Growing up, I was obsessed with being chosen.
I realize now that I was surrounded by love and a community that many would envy. I never questioned my parents’ love for me or for each other. My closest friends were the children of my parents’ friends, and our relationships were strong enough then that we still stay in touch today.
Still, I felt that the love I enjoyed somehow didn’t count. After all, I thought, my parents had to love me and care for me because I was their daughter. My friends and I had grown up together, so it seemed only natural that we’d be close. Since I was homeschooled through junior high and high school, I didn’t have as many chances to join cliques or experience popularity rites-of-passage like being chosen for an Ultimate Frisbee team. In moments of insecurity, I wondered if anyone I knew really loved me for who I was–if anyone wanted to be my friend because I was so interesting, smart, talented or beautiful.
I longed for someone, a boyfriend, probably, who would come along and pick me out of a crowd because I was just what he was looking for.
These insecurities all came with me to college. During a giddy freshman year, I was thrilled when fellow students sought me out and befriended me. I even went out on a date or two. I truly felt that I had found a place for myself and had gained acceptance from people who chose me because of how wonderful I was.
The years that followed brought harder realizations. I had fights with college roommates and experienced the loneliness of rejection. Some of my freshman friends lost interest in me because I wasn’t fun enough or because I studied too much and was often unavailable. The long-term dating relationship I hoped for never materialized, and crushes fizzled.
The final semester of my senior year was dark. I battled the worst depression of my life as I faced the uncertainty of a job search. So many of my former friends seemed to have moved on, and others actively chose not-me, rejections I felt keenly. I was certain the future would find me alone.
When I got my first job after graduation working at a local newspaper in a North Carolina military town, I quickly found that my stock had risen overnight. As a single 22-year-old girl in a town full of young men away from their homes, I could get a date whenever I felt like it. Many guys were looking for relationships, and I was often the one doing the rejecting. Becoming a hot commodity felt great, but it didn’t silence the nagging feeling of inadequacy. I just tried harder to be what I thought people wanted: the fun, adventurous friend or the sweet and attentive date.
But when my relationship with Ben began, things started to change. He told me he’d been attracted to me because he liked my smile and the fact that I’d first befriended him and made him feel cared for and wanted. It was an answer that frustrated me, in that he didn’t fall for me first because of my looks or intellect or scintillating wit. But it also made me feel warm and happy.
Neither of us had been in a serious long-term relationship before, and both of us had a lot to learn about it. Throughout our dating relationship and into the early days of our marriage, I was constantly preoccupied with the idea that I might become less attractive or less interesting or more annoying and lose part of Ben’s love. I needed regular reassurance that, yes, he still loved me when I was tired or stressed or gaining baby weight or — worse yet — non-baby weight.
Each time, he would hold me close and tell me that he would choose me again.
The mystery of love and choosing has become a little clearer to me with the arrival of our baby daughter into the world. She is sweet and adorable and charming, but my love for her is not contingent on any of those qualities. And even though she is my baby, I still have to choose to love her in very practical ways every day–to play with her when I’m tired and to comfort her and feed her when she wakes up scared or hungry in the middle of the night.
My love for Ben is not so very different. I stopped tabulating his good and bad qualities some time ago. Though his character and personality attracted me to him, I don’t love him because of his good attributes or in spite of his flaws. I love him because he’s him and I’m committed to him and we’re committed to each other. And I have opportunities to choose him every day my loving him in practical ways and staying warm and connected, instead of becoming distant or aloof.
I realize now I had it all wrong in childhood. My parents proved their love for me daily by choosing to nurture and care for me even when I destroyed my dad’s laptop with a cup of Chai tea or fought with my mom until she cried.
My childhood friends are some of the truest I’ve ever had, regardless of how we came to know each other. We chose each other for friendship with every letter exchanged, every phone call and sleepover, every disagreement we worked to reconcile.
As it turns out, love works better when it’s not based on fleeting, unstable things like attractiveness or talent or popularity. Love doesn’t have to be blind, but it does see past flaws and failings. Love is best unearned. Though I’ve had friendships and relationships that let me down, I’ve also experienced this true kind of love throughout my life from the people that matter most within it.
As it turns out, I had been chosen all along.