A lot of people quote the Bible for the readings at their wedding. Or maybe a famous poet. I chose “The Velveteen Rabbit.”
Original cover, 1922
If you’re not familiar with the story, like in many children’s book, the toys in the nursery talk to each other. Here, the Horse talks to the Velveteen Rabbit about what it means when the Boy calls one of his toys “Real.”
“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you… It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or need to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (emphasis added)
I would like to say that I chose this reading for our wedding vows because it was how we felt about each other on that day.
But it wasn’t.
It couldn’t be.
It was my hope for the future of our marriage–that as we grew closer together, we would start to see each other as Real. That even if I fell apart in every conceivable way, even if I were shattered by life, and had nothing left to offer him–not a rockin’ body or clever wit or a pleasant attitude–that he would still be able to see the Beauty of my spirit. That he could look through the prism of my fractured self and see my colors escaping the other side.
Young us, 2005
I couldn’t think of the words to express this nagging fear that I held close to my heart as I entered into marriage. I didn’t know how to explain it. I mean, I was convinced that he knew everything. I thought that he knew all my secrets. All of my failures and flaws. I was pretty sure there was nothing left to tell him.
But, oh. There was. I just hadn’t discovered it yet.
So let me take to you that night when I became Real to my husband.
It was four days after my daughter was born, a Monday night. I had just finished using the double-breast pump for the first time ever in life. For how long? 50 minutes. (And if you don’t know if that’s a long time, let me tell you–Yeah, it’s a long time.)
And all that agonizing pulling and pumping and pain yielded how much milk?
Half of an ounce. (And yeah, that’s pretty horrible.)
My husband came over to me and hugged me. He helped me stand and I peed all over myself. Because birth. And, oh yeah, my mother and my sister were also there watching this whole messy moment unfold.
So, yeah, talk about destroyed.
My husband helped push me up the stairs so I could have a moment to cry in the bathroom. Once I finally was in the bathroom, I realized that somehow, I was still peeing, so urine puddled around my feet. I turned to see my face in the mirror and I saw this misshapen creature, too-small boobs, too-big belly, dark-ringed eyes, unshaved legs. I was horrific.
I just collapsed on the toilet, buried my hot, puffy face in my hands, and sobbed. And sobbed. And sobbed. When I opened my eyes, what did I see? Someone else’s body. Huge, bloated legs, filled with eleven pounds of fluid. Hives on the backs of my hands. Bruises on my left arm from the IV during labor.
I was so ugly. I was so broken. So utterly and completely humiliated.
And absolutely convinced that this was the day that he would stop loving me. Because how could you love someone so hideous and broken?
And this truly broke my heart–that I thought this was the end of us. That because of my failure to stay attractive and “beautiful” or because of my inability to stay strong, he would see that there was really no reason to love me.
Because why love someone who has nothing to offer you?
I blubbered and blubbered to him. I confessed and confessed shit that I didn’t even realize I was keeping in.
And what did he do?
He gave me the biggest hug of my life.
He put my sloppy, snotty, mess of a face into his hands and said, “I love you soooooooo much.”
And in that moment, I felt an unparalleled grace for the first time in my life. A moment of heaven on earth. Even though I had been reduced to this version of self that was so not who he had fallen in love with–that he could still look at me and say, “I love you.”
I had underestimated him throughout all those years. I never fully believed that if he saw who I really could be that he would still want to spend his life with me. And in that moment, I realized that I finally truly Loved him. Loved-loved. Not, “I love you because you love me so much” love–which is how I had been framing it for years. But rather “I see who you are. All of you. And I love that”–that kind of love.
And I cried even more because I was so sorry that, for so many years, I hadn’t been looking at what really mattered.
What I felt next was like a deep spiritual sigh, settling on the room. No words to describe it, so I won’t try. Just know that I felt that I was having an epiphany, that everything had just awakened and come into view. And then a wave of emotion that felt like these words:
Someone doesn’t love you because you have something to offer.
That’s not love.
Love is when someone loves you even though you have nothing to offer.
So just accept it. Don’t start explaining why you don’t deserve this.
Just say yes.
Before that moment, I had still been building the structure of our relationship on the assumption that he loved me for my looks or my intelligence or my congeniality, or whatever else. I probably said “he loves who I am,” but did I really know that?
How could I know that unless he saw a version of me that was completely opposite of how I had presented myself to him for all of these years?
I couldn’t know. Not for sure.
I could only know for sure if he witnessed me in that rawest state of my being. Only if all the flattering mirrors were pulled away and he could see me from all angles and still say, “I love you.”
But, God, this is difficult to achieve. You can’t manufacture experiences that will lead to this level of openness, vulnerability, and ultimately, trust. It happens organically, just as the Horse said, It doesn’t happen all at once. You become.
I think that if you want to reach this stage in a relationship with someone, you need to be able to recognize the moments when you feel like you are trying to keep them from seeing who you really are–and then have the courage to let them see it. All of it. The whole shitty mess.
I know what you’re thinking–But what if they don’t like what they see? What if they leave?
It’s a risk for sure. There are no guarantees of what will happen. But how would you rather live? With fear that someday your partner will see a version of you that drives them away? Or with the knowledge that your partner has already seen those other sides–and accepts them anyway?
So what about you?
Have you ever been Real to someone?
Because let me tell you, once you are Real to someone, so much unspoken–even unacknowledged–fear and anxiety melts away. And you are finally able to see the other person as just as Real–even when you thought you had been seeing them all this time.
It goes without saying, perhaps, that not all relationships reach this level of Realness. It’s not even a given for marriage. Some couples are not Real to each other–and yet they still see their children as Real.
Why is this?
Parenthood–or care-taking in general–opens our eyes to a deeper truth about love that helps us understand why our romantic relationships can be so much less authentic than the relationships that we have with our kids.
While it was (and still is) important to me that my husband love me unconditionally, it is not nearly as important to me that my child loves me unconditionally. I talk about this a bit in my book, but I’ll briefly state here–that I don’t think I immediately “loved” my daughter as soon as she was born. Instead, I felt that I grew to love her. And that because my relationship with her started as caregiver, the love that I have for her isn’t dependent on whether or not she could show love to me.
Don’t get me wrong–it stings if she says she doesn’t want to hug me. Ouch.
But do I break into a cycle of thoughts about, “Oh no! My daughter thinks I’m awful! I’m such a terrible mother!”
Nope. Not at all.
Because my love for her isn’t reliant on how she sees me. I love her even if she doesn’t hug me or tell me I’m amazing. I love her even if she has nothing to offer me.
And it all started in those first weeks of life.
When I nursed until I broke, when I pulled through hours and hours of sleep deprivation to keep going, as I limped about in persistent pain while recovering from childbirth–I did all of this without a thank you from her, or even an intentional smile.
My relationship with her didn’t start with the assumption that I would wait to see what she had to offer me before I chose to care about her. And that changed the whole dynamic of how I experienced love for her. Instead, I loved as many parents love–all-in and with no guarantee that it will be returned.
But, oh, the tears that come when it is returned. I don’t see it as a given. I see it as a gift. And that is how I stay out of that toxic cycle of thoughts of worrying that my child doesn’t love me.
Because I Love her. Love-Love.
To me, she is already Real. Every part of her. She can never become Unreal.
And maybe someday, she’ll see me as Real, too.
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