Being a Parent Means Never Getting to Hear I Love You

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My son is closing in on five years old. He is silly and sensitive, kind and cautious. He is my first born. I love him. I tell him that when I see him in the morning, when he leaves for school, when I say goodnight, and sprinkled throughout the day a few more times. I can count on one hand the number of times he has said it to me.

Normally this doesn’t bother me. I know he loves me. His eyes light up and he runs to me, delightedly calling “Mommy!”, whenever we’ve been apart for more than twenty minutes. He reaches for my hand instinctively when he’s scared or sad. He makes me elaborate drawings with monsters and hearts and planets. He confides in me.

But sometimes, I really want to hear it.

About a year ago, maybe a week or two after my baby was born, he went through a mini-stage where he would say “I hate you.” The first time he said it, dagger sticking out of my heart, I calmly explained that those were strong words and they hurt my feelings. He seemed to understand.

Then a few days later we were driving home from school. My daughter had recently gotten some nail polish for her birthday. My son wanted to wear some. I told him that he would have to ask my daughter, because it was hers. From the backseat came some indistinct mumbling, and then, clearly: “I hate you.” We had just pulled into the driveway. I wordlessly opened the car doors, unstrapped everyone, brought the baby inside and handed him to my husband, went up to our room and sobbed. Sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I could not pull it together. I felt like all I was doing was giving – nourishment, warmth, love. Birth. I didn’t need a “thank you” or even an “I love you” – but “I hate you?”

Finally after a very long time I came downstairs. I felt I had reached a point where I could talk calmly to my son about it. But as soon as I saw him, the pain of it hit me anew. Tears streamed down my face. My son was alarmed, shaken. He had almost never seen me cry. “I’m sorry!” he wailed. “Don’t cry!” But that’s not what I needed to hear. I needed to hear he loved me.

Several days later, I had tucked him in and was about to leave the room. As I was climbing down from his bunk he said “Mommy, I made a mistake. That time I said I hated you? That was a mistake.” “I know it was,” I said.

He stopped saying I hate you after that, but I love you didn’t take its place. My daughter is looser with the phrase. (E.g., “Mommy! I need to see you!” “Not now, I’m in the bathroom.” “But I looooove you!”). One time at bedtime, she said spontaneously how much she loved one of our relatives. My son grew concerned and said “I don’t know if I do.” Love is tricky. How do you explain it? He is a logical boy and he thinks very deeply. What is love?

I felt like I had pretty much moved past needing verbal confirmation from him about his love for me. But then, Monday happened. On Mondays my husband usually drops my daughter off at school while I drop off my son (unhelpfully, their schools are in opposite directions). I drop her off on her remaining two school days and am always the one to pick her up, and she gets upset by the change in routine. As my son and I were pulling out of the driveway we could see her face pressed against the window, could hear her crying loudly. I said to my son “She’s feeling really sad. It’s hard for her when Daddy drops her off.” He said “I like Daddy.” And then, “I like Daddy more than you.” Ouch.

I said, calmly, “That’s not very nice. That hurts my feelings.” He became flustered and said “I mean, I don’t know. I like both of you. I don’t know who I like more.” In my head I’m thinking “Like? Really – like?” (And maybe, guiltily, a little bit, you don’t KNOW – who birthed you kiddo!) Out loud I say “You don’t need to like either of us better.”

I let it go, we continued our drive. But I really, really wanted to hear him say it. Why was this so hard? He can he say he loves ninja turtles and new markers and Diego’s rescue pack, but he can’t say it to me? After a few minutes I said “I love you. I really love you a lot. I know you don’t like to say it, but I know you love me too.”

I looked at him through the rear view mirror. He bowed his head to the side as if he was going to shake it no. Instead he looked up and nodded.Tears in his eyes. He reached his hand out from the back row of the minivan – there was no way our hands would touch. I reached back too and then, quoting Super Friends “I can’t… reach… you.” We both laughed. The moment was done. He didn’t say it – but I knew. I know.

12 responses to “Being a Parent Means Never Getting to Hear I Love You

  1. This is quite a moving anecdote! Sounds like you have quite the pair of caring kids. I can relate to having a much better relationship with my parents later in life as an adult. Sadly, I’m sure “I love you” was not part of my daily routine as a child. What a great reminder to say it as often as possible now, cheers!

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  2. We say I love you to each other in our home all the time. My son is less vocal like yours about saying I love you, but it comes out every once in a while.
    When I was a teen, my mom had some health trouble, nothing serious. I started taking the time to sit with her each day and say I love you. Within a few months, she was gone, from a sudden heart attack. I will never forget those times I sat with her and the I love you we shared. Now I don’t hold back at all or at least try not to, you never know how short the time with someone will be.

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  3. What a moving story. I’m glad you had that special moment with your son. I remember the first time my son said “I love you” to me. It melted my heart. Hopefully as he gets older, your son will get more comfortable with his feelings. I think you’re handling these challenges in a great, understanding way. Now that I am a mom, I understand why my mom would often say, “After all I’ve done for you…” Being a mom is often a thankless job, but we wouldn’t give it up for the world.

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  4. How sad and sweet at the same time. I believe your son will tell you how much he loves you in time. I especially hope so for your sake. Maybe he just needs some more maturity under his belt.

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  5. This is beautiful. It sounds like your son is a deep thinker and a deep feeler. I respect that he wants those words to reflect their full meaning, even if he’s still puzzling out what that is. I also respect you for writing this very personal post. Hugs!

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