Why we tolerate love that hurts
The week before I turned four, my mother’s mother passed away after battling breast cancer for a year. She’d had a cold she couldn’t shake for months, and she was a smoker which didn’t help, but the cold turned out to be breast cancer and eventually it spread to her lungs. The end was swift. My grandmother - my Nanny as I called her - was my mother’s best friend. She was with us every day - either she’d come to our apartment in Manhattan, or we’d go to her place in Jersey City. I have shockingly good memories of her, considering the short time I got to have her in my life, which goes to show that early childhood experiences matter more than we might realize. She was affectionate and quick to laugh, she smelled like roses, she kissed my whole face every time I saw her, her lap was my favorite place to be. She made me feel safe and loved, unconditionally. My mother was beside herself when she died. On top of that, my mom and dad had been veering toward an ugly divorce fueled by his incessant infidelities. They’d kept up appearances for my Nanny so that she wouldn’t have the added stress of knowing her twenty-eight-year-old daughter was going to be a single mom with a four-year-old in New York City, or that she’d be mourning the loss of her mother, her husband, and the dreams she’d had about her future, all at once.
This was the seventies. My mother had gone to Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, known for its requirement that every student wear white gloves and type at incredible speeds, dress for the job they wanted, and learn to comport themselves with poise and respect no matter who they were addressing. My mother had been out of the workforce for a few years, she’d quit her secretarial job toward the end of her pregnancy with me, and was a stay-at-home mom until her life imploded. She got another job as a secretary quickly after my dad left, she was the quintessential Gibbs Girl. She and I stayed in the apartment on West 85th, an apartment I still return to when I head to New York City. My dad moved about fifteen blocks away. My mother told me many, many times that my home was with her, but I would be visiting my dad. In all reality, they had fifty-fifty custody, which meant each week I’d spend four nights at my mom’s then three at my dad’s, and the following week it would be four at my dad’s and three at my mom’s. I could never keep track of where I was going, I just knew I missed my mom. I even missed her on days when I’d spend the night with her, because often, she’d go out on dates.
My mother was exceptionally beautiful, and she set out to find a new husband. I think in her mind that was the only way she felt we’d be safe and have some kind of security. This meant that the majority of the nights I was with her, I really only had her for a couple of hours after preschool ended at 5pm, and before she headed out the door around 7pm. Once in a while she’d be exhausted and she’d stay home with me, and those were the nights I lived for, the nights where we might go to the coffee shop on the corner for dinner on the way home, or Burger King a few blocks away because she had a craving for their fries. I would have gone anywhere she wanted. Getting to spend time with her felt like going to the carnival or winning the lottery. Even if she did fall asleep on the couch while we watched tv later, I would stand next to her and stare at her face, the face I loved more than any other in the world. I’d look at her long, dark hair, and see her eyes moving underneath her delicate eyelids. Sometimes her lips would part. I’d watch her breathing, her chest rising and falling, her long fingers interlaced loosely and feel so much love for her in my little body, it almost felt like too much to hold. Often she’d wake up suddenly and get upset with me for standing there like a tiny stalker, but I was obsessed with her. I desperately wanted her love, affection, tenderness, approval, interest. She felt out-of-reach to me.
On the nights she had dates, I felt a crushing sadness that was as difficult to contain as my love for her. I would know because she would start walking briskly toward home, no talk of the diner or Burger King. I’d know, but I’d ask anyway and she’d tell me that Emily was coming to babysit, or Jane, a teenager who lived upstairs. She’d say it in a cheerful voice, like it was a happy thing, but I could feel the tension underneath it. The sitters were nice, but I would feel an immediate pit in my stomach, especially if it was my first night home after being at my dad’s for days. I also knew if I cried she would get furious, and the little time I’d have with her would be ruined. I tried to control my voice and my face, to manage my disappointment along with the tiny, tiny voice inside me wondering why she couldn’t save her dates for the nights I was with my dad.
We’d go home, and she’d get in the shower. I wasn’t allowed in the bathroom when she was showering because she liked her privacy and was never one to walk around naked, even in front of me, even when I was little. So I’d sit cross-legged outside her bathroom door, on the floor of her bedroom and listen to the shower running, wondering where she was going and with whom, and whoever this stranger was, why he was more important to her than I was. Sometimes she’d answer my questions, tell me the name of the person she was having dinner with, and sometimes she’d shoo them off and tell me I’d know something if there was something worth knowing. Once she was dry and had a bra and slip on, she’d open the bathroom door and let me watch her blow dry her long, curly hair until it was straight, and put on her makeup. If she was in a good mood, she might let me put on one of her dresses and wear a pair of heels she didn’t wear anymore while she was getting ready. It would be almost like we were getting ready to go out together. Other times she wasn’t in the mood for all that, but she’d allow me to stay in her room and quietly watch her getting dressed, turning to look at herself in the long mirror one way, then the other. I’d always tell her she looked beautiful, and she always did.
This was usually the moment the sitter would ring the bell, and this was when the sadness and the dread would start to build. It would get harder for me to act like I was okay. My mother would require that I behave like I was happy to see the sitter. She’d usually give instructions about whatever I was going to have for dinner (Kraft Macaroni and Cheese), what time bedtime needed to happen (8pm), and the name of the restaurant and phone number in case of emergency. Then she’d go back to her bedroom to add jewelry and perfume. If she was in a good mood, she’d spray a little on me, if she wasn’t, she’d tell me I was being rude, and to go back and talk to the sitter. Then she’d leave. This was the part where I couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I’d cry. I tried so hard not to cry, I’m sure it added to the eventual outburst of grief. I didn’t want her to leave. I didn’t want her to want to leave. I wanted her to want to stay home with me. She would become angry, though I’m sure her anger was fueled at least in part by guilt, and probably by my dad who had put her in this position. Now nights at his house were spent with his newer, even younger girlfriend playing checkers, reading books, watching reruns of The Odd Couple and The Honeymooners. Unless the night was interrupted by a phone call from one of the other countless women my dad was seeing, in which case his girlfriend would spend the night sobbing in the bathroom.
My mother would tell me not to cry, and remind me that I was going to have a fun time with the sitter. If I couldn’t keep it together, she’d pull me into the other room and say I was behaving badly and was surely making the sitter uncomfortable, and I needed to stop, right now. Her eyes would get wild and I’d realize I’d gone too far, and I’d tell her I was sorry. Then I’d make her promise to kiss me when she got home, even if I was asleep, which I always was, no matter how hard I tried to stay awake. I’d ask her to “wave from the window,” and then she’d walk out the door of our kitchen and I’d go running to the window seat in our living room and clamber up so I could see her leave the building, before she headed toward West End Avenue. She’d look up at me and wave and I’d press my little face so hard into the window I can only imagine what it must have looked like to her, and I’d let my tears spill because I didn’t think she’d see them from there, and so I’d be crying but smiling and waving and blowing kisses and she’d wave back until she couldn’t anymore and then she’d turn and walk down the street, out of sight. And then I’d have the long and miserable night ahead without her.
Those nights lived in my bones for decades. That feeling of wanting her love and attention, of wanting her to choose me, shaped the person I became. I learned to doubt my worth and to accept whatever scraps of love I could get with a smile on my face, even if I was dying inside. I learned to be polite, while devaluing my heartache. I learned what other people needed mattered more than anything I might need - forget about want. I learned to try to hide my pain behind a smile. I learned asking for what you want makes you selfish and exhausting.
Come As You Are is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I took what I’d learned into my adult relationships, disastrously. Twice I mistook the first three months of hormones to mean I was being loved, cherished and seen, and when the whirlwind died down and the person became less interested or disinterested or casually cruel, I didn’t leave. I became that tiny version of myself, accepting scraps, smooshing my face against the window. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t pretty when it happened and it isn’t pretty thinking about it, but it’s real. I had relationships with a couple of people that almost did me in so completely, I’m lucky to be here, writing away.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have childhood wounds. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t questioned their own worthiness, wondered what they were doing here, felt like they weren’t enough, or tolerated treatment far below what they wanted. It seems we all do this at some point or another. If you’ve ever cried into your pillow at night, if you’ve ever felt such immense loneliness you thought your heart might literally break, if you’ve wondered whether you’re ever going to find someone who really sees you (and loves you, anyway), you’re not alone. If you feel alone, you’re not alone. Maybe you’re the rare exception who had such an idyllic childhood, you have no lasting self-doubt, but if that’s you, please identify yourself and tell the rest of us what it’s like. The huge majority of people are going to struggle, but most of us struggle quietly, thinking everyone else is okay. Parents are only people. People don’t get everything right every minute of the day, nor is everyone equally prepared to take a newborn, defenseless human and love them wildly until they’re on their little feet, and well on their way toward personhood. Longing is normal, not getting everything you want is normal, not knowing what you’re doing some of the time is normal. Having a hard time doing anything at all some days is normal, too.
Chances are, we all have those child versions of ourselves - the hurt, scared, confused, scraped-knee versions - running rampant through the hallways of our subconscious. Depending on the day, how much sleep we’re getting, whether we’ve just been ghosted or devalued and then ghosted, whether we have the job of our dreams or not, whether we have the home life we thought we’d have or not, and whether the store did or did not run out of our favorite peanut butter, the scared kid version of any of us might rise to the surface at any time. Someone we know just had a great thing happen - a fabulous promotion, an engagement, a new baby, a bestselling book - and the scared kid inside might lose it. Why not me? What’s wrong with me? Will I ever get there? Did that person just take my place in the sun? Will I ever be loved like that?
Even if the rational part of me knows no one else can take my place in the sun because there’s only one of me and one of them and the earth is big and the sun shines whether we’re here or not, I can still have those moments of wondering why I’m being rejected, or obsessively replaying a conversation to figure out what I missed, or dwelling on something outside my control until I just want to pull a blanket over my head and call it a day. Sometimes I think one of the many reasons yoga became so popular in the United States over the last few decades is that there’s a nice, needed, intentional rest at the end. It’s like nap time when we were in kindergarten, and we could all use more of that. Even now, as an adult, the world can feel like an overwhelming and scary place because it often is. Taking a rest once in a while is life-giving, and being kind to yourself feels more essential now than ever before. Things we’re being asked to normalize aren’t normal, and rebelling against those requests is sane.
The other thing that’s sane and necessary is to realize the scared-kid version of you is still alive inside you somewhere, and sometimes that version needs some attention and reassurance. Any time I feel I let myself down or let someone else down, or my thinking feels petty, I take it as a sign to check in on four-year-old me. What’s making me feel small and threatened, or not-enough, or doubting my own value? Why do I think I need to smoosh my face against the glass? The good news is that these are just moments now, that kid-version of me no longer runs my show or chooses my friends or romantic partners. And in actual fact, my husband is probably the person who most soothes that kid-version of me even though I know how to do it for myself, because he loves me for who I am. The grownup me doesn’t tolerate scraps of love from people, or take chase when someone is cruel, or obsess over rejections, or take it personally if someone is having a crappy day.
Also, my Nanny gave me a roadmap, even if it was buried way below the surface. Some part of me remembered what it feels like to be loved for your whole self, even when you’re having a tough day, even when you’re being unreasonable, needy or cranky - maybe especially then. I think I forgot that feeling for a good long while, but I certainly recognized it when I felt it again. The very good news about humans is we aren’t stuck, we aren’t set in stone. Anything alive is going to keep changing, even our kid-versions, even if we’re thirty-nine or fifty-two or ninety-eight. I think my four-year-old self is pretty relaxed and happy these days. I think she knows she’s loved and safe and that it’s okay to play, and to want things, and to speak up. It’s very possible she helped me write this essay.
If you’d like to meet me in real time to talk about childhood wounds, longing, rejection, and tolerating love that hurts (and how to stop), I’ll be here Friday 12/15/23 at 11:15am PST or you can wait for the Come As You Are podcast version, which goes live here on Sundays. If you’d like to meet me in Portugal in June, I’d love that so much. It’s going to be amazing.