How I Learned About Love

When I was 9 or 10 years old, and quite precocious I might add, I confided in my sister that I was in love with a boy of 12 or 13 who was a friend of the family. This imagined love lasted for a summer during which I read and wrote a lot of poetry. The poems I read didn't make sense to me. The ones I wrote didn't make sense, period. At some point over the summer, my sister and I had a huge fight, probably because I stole her erasers or didn't lend her my puzzle book or something equally mundane. My passive-aggressive sister proceeded to yell at the top of her lungs with my mother present in the room "Noor wants to marry X," X being the pre-pubescent boy who was the object of my affection. My mother pulled me into the restroom and the first thing she said was "It's OK." It was the best thing she could have said to me in that moment when I was feeling so...ashamed. She elaborated "It's OK to like someone, but make sure you tell an adult next time. Maybe you will tell me? I promise to be a good friend." She left it at that. She wasn't pushy, didn't seem shocked, and let me figure out what she meant. Did she mean she would keep my secret? Or was she trying to tell me that from now on we would convene in the bathroom for chats like this? In retrospect, she made our exchange seem perfectly natural, and I am thankful to her for that. There was no way for this crush to last beyond the summer, and the way she handled it gave me the confidence to confide in her many years later when I actually was serious about marrying someone. 

A few years later when I was an awkward teenager, another boy who will go unnamed professed his undying love for me. I immediately went to my mother who was removing her makeup in the bathroom and said incredulously "I told him to never talk to me. How dare he?" My mother thought about it for a few seconds, tut-tutted, shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Do you really think you did the right thing?" she asked me. "What do you mean? Of course I did. I am a good girl. I am not to talk to boys until I am grown up!" (I credit my Catholic school upbringing for this definition of being "good.") She thought about it some more. Maybe she was weighing her choices: Do I tell my daughter it's OK to talk to boys and risk being censured by the school when she tells her friends "My mom said boys can be your friends, too, there is nothing wrong with that;" or do I make her more self-absorbed and egotistical by endorsing her actions? Finally she said "You know, there will be other boys who will tell you they like you. Some may even tell you they love you. And one day you may fall in love with someone, too. And when you do, how will you feel if he rejects you this way?" I was quiet. The conversation was no longer in my control. Somehow, I had ended up in the same place (bathroom) with the same problem (love) and in the same emotional state (embarrassed). I also had the nagging feeling that I had broken someone's heart and that certainly wasn't good. "So, if you can't reciprocate someone's feelings, turn them down gently. And always say 'Thank you, I am flattered, but my answer is no.' Do you understand? Be grateful, and firmly say no. Never send mixed messages! Never say 'I'll think about being your friend' if you know you will never be their friend." She tried to mix infatuation and friendship and love to somehow communicate the etiquette of rejection. Also, I think she couldn't bring herself to say "boyfriend." At the end of the day, she was still a Pakistani mom of three girls. In any case, it worked. She taught me to appreciate attention, value affection, understand that when you love someone, you make yourself vulnerable, and to scorn someone's love is most cruel. She taught me to assert my preferences and choices while respecting those of others. 

I will never forget those two conversations with my mother. I have used her reactions on both occasions to dictate my actions in stressful situations. When I walk into a chaos of emotions, I always say "It's OK," and more often than not, it is OK or not too far from it at any rate. My mother's predictions did come true, and I had to say "No, thank you," but I would never have had the same degree of sensitivity for the person I was addressing if it were not for her wisdom. Over the years, I also learned (by way of pondering and experience) that the most successful kind of love demands mutual respect and more importantly a forgiving attitude that resembles a strong friendship. In fact, I recently told someone who is about to get married "The one thing I can tell you is that any relationship is much more dependable if its foundation lies in friendship. I hope he is a good friend to you - to me this is the best prayer."

Now that I finally am grown up, and my mother's own love story has not had a happy ending, I have seen the lessons she taught me being implemented in her choices. She always acted with a certain decorum when it came to matters of the heart. When I expected her to react passionately, she maintained her composure. When I thought she ought to focus on herself rather than others, she made sure she didn't betray anyone's confidence even if she suffered in the process. I have learned that love is a messy business, and there are no guarantees for lifelong happiness, but respect and friendship are absolutely indispensable in any relationship.  Her own love story was particularly burdensome, but she made sure to never break anyone's heart. I wish the same could have been true for hers.