I have come to realize that my sons do not say “I love you.” I am trying to train them to at least respond, “I love you, too.” But lately, I’ve shied away from doing so.
One night, a while back, I was tucking Hayden(7) in to bed and I said, “Goodnight, buddy, I love you.” Silence filled the room. His face was buried in his pillow. Frustrated, I said, “I love you, too, dad.” Still nothing. I tickled him. He relented. “Sort of”, he mumbled into the pillow. “Sort of?” I shouted back. “Yeah,” he said, “it means a little.'”
For a time, this incident made me sad. He knows I love him, I’d think. I hug him, kiss him, tickle him, and show him affection daily. And I know, deep down, deeeeeeeeeeeeep, deeeeeeeeeeeeeep down, he loves me, too.
Lately, though, I’ve changed my attitude about the lack of “I love yous” I hear. I’ve had to search for why this affected me so much. There’s the obvious need to love and be loved, but I knew it ran deeper than that.
Why do we say “I love you”? What purposes does it serve? Certainly, it varies from relationship to relationship. Ultimately, however, I think it serves to remind people how much we care about them. But, as I consider this spoken gesture more, I also think it’s a way for us to remind them that they love us, too–or they SHOULD, we think (we hope).
Whenever I tell Owen (9) I love him, I do not get a response, but I feel a sense of acceptance. If I could read his thoughts, it seems they would say something like, “Of course you love me, I’m your son. I’m your first-born. I’m a good kid…but you don’t need to say it all the time–it’s a given. Relax.” Yet, often, when I tell Hayden I love him, there is almost a defiance in his reaction. His mouth turns into a half-smile/half-frown–a frile, if you will. I’m not sure I want to read his thoughts. I think he fights my love–I feel him rejecting this level of emotion because either he doesn’t feel worthy of my love, or he doesn’t want to care about me so deeply–or maybe a little of both.
But the love my boys identify with today, they will remember decades from now.
I still remember the lunch my mother packed me for my first grade field trip to the Philadelphia Zoo. I walked home for lunch everyday, so packing a lunch was a treat. The bag was stuffed with all kinds of deliciousness: a ham and cheese sandwich, potato chips, a soda, cracker jacks AND a candy bar. I knew I had the best lunch in my group. I wanted to shout for joy from the top of the monorail. That day, that lunch made me feel so special, so loved.
I still remember the time in second grade when I came home with a bad grade on a spelling test. I was so nervous to show my parents. And even though I was supposed to get it signed, I decided to hide it where no one would find it–under the clothes dryer. It was someone’s birthday that night and my grandparents were over for dinner. Towards the end of the meal, it dawned on me that the dryer gets very hot. As a junior neurotic, I decided that my spelling test would catch on fire and burn the house down. I began to cry. “I’ve done something bad–really bad.” My whole family, grandparents included, marched down to the laundry room. My dad laid on the floor and fished the paper out from underneath the dryer. He was not mad at all–about my subterfuge or my poor spelling. He smiled and said, “Next time, just tell us, okay.” “Okay,” I said, whimpering. As we ate our cake, I felt oddly elated–my dad loves me even when I make mistakes!
Both of these memories evoke times when I felt wholly loved by my parents. A very pure, somewhat magical feeling.
I grew up in a house where “I love you” was spoken a lot. Ours was a large family in a small house. Day-to-day, amid the chaos, it was hard to sense the love, but the words were uttered. As we left for school each morning, these three words would be part of the exchange between the seven of us and our parents. And each night, before bed, I would kiss my mom and dad, and say, “Goodnight. I love you. See you in the morning.” My mother would respond with her now-infamous “God willing,” leaving me to conjure her death as I laid down to sleep. My father? I don’t remember his response. I think it varied. But, I marvel at the fact that I kissed him goodnight throughout my childhood, and with every hello and goodbye as an adult.
For me, for my past, love was a spoken reminder. Perhaps the words were said in an attempt to add calm to the fray. Yet, those words hung like an albatross around my neck for much of my life. Often, love felt heavy, sad, anxious, chaotic. Often, love felt conditional.
To this day, my mother says “I love you,” to me every time we speak. If she calls me four times in a day, she says it four times. In an attempt to not become obsessive about this (which I think makes me more obsessive about it) I purposely do not respond with an “I love you, too” every time she says it–I shoot for fifty percent of the time. I am aware that my mother takes note of this.
Perhaps my refusal to overstate my love stems from the fact that, even now, there seems to be an unspoken obligation with those words, as if love can magically erase all the burdens of our past, or is the antidote for all that ails the relationships in a family. Love cannot. At least the words cannot. As cliché as it sounds, “Actions speak louder than words.” I love my mom, and I know that she loves me, but I’ve realized in life that saying I love you and doing I love you are very far removed.
When I first became a part of my wife Pam’s family, I marveled at the fact that they rarely said “I love you.” It is written in cards, but not said at the end of every encounter. It was as if I were finally connecting all the dots: Hmmm. They don’t go around saying they love each other all the time, but I know they do. They are kind to one another, and respectful of each other’s opinions, and they do thoughtful things for one another–DING! Oh, you can feel it but not have to say it every day, every phone call, every exchange. I found this to be very refreshing.
Pam and I do say it often–even several times a day, which I appreciate, because she is the most important person in my world–my life partner. In that case, I find it strengthens our bond.
As for the boys, I find I say it often to them, and usually there is no response. At first, this made me feel angry, worried. Then it dawned on me–they feel loved. They feel my love. Their needs are being met daily. They want for very little and we spend a good deal of time together, interacting or just in each other’s presence. I believe that structure, that sense of stability, makes these words seem unnecessary to them. Thus, there is no need for them to say it back to me. For now. For now, they just need to know that they are loved and feel they are loved. And in the end, all of us need to accept that we are worthy of the love we are given.
Once again, having children has taught me valuable life lessons. Kids may be the result of love, but we cannot create life as a way to force someone to love us back. Love is cultivated over time. For a parent, it seems that love begins with an ultrasound. For a child, that love manifests itself in stages. It is our job to teach children how to love, and the best way to do that is to show them. In short, to love them. Unconditionally.
“I love you” can serve as a reminder that you love me, too. Or it can serve as a reminder that you are loved. As a parent, I choose the latter, and I know what the answer is, even if it is unspoken.
Now, I seem to ponder the concept of love more. Whom I love. Who loves me. Not, who I have history with, or who I am in close proximity to, but who I have an abiding emotional connection to and for. It has been a very enlightening journey–emphasis on the lighten. I DO feel lighter. I used to think of love as something that anchored me, like a rock. Now, I try to view love as a feather, as a breath. Light and soft.