“How do you know you’re ready to get married?”
I was 21 years old, sitting next to my 23-year-old fiancé, and the pastor who would perform our wedding ceremony in two months was testing the waters, I suppose. Is there a right answer to that question? Some statement of certainty that would assure him that we were, in fact, ready?
“Oh, I’m not,” I replied. “I’m not sure anyone’s ready for marriage. I think marriage makes a person ready for marriage.”
I’m not exactly sure where that answer came from, how that little seed of wisdom had come to take root in my mind. I was afraid; I remember that. I come from a long line of happy second marriages, and I was smart enough to acknowledge that getting married so young wasn’t a very good strategy for breaking that cycle. But I loved him, and I trusted him, and he asked me to marry him and I wanted to do it. And even though I didn’t feel ready, I suspected that I never would. I suspected that in the end, a life-long commitment is always a leap of faith.
The concept of readiness seemed to imply far too much certainty for something as wild and unpredictable as love. I could never have known what shape our marriage would take, what challenges and joys and surprises and practicalities we’d navigate over the years. Our love is uniquely ours; it didn’t exist before we created it. How could we have possibly been ready?
There were never any guarantees for our marriage. There still aren’t. One of us could get sick, or experience identity-changing grief, or lose our faith, or find faith in something new, or change our mind about something that seemed written in stone. Someone could cheat. Someone could die. Devastating heartbreak could strike on any given day, really, but we continue on, undeterred. These are our wedding vows, terrifying but beautiful, lived out one day at a time.
Because isn’t great love always a great risk?
To love with your whole heart is the most reckless, vulnerable thing you can ever do. It is to put yourself directly in the way of heartbreak—in a wide array of possibilities—and build your house there. Whether heartbreak looks like loss or grief or pain or abandonment or a turn-your-life-upside-down change of plans, to love wholly is to accept that risk. It is to put your well-being in someone else’s hands, and hope they are able and willing to hold it carefully for as long as you both shall live. I accepted that risk when I got married, when I suspected that readiness would always be elusive, and we’d later learn just how vulnerable it can be to choose love.
My hope, of course, was that my great love would be matched with great love. I hoped the love in my own heart would enable me to be kind, patient, understanding, and steadfast. I hoped the people I loved would be able to do the same. I hoped none of the terrible things that we can’t control would come to pass, and that when hard things inevitably did happen, that we would handle them with grace and selflessness and that in the end we would grow closer to each other. Whether as a result of preparation, good fortune, or some sort of divine protection, I hoped that heartbreak would never come.
Since good fortune and divine protection are so painfully outside our control, I’ve often busied myself with tasks of preparation. I make lists and set benchmarks and seek approval, desperately hoping that I will be ready for love. That’s certainly what my husband and I were doing in that premarital counseling session, fresh-faced and smitten and hoping to receive a seal of readiness from an objective third party before we took our sacred vows.
I did this when I was pregnant, too, preparing to embark on an entirely new journey of great love. I read the books and the blogs. I took supplements and attended prenatal yoga classes. I abstained from wine and nitrates and nail salon fumes. I did my very best to ensure my baby would be healthy and smart and that I would have all the right tools to raise him in the most ideal environment possible. I did my best to maintain a sense of control over my life, my wellbeing, my heart. Because if I could control it, we could be safe. I did my best to ensure that I would not be heartbroken in motherhood.
And fortunately, I wasn’t. I gave birth to a healthy baby boy who has grown into a razor-sharp second-grader. While motherhood has certainly brought a bevy of challenges and hardships, I have been lucky enough to escape the big heartbreaks that mothers fear: The bad news ultrasound, the delivery room trauma, the extra testing, or course-changing diagnoses. My love for my son is unconditional and unwavering, and while I know it would endure any challenge or hardship, those fates would demand that my love flow from a broken heart.
While we were in the process of adopting our second child through the foster system, attending classes and jumping through hoops and passing background checks, lots of well-intentioned people asked us if we were afraid. Were we afraid of getting a baby whose mother had done drugs? Were we afraid that the baby would eventually get taken away from us and reunited with a biological family member? Were we afraid our adopted child would feel less loved than our biological son? One friend, upon learning of our plans to adopt through the foster system while casually playing cornhole at a backyard barbecue, asked us why on earth we would wanted “damaged goods” when we were fully capable of having more “real” kids. His question, though harsher sounding than the others, was essentially the same: Weren’t we afraid of getting our hearts broken?
Of course we were. Just like I was afraid to get married. Just like I was afraid to become a mother the first time. Just like it’s always scary to open up your heart and give it away to someone else. Great love is always a great risk.
It was different with my second child, though. Not because there was more fear, but because there was less control. There was zero control, to be precise. We didn’t know if we’d be adopting an infant or a toddler, what our child’s race or health history would be, when we’d get the call, what any of it would look like. There was almost nothing we could do to prepare ourselves. And in that inability to prepare, I was freed from the illusion of control.
The premarital counseling? The prenatal pills? All of the ways I had busied myself to prepare for great love were really just boxes I could check to feel like I had done my part to ward off heartbreak. But great love is always a great risk. Always. If heartbreak isn’t a possibility, you’re not loving with your whole heart.
The lesson I learned through the lack of control I had during that adoption process was that the great risk isn’t that my husband and I will fall out of love, or that I’ll have a miscarriage or a baby with special needs, or that my child’s birth mom will be a drug addict. The great risk is that it will hurt. A broken relationship or a life-changing diagnosis doesn’t hurt when I read about it in the news. But it would hurt if it happened to the relationships and the people that I have given my heart to. And as terrifying as it is to acknowledge that I can’t really prevent any of that, it is also so wonderfully freeing. I can release my fear because it is irrelevant.
The work of motherhood requires faith and courage, just like all love requires faith and courage. We see the great risk of giving our hearts away, and we love greatly anyway. In recognizing the possibility of heartbreak, my love feels even greater. And when I let go of the idea that I can find a way to immunize myself from pain, I can revel in the love as it is today, here and now, come what may. I choose to give my love freely and unconditionally not because it is immune from heartbreak, but because it is worth heartbreak.
P.S. Don’t miss our Mother’s Day gift guide!