02/07/2012 09:00 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2012

Returning the Favor: Learning to Love Our Parents Unconditionally

Today is my mother's birthday. I have just recently begun to end phone calls by telling her that I love her. I'm sure I did it when I was five. It's the intervening 43 years that were a little quiet. Here's why I've changed:

A few months ago I attended the funeral of a good friend's mother. It wasn't her death that changed me; rather it was my friend's words. At the funeral, my friend spoke passionately about his relationship with his mother in the framework of unconditional love.

His thesis was that parents unconditionally love their children, but the reverse is almost never true. More often, we judge, are embarrassed by, criticize, dismiss and sometimes, on a good day, begrudgingly accept our parents. My friend had decided to change that dynamic in the last years of his mother's life and, for him, it had made all the difference.

Recently, I spent a good amount of time reflecting on why this was often the case, especially in my own life. I have two brothers and no sisters and, as a result, my family was not much given to effusive shows of emotion. My mother was more likely to break an arm chasing after us (which she did) than receive the embrace of a loving son. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my upbringing wasn't the reason my love for her came with conditions. Instead, it had much more to do with the way that we tend to think about our parents.

The conclusion that I came to was that, as adult children, we don't see our parents as the individuals that they are -- and always were. We only see them as derivatives of ourselves or, at best, colored by our experiences rather than by their own histories. In dramatic terms, we see ourselves as the heroes or protagonists of our own stories and our parents as supporting players within those stories rather than as the leading men and women of their own lives.

My admiration for my mother is, to be honest, unbounded. She is intelligent, witty and possessed with a subtle grace that makes her more popular than I will ever be. For example, when my brother came home from the military with a squadron tattoo, she announced, "I'm so proud; it's the first in the family." But until I started to see her in her own light rather than mine, I couldn't really appreciate her courage and her accomplishment in their own right.

I need to tell one story so that readers will understand what I mean. To understand, you also need to know that my mother is a white, Jewish woman in her seventies (sorry mom).

My parents and I share a passion for educational reform and I sit on the board of an organization that develops urban boarding schools for at-risk youths. About seven years ago, my mother, my wife, and I were trying to raise funds to develop a second school and were accompanying a potential donor through the first school in Anacostia. For those who do not frequent D.C., Anacostia is a portion of Washington that does not much benefit from the lobbying revenue or government largess that fill the pockets of the D.C. establishment. It is literally the "other side" of the river from the tourist areas. It is 95 percent minority populated and, as a barometer of its bleak economy, had no chain grocery store until 2007.

We were being escorted around the library of the school by an eighth grader. My mother stopped her and asked what she was reading. The girl responded that she was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My mother, with her subtle sense of humor, smiled and said, "Oh, I knew Malcolm. He was such a sweet man." She then turned back to my wife and I, and added, "Of course, none of us ever thought anyone would take him that seriously."

So I asked, somewhat incredulously, "Mom, you knew Malcolm X?" She said, "Of course, dear," as if everyone had. She explained to me that in 1960, during the early stages of the civil rights movement, she had enrolled in Howard University, a predominantly African-American University, to get a master's degree in social work. There, she and her group of friends were exposed to him and other leaders of the civil rights movement. After graduating, she had dedicated her entire career to working in low-income public school systems, which she still does today.

The point for me was that I had never seen my mother as the independent young woman who didn't take the conservative road or even as a first-hand witness to what is now history. This perspective on my parents limited my understanding, and more importantly, my appreciation of them. Since then, I've tried to ask questions about the decisions both my parents made throughout their lives, in an attempt to better navigate my own life as well as to gain an appreciation of their success in a different world.

Just as my friend rebuilt his unconditional love for his mother, I have begun to work my way back from years of misunderstanding my mother. I had always admired the wit, wisdom, humor and grace that my mother exhibited. But coming to understand that these were skills developed in a world that can only be history to me has allowed me to better appreciate the woman that she is.

It is a method we can all benefit from, getting to know our parents as individuals distinct from ourselves with their own achievements, successes, and, yes, failings. Maybe then we can learn to give them the unconditional love they have offered us for so long.

Happy birthday, Mom. I love you. Unconditionally.