The barbecue is in full swing; hands delve into coolers for beer, fruity wine, Lime-a-Ritas. This cooler squawks as its lid is raised; the Styrofoam one makes a painful, teeth-sweat inducing squee as its lid fits tightly back in place. No one even realizes their bellies are empty as the booze loosens lips and love is passed around like a joint at a rave.
“I love you, Uncle Matt,” says my niece, full of alcohol and the kind of promise and hope that follow a graduation.
“Oh kid,” my brother slurs. “You don’t know love until you have kids.”
“What did you say?” I ask. For clarification, hoping that I heard wrong.
“I said, ‘you don’t know love until you have kids.’”
Only now, after he’s said it twice, does he look sheepish.
I say nothing. I stare at my older brother, whom I thought I loved. But I’m nobody’s mother; I can’t know what love is. He begins a long, histrionic apology that fails to demonstrate any understanding of why my feelings are hurt. I know I will have the words to explain later, but now all I can do is walk away.
His words echo in my brain, repeating in a loop. You don’t know love. You don’t know love.
He said this to me, who has always held love for him and from him as a given, a solid point in a constantly shifting landscape of confusing family dynamics. All the feeling he has for me, all that I have for him—that’s not love? He said it to my niece, for whom life is just starting—an eighteen-year-old beauty who chose a college close to home because of her little brother. My niece, who just told her uncle that she loves him, doesn’t know love?
You don’t know love. The words tripped off his tongue like the truest thing he knows, telling a young woman that life isn’t complete, she isn’t complete, until she has kids. She will be bombarded with that message the rest of her life; she has countless years ahead for people to pass judgment on what she wears, how much she makes, when and whom she marries, the kids she has, and how she raises them. She’ll learn soon enough the difference between choosing what’s right for her and choosing what’s right and proper as a woman.
There will always be the voices of those saying that her choices aren’t enough, that she isn’t enough. Her life, accomplishments, generosity of spirit, feelings, and her body matter only in the context of the children she does or does not have. She doesn’t need her uncle, who’s supposed to have her back, to be one of those voices.
You don’t know love. I try to look at this sentence through the prism of my brother’s life. For him, becoming a parent was huge and transformative, an event that ushered into his life a different kind of meaning, purpose, and yes, love. Yet, his words pass judgment on love. There may be different kinds, but the only love that matters is the kind a parent has for a child. We can’t even acknowledge those other types as real love.
Other types of love, like the kind I have for my husband, my family, my friends—all people who know that I would do anything for them. With one flippant sentence, my brother has invalidated all that love, relegating every relationship in my life, and my niece’s life, to a pale, shallow imitation of what he knows.
My sister-in-law tells me not to take it personally; he didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. I know he meant what he said; saying it to me was the real accident. Now I’ll always know that my brother looks down on my life as less consequential than his—my love less full, less meaningful . . . less important.
His voice has joined the chorus of judgment hailing down on me, on every woman. A hundred years after suffrage; fifty years after birth control, The Feminist Mystique, and equal pay—women’s life choices are still being prescribed for them. I’ve had years to learn the chorus’s sexist lyrics, but this might be my niece’s first verse of the outdated song. I’d hoped for her, for women of future generations, that the song would fade out and be forgotten.
Then again, what do I know? I don’t know love.