“When we got home, she immediately wanted to put her flip-flops on. I was in the kitchen starting her dinner and she said, ‘Mommy, you want your flip-flops?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ so she went to our closet and dug out my flip-flops and brought them in to the kitchen for me and said, ‘Here, Mommy.’ So I slipped on my flip-flops and said, ‘Thank you!’ And she said, ‘Look, we both have our flip-flops on!’
“Then she got in one of her real cuddly moods, and she hugged my legs and said, ‘Mommy, I love you.’ So I stopped what I was doing and stooped down and hugged her real tight and I said, ‘I love you too!’
“After a moment, while we were still hugging each other, she said, ‘And Daddy loves us both.’”
I’ll give you a moment to ooh and aah and sigh about how sweet that story is. And yes, it was unbelievably heart-melting and a little tear-jerking to hear my spouse tell me this story. So take a moment to revel in the sheer adorableness, because I’m about to hold up what an incredible developmental achievement and parental vindication this is.
First of all, she knows that I love her.
Secondly – and perhaps even more amazing – she knows I love her even when I’m not there.
Every good parent wants their child to know they are loved. It’s our job, to love our children. We clothe and feed and bathe and rock and soothe and hold to them when they are tiny babies. That’s their entire existence at that stage, to simply soak up attention and sustenance until they fall asleep and allow us to sneak away and steal a quick nap or a glass of wine and try to recover from the never-ending neediness. Then as soon as these babies wake up and realize that we aren’t there, the crying starts because they are too anxious to exist without parents present.
Our children get a little older and they gradually tolerate a little more distance between us, so long as they have something tangible on which to grasp. This transitional object helps them to internalize their sense that we still love them and will take care of them, even when we’re not in the room. It helps her sleep at night when the lights go off and we shut the door behind us on our way out: she has her blankie and her Abby, and she falls safely asleep clutching them because they symbolize for her the love she feels when we are in the room with her, even when we aren’t.
And then one day, the transitional object becomes sufficiently internalized so that the child no longer needs it. If you were to go by how long it takes the child to give up the blankie or teddy bear, it might seem that for many children this internalized object comes at ages six or seven (or later). But it’s really much earlier, and it’s evidenced in exactly the kind of thing that Curly Fries said last night. “Daddy loves us both” – an unsolicited, unprovoked observation that she is loved by an absent parent. (Let me observe how thrilled I am that she also knows and trusts that I love her mother, too.) She still needs her blankie and Abby to sleep at night, but the internalized parent is firmly in place, and it’s a parent who loves her.
I really can’t overstate how big a deal this is. The internalized loving parent is the basic building block upon which a healthy child can build her sense of ego strength and self. Deprived of this loving parent, either through the lack of loving guardians or through the presence of an anxious and overidentifying parent who won’t allow separation to occur, children expend their energy trying to manage their own anxieties of abandonment and destruction and can’t find the creative life-giving space to become their true, authentic selves. In order to develop the courage to freely engage the world and progress forward into discovering who we really are at the depths of our beings, we need to safely trust that someone somewhere loves us just as we are no matter what.
What a grace this is. Not just for her, although I can’t rejoice loud enough that my love for her has been fierce and firm enough to give her that ground of being to step forward and be the beautiful little badass that she is. But it’s also a grace for me. I’m far from perfect; I lose my temper, I run out of patience, I yell. But despite those flaws and failings, the Daddy she has internalized is the Daddy that loves her. There is room for me to make mistakes, to be my less-than-idealized self in moments. I’m still good enough that the love she feels will carry us both through those moments when she screams in my face and I want to strangle her. In the scary moments, there is still the internalized realization that no matter where I am, I love her. That might even mean more to me than it does to her.
When I think about my faith, about the deep-seated beliefs I have about the Divine Presence and the experiences I seek in my life to more fully encounter the rich mystery of life and existence and love, I think about my own internalized loving parents. I trust that there is a God who loves me because I trust that there are people who love me, and I’ve known that for as long as I’ve known anything. When theologians suggest that our images of God are rooted in our earliest memories of our parents and guardians, it is not far away from what developmental psychologists say about transitional objects and internalized parents. So when Curly Fries tells her Mommy that she knows Daddy loves them both, she is getting closer to understanding who and what God is.
I’m not God, of course. But it is my responsibility (as well as her mother’s and her grandparents’ and her communities’) to help point her to that experience in healthy, life-giving ways. And I’m doing it, in spite of everything. Join me in rejoicing that despite all our flaws and failings, we can still be good enough to make love permanent.