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The Gift I Cannot Give

On Watching Love as a Spectator- for the Love Unraveled Challenge

By Penny FullerPublished 3 months ago 9 min read
The Gift I Cannot Give
Photo by Alexandre Chambon on Unsplash

Eighteen years into a marriage and twenty-two years into a relationship with the same person, I can tell you how happy I am after finding the right person. True love was not a divine gift from the heavens, though. After both agreeing to attempt happily ever after, it gets boring and hard to watch. Much of our love has been a carefully crafted structure made by two imperfect people. We have spent half a lifetime learning to respect one another and achieve shared goals. Because of this work, when I see my husband, I see a true love, a co-parent, a partner and the person who supported (and sometimes caused the need for) most of the emotional growth in my adulthood.

And yet, romance is a timeless trope. It’s a deep, yearning human need that is so powerful that the same message can be conveyed in thousands upon thousands of songs, artworks, stories and films without feeling stale or redundant. The thrill of investing yourself in the happiness of two people destined for a fairytale ending is worth watching the terrible twists and turns that happen on the way. These stories give us the opportunity to become vulnerable, to leave the challenges of life and redirect our attention entirely to the wellbeing of someone we have come to care about.

In some ways, it’s like the care and investment that I have in the happiness of my children.

I have been surprised by the power of my emotions as I watch my boys, whose happiness has often come before my own, navigate heartbreak and rejection, vulnerability, risk and reward in their own romantic lives.

Sometimes, it kills me that I cannot make the person they want love them back. I cannot go out and find someone to see and love them for the amazing people I know that they are. In this arena, I cannot help at all.

Wishing for my four boys to find someone to love who loves them back fairly, respectfully and perhaps without end has made it clear that this is a place where we, as parents, can only watch and hope for the best. And sometimes that sucks beyond the telling.


As I write this, two of my boys are grown and two are on the cusp of tweendom. The older boys have a different perspective than their brothers on the examples of love and commitment around them. As children of an international divorce, they spent their childhood navigating two separate cultures of love and commitment while watching their parents go through their own processes of finding love again. Love, to their young minds, was an unstable thing that could be pulled out from under you in a life-ruining way at any time.

I came into their lives when they were four and six and their mother found her own lifelong companion about four years later. By then, they had already formed their viewpoints. They spent their teen years proclaiming their victimhood, feeling cheated of two parents in one country and blaming those of us who came along after as the reason they couldn’t have what they wanted.

Both boys were handsome and charming, rebellious in a way that is catnip to many high school girls. The oldest was a serial dater at the time- he couldn’t find a way to become vulnerable enough to let someone in, so he ended things with a lot of very nice girls for reasons that were, in his words, completely their faults. He was the angry kid who forced his will on the world, trying to get it to change around him instead of the other way around. It took a series of unexpected failures for him to find his way. As he did, he found some mentors who were tough but loyal. He began to learn to trust.

As he matured romantically, he learned the hard way that being with the wrong person who is unlikely to leave you can only lead to heartbreak. And as the person in the family who doesn’t like to learn from the examples of others, this lesson was repeated a few times before it sunk in.

Then he found the girl who saw him, who advocated for him and who told him he was being unreasonable when he was. As a family, we all fell in love with her ourselves and celebrated their engagement fully.

Something unexpected shifted several months after their engagement. Their relationship ended before the wedding, nearly a year after he proposed. We still don’t know the reasons why, as it’s too painful for our son to share. Our only clue that things were going sour was that he stopped contacting us completely. He may never tell us exactly what happened. Our two youngest two sons cried for days at the news of losing her as a family member.

As he is a grown man living on his own, our oldest doesn’t share his dating life with us. We don’t expect to get to know more until he finds someone to be serious about again. But we do worry that he may not become vulnerable enough to trust someone else for a long time.


Our second son views the philosophy of how to love quite differently. He is anxious about the world, which has led to some self-fulfilling unhappiness. He is afraid to change even the most terrible situation in his life because enduring is a known quantity and anything new might be worse.

When he finds a girl that he is serious with, the relationship grows quickly to become deep and all-encompassing. He doesn’t know how to be around others when a girlfriend is around. If he brings her to our house, he speaks only to her in hushed voices and the rest of us are background.

Breakups are as intense as the relationship. They sometimes happen because the girl feels smothered. While he is drawn to motivated, independent women, he feels unsure, perhaps unsafe, unless they are both without autonomy anymore. While he is humble and self-reflective about many things, this trait has remained a willful blind spot.

As he has gotten older, he dates less and less, or at least the serious ones (the ones we get to meet) are further apart. There are other things that he wants to change in his life. We hope that as he gains the confidence and self-worth that come with meeting new goals, that new opportunities and styles of love will also come.


My younger two boys are a few years from discovering their own views of romance, but we already know that there will be challenges for both. With happily married parents, they grew up with a different view of love than their brothers. They are unguarded and are open to affection, even in public. However, both boys have different diagnoses that may alter the way in which romance enters their lives.

Our third son is bright, curious, creative and thoughtful. Most of his friends at school are girls, possibly because he prefers to talk, sing and do artwork at recess instead of playing sports. His muscular dystrophy makes him smaller, slower and less coordinated than the other kids, so he may have gotten tired of being picked last.

When it comes to romance, the people who love him will need to be extraordinary enough to see him for who he is. We don’t yet know if his degenerative condition will mean he spends an adulthood on a walker or in a wheelchair. His weak core means that he struggles with incontinence and sometimes smells like urine. Spontaneous sleepovers will be unlikely because he needs to sleep at night with a breathing machine.

Already, there are kids in his class who laugh and reject based on his size and physical ability. He pretends like it’s nothing around the family as a group, but shares the deep hurt that he feels about it with me in private.

While we cannot be sure until it happens, I suspect that love for him will be a long journey not with dramatic meet-cutes where everyone knows at once. Instead, it may grow from long-lasting friendships built of thoughtful acts and mutual trust. While these kinds of relationships grow, I hope he is not too lonely if he is not included when kids around him meet, pair up, split and rejoin with others. I hope that he is able to find the kind of people who can look into his huge heart and find all the reasons that we can see why he is worth cherishing. Right now, he is vulnerable, open about his feelings and eager to talk about emotions. Sometimes I lay awake at night worrying that casual cruelty will drain this from him one rejection at a time.


Of all my boys, it is the baby that has always been the most physically expressive with love. He is a child of extremes- unabashedly enthusiastic or completely closed off. Due to a misunderstanding of the condition, it took until late in elementary school for us to understand that some of these extreme reactions come from a neurodivergent brain.

This child craves touch. It is the thing that centers him, that calms him. At home, he is free to hug and kiss and walk around with a cape and a stuffed animal when he feels uncertain. At school, he gets anxious and finds inappropriate ways to express his needs. He will poke, place items in peoples’ hair and scream loudly in ears. We are constantly reinforcing good touch versus bad, but he doesn’t always remember once he gets past a certain stress point.

Our boy cannot understand emotions in others, especially anger and impatience. He is the child who cannot read body language or understand unspoken requests. When we begin talking about sex and physical affection with him, we will need to have extra conversations on how to ask permission to touch and how to check in with a partner many times to make sure that everyone is comfortable. We suspect that will need to reinforce these conversations a lot.

Our youngest son is also open and vulnerable. Like child number 2, he loves in an all-encompassing way. With friendships, he hurtles himself full-throttle toward anyone who is nice to him. Eventually, they back away because he has come on too strong, and he is left confused. He has not yet figured out how to be a friend.

Perhaps his family will be enough for him after a heartbreak. So far, without friends, it has been. As I do not have autism, I cannot guess if he will yearn to be loved the way I did as a teen. I suspect that he will have a lot to teach us when the time comes.


As parents of babies, we seek to provide comfort. But every day of their life, it becomes more true for children that a life without challenge is a life without self-worth or accomplishment. As parents, we need to allow our children to suffer at times and to trust in their own inner strength to overcome it. When it wrecks them, we need to encourage them to pick themselves up, to explore the durability of what is left over and use it to build something stronger from there. When they close up behind the armor of grief and pain, we need to encourage them to keep the vulnerability that makes them capable of love. Even when it’s easier to do it for them. Even when it kills us to watch.

But here’s what they may not realize- just like we fall in love like the characters with every romance song and movie we watch, we break every time that they break. We feel every rejection that they let us see and spend every night that they do wishing that the right person could love them, could see them, could let them be enough.

As an audience member, you can walk away from a story at any time. A year later, you may remember the cute or funny part of the plot, but you don’t remember their names or the quirky tragedies they endured on the way to certain love.

As a parent, you cannot walk away from the desire to have your children feel heard and seen by someone kind who lifts them up. You will inevitably worry when you know that they are the ones who need to mature before they can get to the happy ending they want. There is a double-edged danger in dispensing unwanted advice versus saying nothing while the same mistakes are made again and again. You will always be torn between helping not enough and watching them suffer and helping them too much and pushing them away.

If you are like me, thoughts like this will hover perpetually in the backdrop of your mind like art on a wall.

Perhaps when you need it to quiet down, you will find respite and gratitude in turning to and sharing with your own romantic partner. Together, you will try to find a balanced place among uncomfortable thoughts where they can remain important and true without being overwhelming. You will mark this place within the lattice of your life together to revisit when needed. Then you can return, for a time, to your own joyful acts of love.


About the Creator

Penny Fuller

(Not my real name)- Other Labels include:

Lover of fiction writing and reading. Aspiring global nomad. Woman in science. Most at home in nature. Working my way to an unconventional life, story by story and poem by poem.

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