We all love our children, or most of us do. Those awful cases of child neglect, abuse and worse are, thankfully, exceptions. So this is about the vast majority.
Looking after a new baby is not an easy task, and there are times when even the most patient and loving of mothers can feel tested to the limit. By the way, I just mentioned “mother” rather than “parent”, because I am a woman. This is my experience as a mother, although I appreciate that a lot of what I say here applies equally to fathers.
During childbirth the hormone oxytocin is released into the mother’s bloodstream, which helps the process of bonding with the baby. That is just a scientific fact. We are primed to look after our babies, and as we see them grow, and witness their first smile and their first attempts at walking and talking, we feel our love growing endlessly, to the point of becoming social bores, with only one topic of conversation and vomit on our clothes. As our children grow, we cry with them and we laugh with them. We cry alone when, later, as adolescents, we know they are hurting, but they are not sharing. We just feel their pain and, at best, we can let them know that we are there for them, even when the response to our concern is a thankless grunt. As adolescents they know absolutely everything and everybody else is wrong, especially parents; as young adults, they start realising that maybe there is a little bit more to learn, but hey! How hard can it be? They are ready to fly the nest and all we can do is keep an eye from the distance; we would be there with the safety net if we were allowed, but we are meant to leave them and figure it out for themselves. So we watch. We despair at some obvious mistakes and cringe at some attitudes, but we cannot intervene. We show support and encouragement and we are happy when we are asked for help (usually financial) or for advice (usually ignored). We do those things, and countless more, but we never stop loving them.
I know I love my son, and I told him many times while he was growing up; more importantly, I hope I showed him my love with my actions. We had a close connection, which made me proud and very happy. One day, when he was 15 or 16 years old, we had an argument. I don’t remember how it started, or many details, but I berated him for something silly he had done. Later, I realised I might have been a bit harsh on him. I said that I loved him. Normally that would have been the signal to make peace and forget about the incident. I did that and continued with my chores. A bit later, he came back and said, “you only love me because you are programmed to love me; your hormones make you love me” … … … … I was speechless … … … and shocked … … … and hurt… I don’t remember what I answered, probably something like “I love you because you are you” or along those lines. It is just possible that he was remembering a biology lesson, and thinking about it, in a very literal sense, my hormones made me bond to him. But that was at birth. What happened to all the lifetime of love that I have for him? He is a young adult now, and I still love him. Is that still my hormones? I do not feel like a robot programmed to do the task of loving, and this question has taken me to think about free will and many other philosophical implications. It looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck. Is it just oxytocin?