“You complete me?”: The problem when birth becomes a romance
by Sharon Tjaden-Glass
In a different post, I wrote about how love isn’t what mothers feel in those first days of motherhood. I asserted that what I felt when I first saw my daughter was not love—it was euphoria. And that euphoria faded.
When we say things like, “I loved my baby from the first moment that I laid eyes on him,” we drop ourselves into the familiar roles of a Westernized romantic narrative, where the mother is delivered, redeemed, and fulfilled by the child.
1) It’s love at first sight.
2) You are soulmates, meant to be mother and child.
3) The child completes the mother (but does the mother complete the child?)
This is how Westerners tell traditional love stories. Romantic love is the pinnacle of life, a kind of self-actualization. Snow White comes to life when her prince kisses her. Kate Winslet is saved from a bad marriage by Leonardo. Julia Roberts is delivered from her life of prostitution when Richard Gere parades in his limousine with flowers to win her back. (Or how about when he delivers Debra Winger from a lifetime of factory work?)
Through romantic love, a woman is resuscitated, rescued, and whisked away into a life free from financial obligations.
Some romances have moved on and allowed the female protagonists to have high-powered careers and what appear to be fulfilling lives. Until the plot reveals that something is missing.
Oh yes. A man.
Children are often viewed through the same lens. Great marriage. Great house. Great career. Still—something missing.
Instead of viewing children as additions to life, they are sometimes seen as the pieces that fill the gaps. Children become solutions, even comfort.
But those who have been married and who have children can look back on these narratives and find them laughable.
Marriage? The solution to all my problems? Ha!
Children? Complete me? Ha!
We can laugh because we know what happens after the couple marries or the baby is born. We know how the plot continues to march on—in clunky, messy steps. With unexpected, unrewarding, and unfinished twists. There are no more clean arcs to the action. It’s a sticky, messy web of conflict that sometimes has no good solution. Or at least no solution from which everyone benefits.
It is far less glamorous.
It is the stuff of heavy, ponderous dramas that leave you sapped of energy. And no wonder—it’s reality. Just the thing we are trying to escape by watching a movie. Love still exists in marriage and parenthood, but it is all exposition. It’s no longer the conflict, the thing that everyone is watching to see what will happen next. It’s the comfy sofa in every scene.
But through popular media, we unconsciously develop expectations about marriage and parenthood—even if they are unreasonable and impossible to sustain.
Sometimes, romantic love spurs us to believe in the existence of God or the inherent goodness of people. There is a God! I knew it! It’s destiny! We were meant to be.
This is dangerous, too. Because what happens to that belief in God when the relationship ends?
If belief comes from your heart, what happens to that belief when your heart is broken?
What happens when your destiny turns into… a mistake?
God no longer exists. People are no longer good at heart. You are no longer a person worth loving. And you will never find another person who will love you so deeply.
With so much resting on the shoulders of “love,” it’s no wonder so many of us get divorced. Such heights don’t exist without the valleys, and it’s only a matter of time before we find them in our relationships.
Like I said, this line of thinking is dangerous—for how we view marriage and for how we view our children.
If our children are responsible for our life’s meaning, what happens if tragedy befalls them? What if—God forbid—our children die? Does our life’s meaning end?
Having a child isn’t meant to follow this same narrative of love. It’s unrealistic to expect a child to “complete” your life. “Complete” makes me think that you were missing something before they came into your life, when—let’s be honest—before you had a child, you may have felt like things were going just fine. It may have felt like everything was in its right place. It’s only after the child is born that you have this thought of “What have I been doing my whole life?”
When we try to rewrite our stories with our children as the saviors and redeemers of our lives, we raise them to such a height that they are bound to disappoint us. We put ourselves in the center of the universe, and we imagine how the child will grow from our amazing light and energy.
So perhaps it’s healthier to put the child at the center of the universe, where we are replenished by the warmth of our child’s love?
In both of those models, someone’s needs are forgotten. Either the child doesn’t reflect the efforts we’ve invested or we expect our children to be more emotionally rewarding than they really are.
Instead, it makes more sense to acknowledge that you are both traveling, following different orbits, perhaps even warmed by different suns. Sometimes, your paths intersect, you sing in harmony, you see a bit of yourself in your child. Sometimes, your paths are distant. Their actions make no sense to you. You wonder how you can love someone who can hurt you so much.
But in this model, when your child strays, you don’t wonder what you should have done to “complete” them. Nor do you bemoan their distant, remote paths as a reflection of bad decisions as a parent.
Yes, we love our children. But let’s also be mindful about what that love means–and what it doesn’t mean.