My son and I are on our way home from preschool when he breaks the news: He is in love. Miss A is a new teacher at his school. She is young, tall, and beautiful and works over at the “baby room.” But he saw her enough on the playground to know that she is the one. He quickly reassures me that he loves me too and I work really hard to repress a giggle. Because love is serious business.
When we get home we immediately have to make a card for Miss A. He picks out a pink marker and a couple of stickers—snakes, insects, butterflies. He is sure Miss A loves those things. Then he sits next to me to dictate the letter: “Miss A, I love you so much. You are so beautiful. I love you very, very much.”
I don’t know what it is that makes me change his words as I write the card. I feel badly about it almost immediately, and feel ashamed for censoring his emotions. But I want him to use those words sparingly, to not reveal too much, too soon. But am I right in this?
My parents never told me they loved me when I was a child.
I never had a doubt in mind that they did. Everything they ever did with their lives happened for me and for my brother: missed careers, late nights at second jobs, shuttling us to private English lessons, spending money they didn’t have on toys and trips to make sure we never wanted for anything. I always knew that they loved and cherished me and that they would sacrifice everything for me in a heartbeat.
But the words “I love you” were never spoken by them or by my grandparents when we were young.
It wasn’t until my mom started to work at the American Embassy in Budapest, surrounded by Americans, that we started to say “I love you” to each other. The way Americans are so free and open with expressing their emotions in words was contagious, and my family caught on. Tentatively, at first, but then with abandon, every time we talked on the phone or saw each other we said “I love you.” We even graduated to the more intense expression in Hungarian, which roughly translates to “I adore you.”
When I first started dating, I was careful with how and when I said “I love you” to my boyfriend. You can only say it for the first time once, and you can never take it back. So I used it sparingly during my dating career, saving it for those times when there was nothing else left to say.
And now I am married to an American who says “I love you” all the time. The first time he told me was in the middle of the night as we reached for each other while adjusting pillows. “Do you love me as much as I love you?” he mumbled in the darkness and I knew even then, half asleep, that I definitely did.
And now, after 13 years of marriage, he still says it all the time: first thing in the morning, when he calls to check in during the day, when he comes home, when I am cooking dinner, when we are bathing our son, when we are watching TV, when I am brushing my teeth, when we go to bed. I love you, I love you, I love you.
Some days I want to tell him to stop saying it. I don’t want him to waste it, to run out of occasions and reasons to say it. And I wonder if expressing such a private emotion with such ease and freedom somehow cheapens it. What happened to showing, not telling?
It’s definitely harder, for sure, to show love with actions only. My husband does that too—I know he loves me from the way he looks at me, the way he lines up my shoes I leave haphazardly in the hallway, the way he does the laundry, makes ice cream runs, the way he smiles and brings me tea when I am sitting in the dark with my headphones on, writing. Of course he loves me. I would know it even if he never said a word to me.
I try to keep up and say it to him just as much, but I still feel guarded about using up my “I love yous.” I am here. I ironed your shirts. I scratched the itchy spot on your back. I made you a cocktail. I let you sleep in Saturday. Of course I love you.
Of course, then there is our son.
I tell him that I love him all the time. It just seems to pour out of me, the words sweet and precious, not even close to expressing what I really feel for him. But I have a compulsion to say it, whisper it into his soft little ears, into his open-mouthed laughter, into his sweaty neck. He says it to me all the time and I know that this is true love.
We teach our son to express other emotions and he is pretty eloquent when he identifies anger, sadness, or disappointment. “Use your words” is a constant mantra in our house. To say “I am angry” instead of shoving his friend. Or to say “it made me sad that you took away my toy” when he wants his toy back from his classmate.
So what is it about his “I love you” letter that makes me squeamish? I tell myself that it’s because I want to protect him from heartbreak. Sure, there is that, but then I realize that I am also jealous of his freedom in saying exactly what he feels.
He doesn’t know about heartbreak, about hiding true feelings, about putting on an act to look cool. He just knows the truth of those words—that when you feel the feeling, you name it, and say it. Happiness. Anger. Sadness. Love. I wish I were as good at identifying and expressing my emotions every day, but just as I feel like it’s a risk to say “I love you,” it’s also a risk to say “I am disappointed” or “I am scared” or “I am happy.” Do I say those enough? Probably not.
I don’t censor the next card we make for Miss A. I watch my son run up to her on the playground and I think about how quickly this pure, innocent, exhilarating love is lost to the years, to experience, to heartbreak and how lucky I am to get a glimpse of it again through my son’s eyes.
I might be trying to teach him how to show love, but he is teaching me how to use my words.
Zsofia McMullin lives in Connecticut and blogs at Zsofi Writes.
Like On Parenting on Facebook for more news and essays.
You might also like: