I am full of gratitude for having attended easily the best wedding ever over the weekend. Knowing the bride, I knew it would be fun. But this was truly a magical evening, aside from the love and joy of the nuptials. I had been looking forward to this event because I knew the bride’s friends were very diverse in personalities, backgrounds, and perspectives. I knew there would be a lot of interesting people there.
Turns out they are really kind and genuine people as well. It was a wonderful evening of getting to know new friends and revel in the celebrations. I also finally met the bride’s mother. I have admired this woman from afar for years now. From the stories I heard, and knowing the bride as an upstanding, kind, amazing woman, I knew her mother was strong, smart, kind, and wise.
I think we all know families with mothers like her. She’s the one who leads gently, firmly, kindly. She raises kind children who work hard and make a difference in the world. She creates a happy and joyful family unit. These are the families you want to be a part of, the families you spend a lot of afternoons and weekends with. These are the families who welcome everyone with open arms, the families that exude warmth and acceptance. These are the mothers you consider to be a second mother. The bride’s mother is one of these.
This family is a tight-knit family with the usual sibling rivalries, misunderstandings, power struggles, and tragedies. But this family also stays connected both despite, and in the face of, all of life’s struggles. This mother has shepherded several children, grandchildren, and her own mother and husband through highs and lows, times of uncertainty and times of celebration, and tears of despair and tears of joy. She has done this all with her head held high, a remarkably positive attitude, and a peaceful grace that comes from within.
I was thrilled to finally meet her. We exchanged pleasantries and genuine appreciation for finally meeting in person. The we chatted briefly about our children, and raising children. She said, “You should always like your kids. Always.”
I laughed and said, “I love my kids always, but I don’t always like them.” In her firm, kind grace, she said, “No. You need to always like them, even when they’re unlikable. Through all their stages, adolescence, everything. You need to always like them.”
She wasn’t judging, she wasn’t challenging me, she wasn’t telling me what to do. She was offering me something, but I didn’t know what it was yet. So I told her OK, I’d need to sit with this for a bit. Because I’ve always thought it’s OK to love someone while not liking him/her or his/her behaviors. I try to teach my children that it’s OK to have ambivalent or conflicting feelings.
So here’s the thing. I think she’s right. This is about unconditional loving kindness. This is about offering love and kindness not in the expectation or exchange of mutual feelings or positive outcomes. This is about being love. Simply being love. When kids don’t feel unconditional loving kindness from a parent, they don’t know how to give unconditional loving kindness. They grow up learning to love conditionally. They grow up learning some people and some behaviors deserve love, they grow up loving and expecting likewise in return. This is nice, but it’s not kind. It’s not simply being love.
And kids can feel it, when you don’t like them because they’re acting in unlikable ways. They’re testing us. Will you still have my back even when I don’t deserve it? Can I come back to you when I’ve fucked up? Will you judge or condemn me? I see now the underlying love isn’t enough. There must be the clear message that you’re not there to judge worthiness. There must be the clear message that the behavior may not be appropriate or acceptable, but that you hold space for them in their messiest times. There must be the clear message that you like and love every part of who they are, the messy parts that make you cringe, as well as the appropriate parts that make you proud.
When I’m acting in unlikable ways, it’s usually because I’m wounded or sad or hurt or angry or frustrated. It’s in these moments I most need a hug, a smile, a caress, and space to just be. I’m reminded people who are most unkind to us are the ones who need our kindness the most. It is in this space of acceptance that invites and allows the unlikable to transform.
See, I used to view acceptance as mere tolerance. I see now it’s more than that. It’s love. It’s being love, and thus inviting the unlikable to transform into like and love as well. Tolerance is saying, “Oh look at that. Good for you, but not for me. I’ll take a pass, you can go on your merry way now.”
I see now acceptance is an invitation, “Well hello. Please, come in. Ah, I see it is good for you, and not for me. And it would be lovely for you to stay a while, or leave when you’re ready, either way. But no rush, your company is welcome as long as you wish to stay. May I offer you a snack in the meantime?” Because really, who doesn’t like empathy served with a side of a fun snack?