Why do we love our children so much, anyway?
Seems like a stupid question. Nevertheless, it occurred to me during yesterday’s bike ride.
Of course, I’m new at this, so perhaps I’m the wrong person to ask. I’ve only been a father for a little over a year. How is it that I lived all that time without my son, but now I don’t know what I would do without him? As much as he needs me, it’s entirely possible that I need him more.
In this regard, I’m already finding that “love” is a hopelessly inadequate word to describe the situation. It’s way beyond that. Nor is it even a feeling per se. Of course it includes feelings, but it seems much more existential than that.
So anyway, while pondering the question, the following words popped into my head: “He is the foreground of your background, and you are the background of his foreground.”
Ummm, is that you, Petey? Could you repeat that?
Nothing. As usual, just the vapor trail of his present absence.
Not coincidentally, just before my bike ride I had begun reading a new book I’d been waiting to dive into, Thinking, Feeling, and Being, by the Chilean psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte-Blanco. Although generally unknown even among psychoanalysts, I believe Matte-Blanco is one of the most illuminating thinkers that ever lived. Unfortunately, like another one of my influences, W.R. Bion, he probably won’t be accessible to the lay person. Don’t worry. That’s my job.
Matte-Blanco’s ideas are so fruitful and far-reaching, and yet, he has very few followers. Like Bion, he doesn’t so much tell you what to think as provide a new way to think--including how to think about thinking.
I’m going to move the argument along here, so I will just say that Matte-Blanco’s key insight was that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious actually represented the discovery of an entirely different mode of logic, which Matte-Blanco called symmetrical logic. This is in contradistinction to the normal “daytime” Aristotelian logic of the conscious ego.
Freud observed that the unconscious displayed various distinct characteristics that defied normal logic. For example, two entities could occupy the same space (e.g., your wife might be your mother or child), or two different times could be copresent (e.g., your adult and child selves might be side by side). What Matte-Blanco realized was that these strange attributes were possible because of the symmetrical logic that governs the unconscious mind.
Now, back to the question of why we love our children so much. As I mentioned above, for me the whole thing is so intense that it’s pretty obvious that fatherhood has introduced me to vital areas of myself that were dormant before. They were there--they had to be there--but they were unlived. They were in the background--the “unthought known,” as the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas put it. Call them “thoughts in search of a thinker,” or feelings in search of an object.
But there’s that banal word again, ”feelings," that doesn’t really do justice to the situation. It is much more like part of me--a very large part--was “unborn” and given birth by my son. The child was father to the man. But not really. The child was father to the child, that is, to some part of myself that was forged and forgotten in my own childhood.
Why forgotten? For the same reason that my son, although this is the most intense and formative time of his life, will forget all about it. Our interaction couldn’t be more intense and animated, and yet, he won’t remember a thing.
Consciously. All of it will form the background of his very substance, a background that will be the context and container for his being for the rest of his life. But he won’t “know” it as an object until he becomes a father. Only then will he realize how much he was loved, because the father (and mother) who loved him so much will be reborn in his baby. His symmetrical background will have become his asymmetrical foreground, and only then will he really understand what Mother’s Day is all about.
As Kramer once exclaimed, “Mother nature’s a mad scientist, Jerry!” But it makes sense. We would be psychologically crippled if we loved our parents as much as they love us. We can really only rediscover the intensity of their love in our relationships with others.
I’ve been an orphan now for quite awhile. My father died when I was 29, my mother six years later, before they could be reborn. But their eyes are looking down on me. Or rather, up at me. And down on my son. In that supercharged space in between, you finally get it.
Which is why I can’t repay my son enough for what my parents gave me. That'll be his job.