I don’t know where that quote came from, but Randa shared it with me several years ago; I think it came from an article she was reading. Perhaps it was even a chapter title?! I love you madly, he said self-consciously. I loved it. And I thought about it recently while I was reading Caitlin Flanagan’s article in the September 2009 Atlantic, entitled “Sex and the Married Man: How Helen Gurley Brown Inspired a Generation of Home-Wreckers, and Brought Down John Edwards.” At one point Flanagan is describing the scene from a funeral she once attended of a teenage boy who died in a car accident. She’s described the bereaved family’s inability to emerge from the car at the graveside, and the brother’s struggle to shovel the first clot of earth onto the casket. She reflects, “I’d known the boy well — he had been a student at the school where I taught English — but I hadn’t loved him. In fact, I had never loved anyone yet, because I was years away from having a child of my own, and until you’ve done that you’re just guessing about love, gesturing toward it, assuming that it’s the right name for a feeling you’ve had” (90). This quote has nothing to do with the actual point of the article, which became lost to me after I reached this point, largely because I closed the magazine and quit reading. I’m interested in Elizabeth Edwards; I read her first memoir in which she talks a little bit about her son dying in a car crash at 16 in 1996. I’m drawn to that story because my own brother died in a car crash at 16 in 1991. But at that point I realized I had no more interest in reading what Caitlin Flanagan had to say. I’d become annoyed with her because she was making an argument that I have grown quite tired of hearing over the years — an argument that privileges parenthood over all other states of being, and glorifies parental love in a stunning and absurd way. I’m not discounting the love of a parent for his or her child. At the same time, I’m not privileging it either. I am not a parent. I have very little interest in becoming one (beyond agreeing to become a godparent 10 months ago, but who ever expects *that* responsibility to become anything more than a monicker — which is not to say that I didn’t take the decision seriously before I made it). I am not a woman; there are certain things I will never understand.
But I am a surviving son of two parents who, like the Edwardses, lost a child. I’m a brother who stood graveside and, while I didn’t shovel dirt into the hole, can still relate. I’m a grandson, a spouse, a friend, and an uncle for an ever growing new generation of hopefully intelligent, creative, funny, and compassionate human beings. These are different categories from being a parent, but no less significant.
Parents will surely argue with me. That’s fine. But I think it’s largely an argument born not out of an actual quantifiable difference in one’s ability to love, but rather out of a desire to privilege the choices that parents make so that they can feel better about having made them. Because it is a choice.
You chose to marry the person you dated in college and settle down at 23; I chose to play the field and met some interesting people whom I didn’t always care for!
You chose to settle close to your family; I moved far away. You took the first job you were offered out of college, have a good retirement plan and plenty of savings; I changed jobs a lot, will probably work until I am 80, and lived in Europe on credit. You chose to have a baby and become a father or a mother; I chose to move to a new city and go back to school.
These aren’t necessarily Caitlin Flanagan’s choices, although hers certainly differ from mine. But difference is not a value judgment. Some people don’t understand that, and so I get to hear friends (who are parents) tell me that my life “must be so exciting,” and how “nice it must be” to take weekend trips and be able to afford to eat organic and shop for myself and sleep late on Saturdays … often with an expression that slightly condescends to someone they suspect can’t possibly understand what sacrificing those things — what real responsibility — must look like, and mean. And then, of course, I get to read people like Caitlin Flanagan, who privileges her own ability to love over mine. (And while I’m waxing cynical about this, it’s important to note that I don’t hold a candle to the gripes my straight married childless friends can claim; they’ve got it rough!)
But like these other choices, loving is a choice, too. It is a direct action, to love. We don’t have to do it. But when we do, when we choose to put ourselves out there in an effort to love, no matter who or what the recipient of that direct action, the quality and caliber of my love should not be diminished because my choices differ from yours. Parental love is a different kind of love, sure. But it isn’t necessarily better.