My sister’s article: Can We Really Love Our Children Unconditionally?

Have I mentioned before that I love having a sister who’s a writer? I get to read really well-written stuff, bask in a certain amount of reflected glory, and every so often I get these extraordinary and delightful moments of seeing some detail from my childhood brilliantly reconstructed and deconstructed by the person who shared it.

Thus, in her latest (1) NYT guest essay Can We Really Love Our Children Unconditionally?, she writes about having to navigate the expectations of a middle-class intellectual family. Or, more specifically, a middle-class intellectual mother’s expectations with regard to music lessons:

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. […] In this environment, a diligent daughter lugging a giant cello was a tiny smidge of cultural capital, a ticket to belonging.

….OK, that explanation for the music-related maternal expectations never occurred to me, probably because it would never have occurred to me that my mother saw herself as having any difficulty fitting in. She’s a woman well described by the phrase ‘the kind of woman who never met a stranger’, and from my earliest memories she was part of our street’s community in a way that my introvert self can only look at with awe. My sister just shone a new light on a detail of my childhood.

With regard to the ‘unconditional love’ question, I do feel the need to say that this is not something I ever worried about; my mother is unconditional maternal love embodied. But the levels of complexity in this issue are, again, something Ruth has summed up perfectly:

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.

And she also sheds beautiful light on the whole concept of unconditional maternal love:

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. ”

Perfect. I know I’m biased here, but I do recommend the article.


(1) where ‘latest’ means ‘a month ago because I’m terrible at getting anything written’, so, um, sorry about that.



  1. Katydid says

    Your sister’s piece is behind a firewall.

    I do agree with the bits you’ve quoted; that unconditional love can be performative, and that it’s expected of mothers. My mother raised her kids throughout the 1960s, and she said more than once that if the kids were alive at the end of the day and the house was still standing, that was the mark of a good mother. Once the US economy tanked in the 1970s and more and more women went out into the workforce, the demands placed on them grew ever more stringent. It wasn’t enough that the children were alive and fed; they had to be overachieving in every area. The house couldn’t just be tidy; it had to look professionally decorated and white-glove clean at all times. And every meal coming from the kitchen had to be a gourmet feast, else the mother was an utter failure.

  2. says

    As a father, I always felt that I was expected to show unconditional love for my kids. While so many expectations and burdens are one-sided, I don’t see this particular expectation as being one of them.

  3. says

    Well, my mother’s is/was very conditional (but outsiders would never know), so I tried my best to do better by my kids. They are smart people and questions like “will you always love me” have come up and I decided to answer them honestly. There were very few things that I can think of that would make me question our relationship. Being a nazi of any variety would qualify.
    Though, you’re right: the bar is a very different one for fathers. For professional reasons, my husband is away Mo-Fr. He’s still more involved than many fathers, and him doing routine stuff is seen as great sacrifice and expression of paternal love.

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