While reading a recent discussion about love in child and youth care on CYC-Net and in CYC-Online, I had several feelings. First, I didn’t think I loved the kids I used to work with. I liked and was fond of many of them, but love seemed like too strong a term. I didn’t love them the way I loved my mother or Suzanne and Jason, my partner and son. I loved things about the kids and some of the things they did, but I wouldn’t call it love the way I save the word love for a few people with whom I have had deep, caring, sometimes passionate, unconditional, relationships. This kind of love seemed misplaced and even dangerous in the work, whereas liking, being fond of and caring about the kids seemed much more as we used to say, appropriate.
Further when I heard people saying they loved the kids or the kids loved them this made me leery because I felt their notion of love was quite different than mine. It was as if love was something that could be spewed out for everyone. It also seemed to me that their use of the word love was more an expression of what they wanted others to think about them rather than a deeper feeling about real love, or love as I had experienced it.
Recently I saw a documentary about the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the leader of deconstructionist movement. At one point the interviewer asked what he thought about love. After trying to avoid the question, he asked the interviewer if she meant love as related to the “who or what?" I’m not sure if I got it right, but I interpreted the “who" meaning the singular sense of loving and being loved for who we are and the “what" being the sense of being loved and loving people for what they do, look like, etc. It seems to me that most of us want to experience self love in the singular sense but are often torn by wanting to experience love for what we do or how we appear to others. We say we want to be accepted for who we are but act to please others or to create an image that is more about the “what" than us.
Love, of course, is really only our experience of another person or our experience of what we feel from another person about ourselves. Each person in a loving relationship experiences love differently. It’s not their feeling we experience, but our experience of how they and we make us feel.
So how does this apply? I often say I loved the work. Or I loved to be with the kids. And I really did. I loved the smell, the pace, the struggle and the sense of being enmeshed with them in our daily activities. Even though “like" is probably the better word, it’s easier for me to say I loved the work or to be with the kids, because it was part of me and I do indeed want to love myself for who I am and what I do. Maybe it is also because I want to be known for loving the work, I’m not sure, but it seems if I can’t love me and what I do, who will?
Thus whereas I don’t think I ever said I loved the kids, or one kid in particular, it might have been appropriate for me to say I loved my experience of being with certain kids and the part of me they evoked. I did indeed feel closer to some kids. I could even as Urie Bronfenbrenner said, “be crazy" about some of them. But my experience of them was not the same experience of love I had with Suzanne and Jason, which was a much more deeply-rooted experience of love. With the kids, I hoped that deeper love would come from their experience of being with others with whom they would enter more permanent relationships “parents, lovers, siblings, etc.
In general I think I tried to show them how to be a loving person and be loved, and the best way to do that was to love myself and to show how being loved in the singular sense made me as a person. My experience of my mother for instance is that she loved me this way and it made me more able to experience love as a child and adult, and I hoped it would come through in my interactions with the children. I also tried to accept them unconditionally and to let them know that I was there for them.
I am, however; still uncertain about my experience of love as I am about many things, and in a sense I think this is part of what makes me human and capable of loving and being loved. I am not sure, for example, about the “who and what" in relationship to others and myself. Do I do things in my relationships because I want to experience love for what I do or because I just simply love to do it? Do I act to be loved for these actions or do I act as an expression of who I am? Similarly, do I love my experience of others for who they are or what they do? Probably both. I love Suzanne for who she is, but I like many things about her such as how she looks and has chosen to live her life. I feel the same for my son, Jason. So it is probably both, but more and more as life goes along, the “what" part of love seems less meaningful than the “who" part. Suzanne and Jason seem better at this than me. When I am with Suzanne for example, I experience mostly love for who I am. She sees what I do, I think, as external. She admires me for doing it as I admire her for her artwork, but in my experience of her that love is more about my self. In my private moments I retreat into my child, the innocent part of me that I love and want to be loved for, and feel a sense of certainty that this is really the love I want, not for the just the good things, but the rascal and dreamer I was as a child and now am as an adult.
And in the end it is probably the experience of being loved for and loving the “who" that makes us competent child and youth care workers. Love is shown in who we are, and this rubs off on the kids who are searching to be loved and to love. If we love and have been loved, they witness our experience of love in us and this makes them more capable of loving and being loved with others. It seems more risky I think if we act from the what, the wanting to be loved for what we do, with love being one of those things we do. This creates that unreal, insincere world of trying to show ourselves by saying we love the kids.
Make sense? Probably not, I’m confused about love. On Thanksgiving Day, I pondered this question in the morning before I went for a turkey dinner with Suzanne’s family. For those who don’t know, Thanksgiving is a holiday in the U.S. that honors the arrival of the Pilgrims. Probably a complete distortion of what really happened, it is based on the myth that the Pilgrims had a meal with the native inhabitants to celebrate and be thankful for the freedom and food they had found in the new land. A turkey is the centerpiece of the meal. People go to great lengths to stuff and cook their turkeys.
It’s my favorite holiday because it is a one-day event where families come together to eat and then it’s over. There isn’t all the hoopla and materialism that has become part of other holidays like Christmas. This year Suzanne was not with me. She was on her way home from Dublin where she had shown her paintings at an art show. Neither was my son who was on his way home to Raleigh to be with his wife. I would pick Suzanne up later from the airport and bring a plate of food sent along by her relatives. Before I left I wondered do I love these people? I usually feel pretty good being with them during the meal, but afterwards sometimes afterwards I have a sort of sad, empty feeling. That’s all a part of the experience of love in families I tried to reassure myself.
Then I remembered a thanksgiving experience with two boys from the residential treatment center. In those days the child and youth care staff took the boys who didn’t have a place to go on holidays home with them. We were aware of the risks but we felt it was important for them to have a place to go and we worked hard not to feed their fantasies that they might come to live with us. The boys, Ricky and Pat were both 12. The dinner was at Suzanne’s parents. Suzanne and I had been living together for a couple years and I knew her parents fairly well. Her father was a prison guard but unlike some of the other guards he was very compassionate and understanding. Her mother was from Australia, and after meeting her father during WWII moved to this strange land as a teenager to marry him. He was often at work or at the bar, or hunting with his buddies, so she did most of the rearing of their six kids.
They lived about sixty miles from Milwaukee in Waupun, where the prison was located. As we drove there on that Thanksgiving I thought about all the families members that would have to make the long ride from Milwaukee to visit with their loved ones behind the bars at the prison. The trip went smoothly. The boys were unusually well behaved, perhaps because of their anxiety about what they would experience. Ricky was a quiet, introspective boy. He reminded me of a young engineer or scientist who constantly working some new formula in his head. But he also had a very violent temper that could be unleashed at the slightest provocation. I liked him for some reason, maybe because he seemed to have so much fight in him to survive. Pat was just the opposite. He was as we used to say “hyper." He never shut up and was always looking for some way to provoke other boys. Whereas Ricky held in his anger until it boiled over, Pat let it out constantly to seek attention. I had a hard time liking him but I was working at it.
We stopped in the Horicon Marsh to look at the Canadian Geese. Each year thousands of geese stopped in the marsh to feed and rest on the way south. A flock sat in an open field. Suzanne ran towards them and we followed. Suddenly hundreds of geese rose and flew overhead. The boys were enthralled by their newfound power, and the almost deafening sound of the geese honking and their wings flapping against the wind.
Suzanne’s parents welcomed the boys. The house was warm from the oven and the smell of turkey. We sat in the living room and watched football with her father. Suzanne went upstairs and looked at some of the old photos and paintings in her room. The boys started to tease each other. “Cut it out!" Ricky shouted when Pat put his elbow in his ribs. I sat between them. They calmed down. Her father smiled at me, aware of what I was doing. By instinct he knew the importance of proximity.
"Dinner is ready," Suzanne’s mother said. Her four brothers ran to the table. As was the custom, her father said grace, stuttering slightly. The boys and brothers started to giggle. Sitting between the boys I pinched their knees slightly. Pat took a swipe at my hand. I held his hand firmly. Suzanne recited a beautiful poem she had written. There was more giggling from her brothers, but not the boys. “Knock it off!" she said, having learned how to defend herself with her brothers years earlier. They started to pass the food: first dressing then mashed potatoes. Her father served slices of turkey from the platter. We put our plates forward. Pat tried to get his plate in ahead of Ricky.
"I’m first!" Ricky said and pushed Pat’s plate.
"There’s plenty for everyone," Suzanne’s mother said and for a moment the boys settled again. Having plenty for everyone was not something they had experienced at home.
I buttered a roll. Pat began to load his plate with mashed potatoes.
"Look at that," Ricky said. “He can’t take that many potatoes."
Pat flicked a spoonful at Ricky, who jumped up and pushed the back of Pat’s chair. Pat turned and took a swipe at Ricky, who lost it, flailing his arms and shouting obscenities. I grabbed a hold of Ricky and took him in the living room where he took a swipe at me and began to push the furniture.
While Suzanne’s father held Pat, I restrained Ricky on the carpeting. He spit, screamed and shouted more obscenities. I got angrier than I might have otherwise have done because my authority was being challenged in front of her parents and I was still in that stage where I was trying to prove myself. Eventually he settled down and we all went back to the table. The boys sulked through the rest of the meal, but there was no further incident. We talked about sports and past thanksgivings, how their aunt Jessie’s hearing aid made a screeching sound during the meal. Her father stopped one of her brothers in the middle of a dirty joke. “Not in front of our guests," he said. The boys ate big slices of pumpkin pie with loads of whipped cream on top.
Afterwards I took Ricky and Pat in the basement to play pool with two of her brothers while Suzanne, who was used to how the boys behaved because I had taken some of them to our apartment where she taught them how to draw, took the dog for a walk and her father and two of the brothers finished watching the football game. The boys were well behaved during the pool game, probably because they wanted to be cool in front of the two brothers who were four and five years older than them. The day ended without further incident. All in all her family was very understanding. With all those children growing up together they were used to chaos, and having lost the oldest son in a car accident they also had this sense of the feeling of loss, which the two boys had experienced over and over again as they were bounced from one placement to another. “Come again," her father said.
"Well now they have a better idea of what I do," I told myself as we drove home. I also thought about what Pat and Ricky’s previous Thanksgivings must have been like: parents drunk, arguing, never enough food to go around, siblings and relatives ridiculing and making fun of them, a different set of foster parents each of the last three years, and sometimes no thanksgiving at all.
It turned dark and started to snow. The boys began to go at it in the back seat. I pulled to the side of the road and said we were not moving until they settled. Knowing that this was mostly nervous energy and anxiety that came with the ending of activities they couldn’t trust themselves to enjoy, I did this three times without losing my temper before we got back to the residential treatment center. Suzanne waited in the car while I went inside and made sure they were settled before leaving. They didn’t thank me, but I could tell they liked the dinner. I was a relatively new worker. As I drove home I thought about how I might have handled things differently, but overall I felt it had been a good day.
In hindsight, I love and am thankful for this experience. It is part of who I am.