Thinking about love, part 7: nurture


Last Wednesday night, I noticed that Sir Fluffy Meatball, our six-month-old guinea pig, was looking a little listless. Nicknamed “Zoomer” the little guy was looking a lot less…zoomy… than usual.

By Thursday morning he was barely moving. Last night’s carrots sat untouched. He drooped over my hand as I lifted him out of the cage.

The kids had been back in school for one day. After two weeks off and endless holiday disruption before that, I had so much work to do. But instead I was going to spend the day finding a guinea pig vet (harder than you think), and then sitting with Sir Fluffy Meatball while they examined him, rectal thermometer and all. Then coming back two hours later to pick him up and sitting through the lengthy tutorial on how to syringe feed a 10-day course of antibiotics, pain meds, and liquid diet; how to bathe him while he was too sick to clean himself; how to keep him separate from his buddy, Snuggles; and what exactly I would be monitoring for in his scat. I am now an expert on guinea pig feces.

And then they brought me the bill. $300 on a $50 guinea pig. Not to mention the host of new supplies we will be buying now that we know Sir Fluffy Meatball is prone to bladder infections.

For a moment, my rational brain, the brain I have depended on to keep me safe and well-respected for so long, was enraged. The money! The time! Why does this crap fall on the mom?!?

But I looked at Sir Fluffy Meatball, our Zoomer, and saw the living, grunting manifestation of everything I’ve been learning for the last three months. So I write this with a little bit of liquid meal replacement smeared on my sleeve.

Not a Nurturer

I never thought of myself as a nurturer. Before I got married, I wouldn’t even get plants, because I didn’t want anything dependent on me. Part of this was internalized misogyny. I didn’t want to get sucked into the caring roles. I wanted to do things. Things that I’d been told women could not do…like think and communicate Important Thoughts. Argue. Get paid.

But more than that, as bell hooks has noted, care, strictly speaking is not the fullness of love. You can put food on a table, bandage a wound, or even donate blood to someone without being deeply invested in their thriving. You can do that stuff because it’s your job or your obligation. I didn’t want to be a caregiver, but even more I was loathe to give anyone access to my emotional and mental resources. To have my well-being linked to anyone else’s wellbeing was simply too vulnerable. But this is what the nurturing aspect of love requires, that link of life forces.

Thus, nurturing is inefficient and messy. It creates space for other people to not-yet-be-fully-healed and to take the time they need. It requires an unspecified amount of energy and an indeterminate number of resources. As someone with a very weird relationship to physical and emotional resources (living in constant fear that they will not be there, but also not doing anything to stockpile them because it also feels outside my control), giving someone access to me as nurturer felt very scary.

To me, good relationships meant independence. Two beings who didn’t need each other, deciding to gift one another with discrete acts of love and friendship. The Japanese proverb “there are formalities between the closest of friends” was for me, the ultimate ideal.

Wait, Maybe a Nurturer in Spite of Myself

Then I met a series of people and animals who taught me what it actually means to nurture, and how different it is from what I’d been avoiding.

I met a spitfire child who needed a special adult to walk a long and bumpy road to adulthood.

I met a man who felt like no one would ever understand him or love him, and who simply could not imagine a safe place to be known.

I met a dog at death’s doorstep who literally chased me home one morning in a last-ditch effort to live.

I met a friend resigned to a life of loneliness.

None were projects or tasks. I adored them all from the first moment I met them. My soul loved them, but I also just liked them. Even the terrifying Rottweiler sprinting toward me at 7 a.m. with no one around to hear me scream. So it wasn’t altruism, and I didn’t “save” them. But neither was it simple affinity. Because there were definitely moments when walking away from each of these relationships would have been much easier and left more room for my Important Thoughts. And none of these relationships would have been the same if I had maintained my stance as a committed non-nurturer.

The more I spent time with the child, simply showing up and holding space, the more joy I found in their growth. They are still a special part of our family.

The more I met resistance and isolation with persistence and connection, the more the man began to delight in others, including me. We got married.

The more ailments we addressed with the dog, the more devoted and protective the dog became.

The more I reached behind the austere demeanor of my friend, the more I was invited into their warm and attentive company. A place of mutuality that I still treasure.

None of these relationships were, or are, all about one person’s needs. None of these four beings were invited to take endless advantage. I stood up for myself and set boundaries. Each of them has, at this point, given me as much life and joy and safety as I have given them (maybe more in some cases). But none of them were, in the beginning, equally independent and emotionally resourced. The child was a child. The man and the friend were, frankly, as bad off as the dog. Loving each of them was like walking out onto a tightrope suspended between skyscrapers. My Self, with her confidence in the Spirit, would charge out onto the tightrope, absolutely knowing that this Creature (human or canine) was so incredibly beautiful and necessary in the world, but also so desperately in need of a certain kind of, in the words of Sally Lloyd-Jones, “never stopping, never giving up love.” I knew how to connect to that love.

But out on the tightrope I would occasionally pause and look down. I would see the long drop of resources I don’t have, the time this might require, and wounds I might be opening myself up to. My pre-existing wounds would scream about being unappreciated. My fears would list the number of things that I could be doing with this energy and time. My deeper fears about what these beings could to do to me.

And now I have children, which has only widened the chasm to the size of the Grand Canyon. The need for nurture is as huge as I had feared, and my resources never feel matched. I live almost every day on a tightrope, and on the good days I don’t look down, but there have been long stretches where I’ve stared down into the canyon as though I were searching for a single pebble somewhere at the bottom. Caregiving is still difficult for me, but, thankfully, in the last year, I’ve been able to merge some of the Spirit-driven energy with my conscious experience of nurture, and pull my eyes back up.

Instagram Self-Care as the Enemy of Nurture

Before I get to the mystical experience that pulled my eyes back up most recently, I want to say a word about therapy-via-meme. I really enjoy funny and insightful memes. They make us feel like other people are as weird and wounded as we are, which is nice. But too often people end their grand unified theory of wellbeing with what is, essentially, a quote they read on Instagram. These pithy things that get shared the most because they resonate the most, meaning they make us feel the best, meaning they aren’t actually pushing us into greater consciousness as much as they are affirming that our woundedness is actually the preferred state of the world and we have no reason to change.

It’s well intended. In our protector-driven attempts to repair the ravages of patriarchy, we often advise women to be extra protective of themselves. To cut out anyone who needs more than we want to give. And for sure, most women and people socialized in femininity need better boundaries. But I do think Instagram and self-care culture often cheers for those boundaries without the subsequent opportunity to grow.

Not every discomfort is life-draining. Not every uneven relationship is toxic. The setting of boundaries and negotiation of needs and expectations is how we stay connected, and there are times where it requires you to expand your window of tolerance—the range of emotions you can hold without going into overwhelm or numbness. You cannot nurture someone beyond what your window of tolerance will hold, because the first thing you give when you nurture is safety—the assurance that they are loved for who they are, not who we want them to be. But I can’t hold real people if I cut out every opportunity to expand my own window of tolerance.

No one can make you expand your window. That’s part of the problem that breeds more memes. The millennials are all sharing: “you have to cut out your toxic parents or you’ll never be healthy!” And their boomer parents are sharing: “forgive your parents, because they did the best they could.” Friend One posts “cut out anyone who isn’t as committed to your peace as you are,” and Friend Two posts “your real friends will let you be an absolute nightmare and still love you.” I have paid so many thousands of dollars in therapy to learn that all of that can be true and none of it is helpful without a lot of context. It makes love sound like a constant balancing of scales, a constant war over resources. Like…commerce.

We’re just horrible at encouraging each other’s spiritual growth without using bald marketing tactics (shame, fear, and authority). We are so bad at offering resources instead of selling them. Growing your window of tolerance and your ability to nurture has to be something you do through your own healing, your own agency, and your own connection to the internal resources that were always there. And it’s work. No one can demand it, but beware the people telling you not to do it.

Giving Life

Here’s the mystical experience that has totally changed the way I think about myself as a nurturer, and radically expanded my window of tolerance.

At the end of September, I was struggling with some work-related stuff. All those Important Thoughts and things that I would rather do than nurture were being frustrated, and I was feeling unimportant and left out. Naturally, I blamed it on the fact that I give so much of my time to caregiving and have tailored my work life around wife/motherhood. Easy target.

I set an intention to change my relationship to nurturing and my growing feeling that I was hauling people behind me on the tightrope, exhausted and depleted.

Sitting with the full moon, trying to release some of this bitterness, I felt invited to visualize the professional affirmation I’d been wanting. I saw a huge dining hall, and long table piled with food and all around it were the various gatekeepers I’d sought approval from, laughing and discussing Important Thoughts. As I watched, the table transformed into a rotting pile of garbage, and the gatekeepers withered into skeletons. It looked like something from a fantasy novel or a pirate story. Clear as day, the question came, “Why do you want a seat at the table of death, when you were born to give life?”

A few weeks later, unrelated, we got the guinea pigs as a way for our kids to practice nurturing and as a way to co-regulate emotions, because animals are good at that. And it began working immediately. Our children have blossomed under the care of the rodents.

That week I went to see Paige, the energy healer, and in a meditative state, I could clearly hear guinea pigs squealing so loudly that I asked, “Does someone have a pet in this office?” There were no animals in the building. The day after that, I went to a friend’s house and her incredibly well-behaved dog somehow broke out of her enclosure, fought her way through a closed door and several other barriers, and ran to me, placing her paws on my arms in a sort of hug. We sat like that for a while while my friend watched, gobsmacked at the dog’s uncharacteristic behavior.

Two days later our 12-year-old family dog died very suddenly, and the guinea pigs were there to comfort the kids, and I understood my friend’s dog’s intuition.

A few days after that, I drove out to East Texas to report on a death row inmate about to be executed. The friend who gave up a whole work day to drive with me spent the entire time tending to my nerves and occasional overwhelm, a steady infusion of grounding and safety. It created space for me to give myself to the intensity of the emotions involved in the story, to breath life into it, and to write possibly one of the best pieces I’ve ever written. A week after that, the inmate received a stay of execution, and a source close to the case told me they were pretty sure the story played a small role.

I’m not telling you any of this to proclaim that I am saving lives or rescuing people. I’m not at all. Not the four lives I mentioned earlier (child, man, dog, friend). Not the inmate on death row (I genuinely credit his tireless legal team who made a compelling argument about unconsidered evidence). Not even the guinea pigs or my own kids.

I’m relaying this wild series of living and dying and loving because it radically changed the way I view nurture. I am not saving lives; WE are giving life. This connection we have to each other, to Spirit, to God, to Earth, to Creature, this is the life-giving connection and it’s what we are made for. Nurture is being that connection for someone. Not carrying them across a tightrope, but grafting them into a root system of constant nourishment and growth. The nurturer is also part of the system, but not its Source. I look at my friends, my family, the animals who both nurture me and are nurtured by me and I realize that the full moon was right, this is what it means to give life, and this is what I was born to do. We all were. When the work comes from this, the work too, is life-giving, not ego-seeking. This is where work and love come together.

And so, with that, I’m going to go feed Sir Fluffy Meatball another syringe full of liquid meal replacement, because that’s what I was born to do.