What I have learned about love

If you learn your first lessons about love from your parents, then my first lesson was that it was a burden. An unwieldy thing that someone was always asking you to carry, making as if it were a gift, one that you had not asked for, but that you had to learn to tolerate anyway. My mother draping herself over my father, grabbing at his face and trying to draw it closer for a kiss. My father pulling away, lamenting the assault, laughing as his neck strains away from her. Me, four years old and wretched, because I would have to wait another year before going to school. My mother saying, “But you get to spend another year with me!” and her face when my wailing started anew. Me, now 13 years old, devastated by the cruel behaviour of a friend, my mother trying to convince me that, “When people push away your love, you have to love them even harder.”

No one, I quickly learned, ever loved and was loved in equal measure. The women, desperate to be recognized, screamed and begged for love, never holding back, even if it looked desperate, certain that one day, someone — anyone — would surrender. To be a woman in love was to scrabble in the dark, your fingers fumbling for something that is just out of reach, your eyes straining in the dark to make out its form, the back of your neck damp with the fear that you may not find it. Meanwhile the men, so bent on control, kept demand high and stocks low. There was never an apology offered. Their unflinching rebuff so convincing that you could be forgiven for questioning whether men could feel love or even need it. Together, they played out the economy version of love. There were few demonstrations of affection. No gifts were exchanged. It’s enough that I work to bring home money.

Also, the conditions for love in our house were stringent and rigidly upheld. School grades had to be high, obedience came with a zero-tolerance clause, chores needed to be done now, my leash was very short, play and imagination were discouraged, disappointment and guilt were frequently used as prods, and criticism was seen as an expression of care. I was so buffeted by my parents’ demands and fears, that love became this other thing that I had to earn and manage.

And like so many other things in the lives of immigrants (my theory runs), love is an unattainable thing, forever out of reach, no matter how hard you work to earn it. My parents, now in their 8th decade, are comfortable, but they don’t stop pinching pennies or expressing outrage at the cost of shoes. They created their prosperity by working hard and practicing strict discipline, and they continue to deny themselves even the smallest pleasure, blind to this new reality because scarcity is the only currency they understand, spiritually, physiologically, and mentally. It’s the only experience they know. That comfort and prosperity — and love — remains always out of reach feeds into the beliefs and fears that have fuelled their actions for years. And yet love, unlike those other things, has always been there. They have always had it, but they don’t see it, don’t understand that it’s not a burden, but something to help lift the burden.

In our house, love was (and always will be) a fucking mess. A tangle of “too much” and “not enough”. A power play in which no one wins. I don’t doubt that my parents and brother love me — or that I love them. But at some point, my subconscious made a decision between clamorous need and cool tolerance. On one side, I saw: anxiety, powerlessness and domination. And on the other: respect, power and independence. On one side, I saw love as scarcity and a source of grief. On the other, it was a frivolous thing that, once secured, was mostly taken for granted and only exercised when more pressing concerns weren’t creating a fuss.

Reader, I fucked up, I followed the fear. I kept it cool like the men, but I still ended up experiencing love as scarcity, as a source of anxiety and grief. I deep-down hoped for affection and quietly drowned in tears when boyfriend after boyfriend refused to hold my hand in public. I sacrificed myself to keep others happy only to end up neglected, empty and starving. Yes, I have also been a selfish creature, so wrapped up in my own projects, so unaware that something was expected of me, that I forgot to cultivate relationships in all the small ways. But none of this helped me hack my way out of drama, as I had (so innocently) hoped it might. No one ever told me that I could not escape the mess. And no one ever explained to me that I shouldn’t want to.