An Open Letter to the Children Who Aren’t Mine
“They” say I have to draw a line through my heart. I can love you, but only so much. Only the appropriate amount. Because you are not mine.
What “they” (the ambiguous, omnipresent, “they”) don’t know–couldn’t know–is that the call to love you was the call to begin my life in earnest. They can’t know that you changed everything. You woke me up.
I didn’t enter into this job lightly. I thought of it as a job, sure, but I’ve never been good at “professional distance.” I knew I would love you. I knew I had to love you to do my job well. And I was committed to being in your life for as long as you needed me.
But how could I have known what it would mean to love you? Especially to love you while also knowing that you are not mine?
I could never pretend that you would belong to me forever, the way that parents sometimes do. It was right there in the contract. Our last day was embedded in our very first day, and every day since.
It is always there in the room with us–while I pour warm water over your soapy hair, while I slice apples for your lunch, and as I kiss your cheeks and zip your coat. Our last day is in every goodnight hug, every gaze, each “I love you” and click of the closing door.
Of course, there will be a last day in all of my relationships–and yours. People try very hard to run from that truth. We’re afraid the knowledge of it will destroy us.
I sometimes lose sight of it amid the morass of our daily life. Caring for you is more challenging and humbling than anything I’ve ever done. Every day, your innocence holds a mirror to the state of my own heart and mind. It shows me just how much armor I’ve built around myself since I was your age. Every time you copy my behavior, I am reminded anew of my role in either teaching you to imprison your own heart, or showing you how to live and love without fear.
For a while, in the beginning, I was teaching you fear, because it was all I knew. I was afraid to make a mistake. I was sure I was doing everything wrong, that I was failing you. I tried to take care of you the only way I knew how–setting limits, making rules, raising expectations. But we both failed to live up to those benchmarks. Our days became a struggle.
I realized then that if I was going to love you, I would have to learn to love myself. If I was going to tend to your pain with kindness and compassion, I would have to practice on my own pain. If I was going to listen to you, I would have to hear myself.
I can’t give you what I don’t have.
I sometimes wish there was an easier way. Cleaning up my own mind, healing my own heart, meeting my own needs is hard work. But I know you are worth it so I must be worth it too.
If all I leave you with on that last day is the memory of being loved, I have done my job. And love is boundless. There are no categories, no limits, no labels for love.
The work of love is ongoing. I still have my moments of forgetfulness and fear. When tears sprang to my eyes on your first day of school, I worried that “they” would think that I didn’t have a right to them. Maybe “they” think I haven’t earned my joy either–the joy of bearing witness to the miracle of your lengthening legs, your multiplying teeth, your new friends and interests. Maybe “they” think that when I look at you I shouldn’t feel a love so powerful it cracks my heart open again and again.
But I do feel that love for you.
And because of it, I will never be the same. I know now that the limit of my love is really the limit of my life.
And I know that it is possible to love the stranger–the child who isn’t mine–with total abandon. Such strangers are everywhere I look. And they are each as worthy of love as you are.
All 7 billion of them.