By Madeleine Adams
My mom’s girlfriend said she felt love so intense for my mom it felt like she was exploding with it. My boyfriend claimed he shared this sentiment about me. My mom soon admitted she didn’t feel any explosions. Nor did I. We were left feeling guilty, unworthy of our supposedly more loving partners. We questioned our abilities to love our partners and each other, who, still, we felt no exploding feelings of love towards.
My mom has found solace in bell hooks’ All About Love. She told me it was what got her through her divorce and the turmoil that accompanied it. During that time, I told her on the front step of our house that we’d lived my whole life and that was soon to be given up, that bell hooks had died. She cried. A little later, I bought a copy of the book hoping to find a similar comfort after our partners’ declarations of exploding love and my accompanying guilt and fear that I was incapable of love, or that I was somehow wrong: that I somehow escaped the phenomenon of love in exchange for detached, only semi-important relationships. My mom was more sure of her love than I was, despite her inability to articulate what she felt and how she experienced her love. This conversation raised the question of what love even is, aside from the supposed feelings of overflow that affectionate partners have for their less emotionally expressive girlfriends.
My mom’s parents, and consequently herself as a parent were quieter in love. In my home, love wasn’t something we discussed: “I love you” was never a phone-call sign off, love was not manifested through frequent physical hugs. Love was rarely expressed in any situation that didn’t warrant apology. And so every declaration of love was sacred—it was something to be cherished. Even then, I never had any doubt in my mom’s love for me. It was obvious through her care and personal sacrifice. She read a eulogy for her dad at his funeral which expressed a similar experience of love known through action and sacrifice. I was forced, like her, to quietly come up with a personal understanding of love which looked inward at the intentions of parents and interpreted their actions as love. Lucky for the both of us, it seems bell hooks also never felt these explosions, yet she simultaneously understands and cares about love deeply. And by relating and defining love, she confirms that our experiences of love are legitimate.
Feelings of confusion regarding how each other loved was felt mutually among the four of us. This uncertainty is explained by hooks. She posits that “if our society had a commonly held understanding of the meaning of love, the act of loving wouldn’t be so mystifying.” Within this mystification is the root of our fear. hooks, reflecting on her own girlhood, notes that “most of us have not been raised in homes where we have seen two deeply loving grown folks talking to each other.” This was the downfall of my love—love was a secret, and between my parents, a secondary importance behind ‘practical matters.’ Thus, I struggle still to tell my mom I love her and struggled deeply to express my feelings with my boyfriend at the start of our relationship. It was his knowing how to love, his being a product of parents who openly expressed their love, his continual loud declarations of love for both me and his family that has helped to change me in love. An invitation of change that, according to hooks, marks love.
We are expected to navigate through love and somehow reach an identical definition of what love is and how to do it. And, when two partners don’t reach a conclusion, one is likely to sound more preferable, or more correct. This was at least my experience. hooks writes: “I cannot remember ever wanting to ask my parents to define love. To my child’s mind love was the good feeling you got when family treated you like you mattered and you treated them like they mattered. Love was always and only about a good feeling.” hooks carried this vague understanding of love as a feeling into adulthood
and confused love for care, assumed love as compatible with abuse. And when she discovered instances of feelings or care that lacked love, she too, was thrown into the question of what love is. Love—or rather true love—does not always imply pleasure, but rather work. Love is marked by a committed choice to work on allowing ourselves to be loved and changed by love and to commit to self-reflection and communication. According to hooks, true love centres around a “willingness to reflect… and to process and communicate this reflection.”
hooks’ understanding of love at its core rings true to my experience. Love, growing up and communicating with my mom—especially during my early teenhood—was primarily manifested in moments of reflection and hard, vulnerable conversations. And now, I have similar tear-filled conversations with my boyfriend. In these moments, although they often arise after arguments, I am certain of both my mom and boyfriend’s importance to me and of my deep care, love, and commitment to them. I am certain that they love me too because of the effort both put in to be heard by and to listen to me. Love in these moments entirely transcends negative feelings and through negative feelings, confirms its trueness.