I was once married for 24 years and nine months. I knew at the quarter century mark, I’d have to stand up to say the time we had spent together was the best a man could hope for, that I’d do it all over again. You hear guys say they were lucky to have found such a woman. I knew I couldn’t do it.
Interspersed among those years were some good moments—I’d raised a son to adulthood, largely defining me as a man—though, my overall matrimonial experience was a nightmare. I couldn’t celebrate it, not in the least. Our friends knew of our challenges. I also realize it was not all her fault.
I was raised by parents who stayed together. It was in a different era to be sure, the baby-boom. They raised nine children to adulthood, out of ten pregnancies in twelve years. My mother died at home a few years ago, surrounded by all her adult children reaching out to touch her while she lay helplessly in the hospital bed we’d set up in her living room. Her husband of sixty-two years held her hand and whispered sweet reassurances to her as she went.
Throughout their long marriage, my father was a diminishing force. First, he beat booze, giving it up when I was just a boy and attending meetings for decades. Not enough, his uncertain sense of self—inherited and formed from ancestors and upbringing—became a weight too great to bear. It left him weakened, violent at times, needy and distant. Eventually, his burn-out led to early retirement.
Yet, for all his troubles, my mother stood by him. These people were my avatars for love. With 33 meals a day to cook, ma was busy. Overwhelmed is a better word. The baby girl before me had died. The boy above my dead sister had bronchitis. The sister after me was sickly but survived. Our eldest, my remaining big sister, tells me these two took up a lot of my mother’s time. I was born at nine pounds ten ounces, the big, fat, happy baby, and left in the crib, the back of my head flattened from the hours alone. Ma later said she couldn’t get me to turn often enough.
I had a hard time with toilet training. I needed more attention than ma had to give. I didn’t stop wetting my bed until grade two. Attending a French school as an Anglo where I didn’t understand a word, I felt further disconnected. It was during this time I realized my dreams of pissing meant I was probably doing it at that very moment. It became my signal to get up and go, and I defeated it thereafter. I became a lucid dreamer.
I remember yearning for my mother’s approval. She was tough on me about toilet training, oft-times berating me, accusing me of having accidents on purpose. My remembrances the stuff of Freud, it made me need her more. I called for her in the night sometimes, or I begged her to lie with me at bed-time. It was so I could feel her reassurance before the lights were turned out and darkness in the cold of my parent’s basement prevailed.
I don’t blame my mother for she did her best, providing just enough loving encouragement to make me think more was in order. It was she I turned to for every need. She was indeed my north, south, east and west. With my father absent in the early part of my life sailing the seas for the navy, I had only ma. Even when my father refused further postings and promotions for the Armed Forces so he could stay with us, we still had only ma.
That’s the thing about children: they experience families physically.
Without the cognitive ability to evaluate the world with intelligence or morality, lived emotional states are locked into the child’s body forever more. In fact, this is what feelings are: predictive responses to circumstances based on your databank of experiences. These are only corrected after-the-fact by the social reality at hand.
A baby has few emotions in the beginning, added to as it lives with more complexity. No two of us feels the same thing. There are no basic feelings; there are only shared experiences which give us a semblance of what another feels.
The brain relies on interoception through the tenth cranial nerve—the vagus system connected from the skin and organs to the brain stem—to discern the body’s needs and prepare your best emotional state. It’s done faster than you can think, on a best-guess basis. I suspect what lies locked away in your body by way of methyl groups from your ancestry, and emotional states from your history, constitutes your soul. Add in mankind’s collective unconscious and the soul triumvirate is complete.
These influences carry over into adulthood for all men. The need to belong is universal in humans. All of us have a part of our being which fears we may not be good enough, and because of this, we may not be loved. Some of this might be innate, but much of it comes from our first relationships. Attachment to others is critical to survival.
Darwin said: “Natural selection will never produce in a being any structure more injurious than beneficial to that being, for natural selection acts solely by and for the good of each.” And as my old prison pen-pal Conrad Black often says, “Self-interest is paramount.” Despite her efforts, mother cannot help but attach conditions to her love. The self-centered child cannot see this clearly.
In observations over many years, I’ve heard enough behind the scene curses from mothers displeased with children to know their elevated status as virtuous and blessed with infallible loving is only partly merited and mostly unrealistic. In fact, it’s an ideal, and it’s not in any way restricted to women. Men also love their children to the best of their ability and come up short. Daughters are affected too. No one becomes a parent with anything but good intentions.
And so, you may say, we don’t marry our mothers. Well, that’s the problem, we must. On some level, family of origin influences are bound to carry over into adult relationships. You see, we exist in each other. It’s not enough to say you are over there and I’m over here; indeed, if we spend time together under each other’s influence, a part of you will remain with me.
Most men, subconsciously that is, without even realizing it, believe our partner will love us unconditionally— like we may have thought or wished we were being loved by our mothers.
While normal for a child, as an adult it’s an irrational belief, a transference of a childhood pattern where mother is all-powerful and we crave her acceptance. As we grow through childhood and into adulthood, the hope to be loved unconditionally is imprinted upon your soul, seared and branded there as if your worth depended upon it.
Of course, all your disappointments are driven by expectations, and this is one your adult partner can never meet.
Kind of an impossible quest in many ways, decidedly an unfair burden upon her and the relationship. It results in living up to a preposterous model she can never satisfy, and which should never be fulfilled. Furthermore, and more importantly, it keeps a man a boy.
I wish I knew this then. It may not have changed anything in my marriage… but it may have. What’s important is this: I know it now. Missus is not my mother. Heck, even my mother was no saint. My expectation I’d be loved unconditionally in my first marriage meant I didn’t show up as powerfully for my woman as she needed. After all, I was me! I’m a great catch, right? We’ll emulate my parents!
Nonsense. A man who believes his woman should love him unconditionally is giving into his boyish need to be loved by his mother. Cute for my five-year-old, not much more than pathetic for a grown man.
It was in his book, Iron John, where Robert Bly writes the keys to a young man’s freedom lie under his mother’s pillow. He must steal them from her while she sleeps and escape the comfort and confines of her castle, turning his back on safety and embracing danger and adventure as his own man. It is only from venturing out from under his mother’s watchful gaze can a man find himself and learn to live without her.
Once gone, he must never return. He must leave boyhood behind for good.
This is what lies at the root of many a man’s weakness around his woman. My missus is a lot like my mother. Many of her traits I find quaintly familiar, but only now after many years together. Attraction is like that. It’s programmed deeper than awareness, based on familiar neural pathways like other emotional states, it can only be corrected by the social reality before you. If men are anything, they are adaptable.
My woman is not my Madonna. She is no saint and holds no perfection though at times she is perfect for me. As an intuitive woman she may seem vast and as deep as an ocean, but she can also be as shallow as any bog, a swamp of wants, demanding in her needs.
Remember Darwin’s counsel. Your woman is completely unrelated to your family. She is not at all kin until you make her so through your children and history. I don’t advocate becoming a trader in your relationship, with every deed bargained for like shopping at the butchers. No. Not at all.
It is enough for a man to repudiate once and for all the notion of unconditional love. To see it as this: clinging to a childish expectation you will be loved no matter what. No again.
There is no respite from earning your way in love just as in life. There is no coasting, relying on an emotional bank account too easily overdrawn. Who keeps that ledger? Taking the metaphor further, it’s far better to make regular deposits, and let compound interest do its thing.
As ma used to say, “there’s no rest for the wicked.”
I know she meant that in the kindest possible way. Or did she?
© CKWallace Nov, 2018 all rights reserved
Christopher K Wallace
Advisor & Mentor
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Ma with me at the Governor General’s for our coat of arms unveiling in 2012
I have her nose.