it’s not unconditional love anyway.
Too often we try to twist people to our own end – to look in the mirror, like Snow White’s evil stepmother to find our own reflection – even when it’s ugly. This is vanity, narcissism rather than genuine self-love which would never seek for others to be the lesser in order to justify who we are. We are not made more beautiful by denying the beauty in others.
And sometimes, when we keep searching for our own ‘faults’ in others, it’s really a form of self-sabotage – a means to try to ‘remind’ ourselves that we are unlovable rather than do the hard work of self-acceptance, or a means to try to convince ourselves that we really aren’t that bad to avoid the hard work of change.
We can only truly love ourselves when we face ourselves on our own terms in the mirror, not in how we compare ourselves to others.
We can only truly love others when we allow them to be themselves, as Thich Nhat Hahn says: ‘You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.”
We love others truly because they complement who we are, just as we complement who they are. This is yin and yang, contained within a circle of love.
When we give others the love that is embodied in the permission to be their own unique selves we extend ourselves the same permission. We give ourselves freedom. We love ourselves unconditionally.
I wrote these lines in my ‘memoir’ reflecting on the magic of meeting our daughter, who I try to give permission to be free to be herself every day (although if she could just by tidier that would be great)!
“Unconditional love is a love that joins, not shackles. It is a love that unites, not trusses together. It’s a love that inspires and motivates, not compels and obliges. Unconditional love does not force itself and demand loyalty, nor does it seek exceptions or make excuses. It is not contrived by circumstances, but is constant regardless of them.
To love unconditionally is not to have to try hard, but to try as hard as you possibly can. Always. Forever. Unconditional love, given and received freely in perpetuity, can forge a permanent bond, can weave an invisible red thread that will never break.”
This is the love that Thich Nhat Hahn speaks of – a love that does not seek to change or bind others, and so connects us deeply. A self-love that allows us to be ourselves. Go give and receive of such love and be free.