By Lauren Apfel
One of the very first parenting articles I ever read was about telling your child you love him. My son, my darling firstborn, was just turning two, and a friend in my moms group sent it around. “What do you think of this?” she asked in the email, admitting those three little words were not, in fact, a regular part of her own maternal repertoire. Gosh, I thought, realizing something I hadn’t quite considered before: I say “I love you” to my kid incessantly.
That kid is now ten and has been joined by three more. “I love you” is common currency in our house: what are children if not echo chambers of their parents? The oldest, tween angst and all, can barely leave the room without saying it. The youngest will idle around my legs while I unload the dishwasher, waiting for an opportunity. “I love you, Mom,” she’ll coo, as if it has newly occurred to her and requires immediate communication before she can return her attention to playing Lego.
I don’t think we are a family who loves each other in some unique or especially profound way. We have just made the words that stand for our love a constant flourish of the verbal dance we do. In the article, Hana Schank writes: “Of course everyone deserves to feel loved…But is hearing a parent say “I love you” equivalent to knowing you are loved? I would argue no.” She has point. It’s not an equivalent, and the repetition of those words—and their use at seemingly random moments—can even cause them to lose some of their meaning. All these years later, I am left wondering why I say it so damn much.
The frequency with which a parent articulates her love for her children is probably connected to how often—or not—it was said to her, when she was a child. I remember my dad telling us he loved us a lot. He was the more effusive of our parents, but he was also the less present (they divorced when I was two; he lived in a different state). Maybe the habit of verbalizing emotion—in letters, over the phone—was a crutch to deal with the distance. Maybe it was a means of compensation. My mom, on the other hand, was always there in all the ways that matter, but she doesn’t gush. While we say “I love you” on the phone now, as a routine sign-off, I don’t recall her pressing the point when I was younger.
It would have been easy for me to internalize from this childhood dynamic the cliche that “actions speak louder than words.” Instead, I took away the importance of both.
As somebody who then went on to spend years of her life studying the intricacies of language, I admit to being particularly invested in the power of words. But I also understand how, with use and time, their meanings can change. When I was a young adult, “love” was a grand thing to me, reserved for the greatest of romances, the most devoted of bonds. With that kind of heft attached to it, I didn’t say “I love you” very often. Now, however, love manifests differently for me. I have so many more relationships in my life, I am open to loving so many more people. Now love is a feeling, a flash—of friendship, of romance, of good will, of self-appreciation. It is the swell, in a given moment, of a mother adoring her child.
And when I feel it, I make every effort to say it.
In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson describes love as a micro-moment of positivity resonance, “a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day.” “Positivity resonance” is not an eloquent or especially lush way to describe a phenomenon poets have been struggling, from the beginning of time, to immortalize. And yet, the idea resonates with me: love, not as a continually present emotion, but as those seconds in any day when your heart bursts and your mind surges, when you are, boom, just like that, struck by a genuine connection to another person.
Maternal love might very well be deep and constant. But when I say “I love you” to my kids, it is, much of the time, because I am experiencing this temporary “flood of emotion.” It’s a verbal bear hug. It is a way to communicate, even from across the room, that despite whatever else is going on, in that second I feel truly connected to them. I actively cherish their existence.
There are a lot of reasons why a family might not say “I love you” to one another that have nothing to do with love’s lack. For some families, there is a gap between emotion and language, generated by the assumption that translating feelings directly into words is unnecessary or problematic. For others, “I love you” is simply too generic an expression, a shorthand better avoided in favor of more exact declarations of adoration, more specific acts of kindness.
For us, however, it is an important part of family life. Amidst the chaos of our days, we reach out to each other repeatedly with these little words that do big work. In this digital age, we don’t even need words anymore. We have emoticons, we have acronyms. Is a red heart from my son, popping up on iMessage, a further cheapening of this grand sentiment? I don’t think so. “Lysm,” he writes now, which means (apparently), “love you so much.” And when I see it on my screen I know, in that instant, he really does.
Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. At last count she told her four children she loved them 36 times in one day. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.