When I cradled my son moments after his birth in 1984, I told my wife that I understood the meaning of love at first sight.
I gazed at our baby boy, who was vulnerable and dependent on my wife and me. Among the many promises I made to him was that he would only know unconditional love from me. I whispered, “I love you.” I pledged to repeat those three magic words daily. I believed that would be enough to ensure an emotional bond that would last forever.
Now I know better.
I’m not minimizing the necessity of expressing my love; virtually every conversation or correspondence between my son and me concludes with “I love you.” But three-plus decades as a dad have taught me that unless my son feels that he is also unconditionally acknowledged by me — that is, heard — “I love you” is the nutritional equivalent of an empty calorie. Telling my son that I hear him says that I really do love him.
Understanding this took time. Considering my experience with my own father, I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me sooner. When I was a child, my father always seemed too tired, too distracted or too upset about something to hear me. He wasn’t physically abusive. But his temper frightened my brother and me, because we knew that anything could detonate it — including us — at any time, for reasons we neither understood nor could anticipate. Risk one more appeal for attention and kaboom!
My childhood memories involve anxiety, frustration, anger and a deep fear that what I had to say wasn’t worth much. Nor, I believed, was I.
When my son was a child, I was riddled with self-doubt and haunted by the fear that just as I could not love my father, eventually my son would not love me. This intensified during his adolescence. When my son’s juvenile reactions to my well-meaning comments felt dismissive or hurtful, I struck back by withdrawing emotionally, sometimes barely speaking to him for several days. When he tried to speak with me, I’d murmur short, flat responses and walk away, hearing nothing.
His pained expression as I turned away did not escape me, and I knew that just as my father didn’t hear me, I wasn’t hearing my son. By turning a deaf ear to his words, I imagined I was crushing his soul.
I knew I had some dad-work to do.
Aided by reading, counseling and introspection, I began taking responsibility for hearing what my son was saying, even when his language displeased, angered or hurt me. The key was acknowledging my urge to turn away but staying put. I continually told myself: He is an adolescent, you’re the adult. Act like it! Listen. Don’t interrupt, criticize, dismiss or negate his words. You can think, “Yeah, but.” But don’t say it. Instead, say you hear him, understand him and believe him.
I wasn’t always successful, but I tried.
Eventually, I noticed a huge change in myself. My anger and guilt over not listening to him diminished. I was proud of behaving like the dad I aspired to be, rather than the one I feared I’d turn into.
I also noticed a change in my son. His pained expression, the dismay and disbelief I’d seen in the past, disappeared. He still got angry with me, but the anger always faded, sometimes quickly. And our disagreements stopped lingering for days.
Listening quietly isn’t always easy, especially when what my son says isn’t what I want to hear. I recall an interaction we had more than a decade ago, when he was in college. He had phoned home one night.
“I’m feeling stressed,” he said.
Though his concerns weren’t life-threatening, I felt an urgent need to help.
“How about I come to visit and we talk more about what’s bothering you.”
“That would be great,” he said.
On the bus ride, I felt like the cavalry: to the rescue! I was a wonderful dad. We met and spoke, and on the way home I knew that I had eased his distress.
This incident came up again last year, when my son said, “Dad, I wish you hadn’t come to see me. I needed for me to solve my own difficulties, not you.”
My heart sank. I wanted to explain my perspective, to assure him of my pure intentions. Instead, though, I listened. He explained that my reflex to solve his problems wasn’t helpful. I listened. He related other, similar incidents. I listened to those, too.
It was tough. But I’m satisfied with that conversation. Not because I defended my intentions, or apologized, or explained my side — I did none of those things — but because I said, sincerely, painfully and more than once: I hear you.
I continue to practice hearing my son. I say practice because maintaining this habit feels like muscle-building. When we speak, I try to listen without interruption, without changing the subject, without making the conversation about me, without inserting my opinion. I ask questions that pertain to what he’s talking about, and listen some more.
I’ve discovered that what my son needs most is a dad in whose presence he feels heard. And the more I hear him, the more he wants to hear from me.
I hear you speaks volumes about who we are to one another, and ourselves. I hear you tells my son that I am totally present, and that I acknowledge what is important to him is important to me. I hear you lets him know he is taken seriously and believed, and is worthwhile. It tells him he is safe, secure and of course, loved.
It’s still hard sometimes. We deeply love and respect each other, but we don’t always agree, and sometimes that makes it hard to listen. We are learning, though, that we don’t have to agree. Recognition, not rubber-stamp like-mindedness, is at the heart of I hear you. It’s about acknowledging his truth, unconditionally, including deep-seated feelings about me that are dispiriting and painful.
And it’s worth the effort.
Paul Alan Ruben writes regularly about fathers and sons. His short story collection, “Terms of Engagement: Stories of the Father and Son,” was published November, 2018. Twitter @paul_alan_ruben.