“I Love Him Too Much!”
More than a decade ago, my daughter was involved in her first serious relationship and was experiencing the initial blush of romantic rapture. I was living in the Caribbean, and over the phone, I detected the caution in her voice. I listened attentively as she haltingly confessed that she might love her boyfriend too much. I knew how difficult it must’ve been for her to make such an admission to a mother, who never countenanced sentimentality and whose tendency was to dispense the harshest of advice when a milder dose of maternal elixir would have sufficed.
I heard myself saying that it was impossible to love anyone too much (although I wasn’t quite certain myself). And of course, following up with a caveat: I said the tumultuous break-up, to make-up trope, she might observe with her peers or hear in songs and movies, was not love. The Stylistics’ plaintive lyrics of the 70s, had been my first-hand source of knowledge on the topic, and I warned her that breaking up and making up was truly “a game for fools”.
Together, we deconstructed specific relationships with a huge portion of subjectivity on my part. We talked about setting boundaries and outlining things she should not accept from any man. We discussed the importance of retaining her individuality and maintaining her friendships while having a boyfriend. I warned her not to give up anything she cared for to be with this young man or any man. I recalled asking if she felt his feelings matched hers, and she hurriedly agreed. For a woman who never thought anyone was good enough for my daughter, I was charting a new and precipitous course.
She was 22 years old, and up to then, I had never had to seriously share her with anyone, not even her father for more than a few months each summer. A few days later, when I finally spoke on the phone to this interloper: this gruff-voiced phenomenon, who in my opinion, bordered on being supercilious, I was jealous, but I told myself he annoyed me. She was ambivalent in her desire for us to meet, since for most of her life when I didn’t like her friends, she unwittingly ended up changing her feelings toward them. She didn’t want this to happen; yet, she longed for my assessment of him. For my part, I was also conflicted. On one hand, I wanted her to have someone she could rely on, spend time with, and share the vagaries of young adulthood; yet I knew I would rue not being the dominant star in the constellation of her life.
From a young age, I had allowed her to travel abroad and within the USA, alone. She had independently selected the college she would attend and had moved hundreds of miles away from home. Now, I had to withhold my judgment and interference and allow her to undertake this journey of womanhood on her own. I had to respect her choice of boyfriend, letting her move emotionally away from where I had her tethered.
So, one afternoon in June, I locked the door of my bungalow in Barbados and flew to New York, to meet this person. I took them to lunch and observed my daughter’s relief as I partially suspended judgment. His wit was sophomoric, his table manners acceptable and he seemed without guile. Surreptitiously, I scrutinized his appearance. He was the male version of her, a son if I had one: tall, handsome, lean in stature, with shiny black skin. When I told them they seemed more like siblings than a couple, they snickered. Maybe that was my way of accepting that my daughter was “grown,” a young adult, yet subconsciously I wished it weren’t so. Before returning home, I performed my final post mortem telling her he was immature, bordering on silly, and that that type of silliness could unwittingly cause great pain. Several weeks before my visit, her father had spoken to him from a continent away. Later as parents, when we dissected this person, I swore never to divulge to our daughter that her father didn’t like him.
Over the course of the relationship, he turned out to be artful, skilled in machinations that her callow psyche could not adequately match. When she discovered his ultimate betrayal, the explanation he proffered couldn’t be digested. Within a few days of this perfidy, she would be in Barbados, bereft and shellshocked. We would swim in the sea, drive through the countryside, and eat fresh fish, but she was sad. And I let her be sad.
Always the child to listen to advice, she promised not to have any contact with him for six weeks. I cautioned her that even when the involuntary need arose to call him, to talk, to seek an explanation for what had happened, she could not give in. She could miss him. She could crave his voice, his very presence. But I paraphrased my grandmother’s sage remark: she could “never be a dog returning to its vomit”. I wanted my daughter to know that as a young woman, she should never be with anyone who had caused her such deliberate pain. To me, it was like an experiment he had initiated to gauge her threshold for hurt and disrespect, and in the future, he would increase or decrease the pain as needed. One weekend, several years later, he would come to town, and she would bring him to visit me. I still held a grudge, and as I stared directly into his eyes, I told him the perverse need to pistol-whip him had never left me.
Ten years later, she is married to someone she regards as her soul-mate and who is the complete opposite of that man-child. With him, she can be as whimsical or as reserved as she pleases without censorship. They communicate. In our daily conversations, we wax from the existential to the humorous to the apocalyptic. Yet, we always touch on the importance of being kind and honest, and how to remain autonomous and self-actualized while being someone’s friend, wife, or mother.
Since I’ve never lived with any man for an extended period of time, my relationship advice might be without merit. Nevertheless, I hope as my daughter ages, she continues to keep her word to herself and never betrays herself. In other words, may she always remember that no relationship is more important than the one she has with herself. No standards are as important as the ones she decides to live by. Individuals should never cleave to the idea of romantic love at all costs, even to the debasement of their dignity. It is possible to love deeply and yet leave, to go on to encounter a love that is kind, respectful, and life-sustaining.