A friend of mine died several years ago, leaving an eight-year-old daughter. Due to the father’s work situation, this girl has lived with my husband and me, off and on, for going on eight years.
I still let God know, every now and then, what I think about this. A girl needs her mom, in fundamental, crucial ways. Moms need to stay around. The wrongness of this loss cannot be expressed without screams and obscenities.
I never tried to be mom to this girl, because I knew I couldn’t come up to the golden standard set by the real mom. I didn’t want this child to think that I thought her mom was replaceable or that I deserved the kind of love and respect her real mom deserved.
Still, even with no mom, mothering needs to happen. So over the years I’ve tried to do everything a real mom would do—from tucking into bed to making rules and enforcing them, from being silly to sharing sadness. It’s been an interesting kind of love. It had to be a love that made few demands for reciprocation. It had to be a hands-off kind of love—and yet it had to be a love that held her securely.
Actually, this is the kind of love that any parent must learn. I knew from the get-go that this daughter did not belong to me. But I hear women all the time speaking about the hard lesson of allowing their children to be their children but not their possessions. A woman gives birth to a child that formed from her own body; yet that child is a person separate from her, one who will develop her own style, likes and dislikes, passions, and priorities. At some point, any good parent understands this and turns loose.
But what happens when the love begins in this posture of turning loose? How effective can hands-off love really be? When must a parent or parent-figure stake a claim and hang on? When is it—if ever—appropriate to make demands?
So far, it has been a dance, sometimes an awkward dance, at least on my part. It seems that there is no one time to turn loose or hold on but a progression that involves both. Some days are hands-off days; other days the door must be breached and direct questions asked and the parent must stand there in the room until the daughter reveals her heart and allows discussion.
I like to call this gradual love, because it’s the real thing but grows over time. It goes its own way and forms its own landscape. Forgive me for saying something so predictable, but this landscape is, for me, holy ground. It is where two people decide, from one moment to the next, how much information to offer, how much emotion to invest, how widely to open their lives to each other.
It’s gradual love, dynamic and unpredictable. But also, intense enough to change your life, sometimes every minute of the day.