Growing up I recall the merits of unconditional love spruiked from the pulpit, school assembly and drying dishes with my mum at the kitchen sink.
"God's love is unconditional, and we should love one another in the same way" I would hear.
And it struck a chord. After all, I wanted to be loved unconditionally - for someone to care for and be captivated by me regardless of the times when I muffed things or was less than stellar. Of course it made sense that I should endeavour to love other people in exactly the same way as I wished to be loved. The classic golden rule at play in the world once again
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (1)
And so I set about to love others unconditionally. It was easy to love my family unconditionally - they are family after all. My brother might tease, my sister might argue, my parents might be (in my opinion) overly strict, but gosh darn it, I loved them all anyway - nothing they ever did in their humanness was more than my love for them could handle in the long term. I was fortunate like that. Not everyone has the privilege of saying the same thing about their families.
However, loving others unconditionally was, and is, in varying degrees, hard. People disappoint. People let you down. People hurt. And people wound. For anyone who was not family, it proved a challenge to release and let go at the times when those things occurred.
But I tried.
And still do.
And always will.
I believe it is the goal, the standard, the ultimate way to live hard though it might be.
So, when my little ones arrived in my life with a flush of pleasurable tugging at my heart strings and wrapping me around their chubby little baby fingers, I felt that loving them unconditionally would be a heady delight for the rest of my days.
Life has wound its way along as a parent for the greater part of a decade now, and after so many moons, my unconditional love has begun to drown in the sea of urgency, expectations and standards that perhaps are not what little hearts and minds most need. Nothing brought this home to me more harshly than the end of the recent school term.
For the millionth time I was yelling at my children about something insignificant in the great scheme of things - the apple cores left strewn all over the lounge room, the missing school boots with ten minutes to spare before we left to catch the bus, or the spilt tub of yoghurt in front of the television ('How many times have I told you NOT to eat on the carpet?!!!!!') I was the ogre from hell - some might say justifiably - but an ogre none the less. Not the calm patient mother I had always imagined I would be. And as I reached snapping point this particular day, I retreated to my bed room for my own 2 minutes 'time out' to re-group and recover from, I hate to confess it, my desire to either slit my wrists or run away and never come back.
I was wishing I had never had my children.
I was hating my life.
Where had all my unconditional love for my babies gone? I detested them at that moment.
It was at this juncture that my children, who had been yelled at by a stressed, overwrought mother who wished them a million miles away, tiptoed gently into my room and wrapped their arms around me, whispering, "We love you mummy, we're so sorry we made you sad."
It was a dangerous move.
I could very well have exploded into "Have you picked up those apple cores yet you messy kids?!!" (It could have been one of those 'regret it later' situations - and if you are a parent, don't deny it - we all have them!)
But I didn't react that way. I was, really, too flabbergasted. The risk those kids took to come into my room and say those words, considering the state I was in, was enormous. It could have backfired horribly for them. The complete lack of love they had been receiving from me only minutes prior, turned into a mother speechless, teary and full of hugs for these amazing little souls.
I had always thought I was supposed to be the one to teach my children what unconditional love looked like. In that moment, I realised the majority of the time it is my children who demonstrate the most unconditional love in my little family, by a long shot. My children, much more than me, know what it is to love unconditionally - regardless of the grumpiness I dish out, the impatience, the irritability, the downright unattractiveness of their mother - they love me anyway.
I am humbled.
Completely humbled by this revelation.
I guess, when I was a child, I was the same way towards my parents too. And I have no doubt that little children in the most horrific of families, in the beginning possess love for their parents as well. I might even go so far as to suggest that even Hitler probably started out as a loving baby, who through various life experiences turned into a monster. I believe unconditional love is wired into children, and a double dose goes to blessed children who are raised in safe, nurturing homes.
This is why I really struggle with those old fashioned conservative religious types who believe everyone is born sinful or bad. (A BIG topic for another time) My observation is continually the opposite. My kids are just exploding with love. Sometimes it needs guiding. Sometimes its expression is a bit skewed. But deep down, love is at their core. We are 'made in God's image' (2). We are the stuff of the universe and in every corner of our soul exists love, or the potential for it, especially in the very beginning .....
"for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God" (3)
That day as we shared a quick cuddle before racing off to the bus, I received an altered vision of the world. The yoghurt could be cleaned up. The school boots could be replaced for the day with some black converse sand shoes. The apple cores were not going to cause world war three if they remained on the lounge room floor for a few minutes longer. But my children deserved love no matter the circumstances. No matter my aggravated state of mind. No matter what.
Sweet relief to me, I realised that my children's presence in grumpy mummies' bedroom that morning meant good things too. It meant that deep down, my children know that they are loved unconditionally. Phew !
(1) Luke 6:31
(2) Genesis 1:27
(3) 1 John 4:7