My son is 5 years old. He is silly and sensitive, kind and cautious. He is my firstborn. 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 20 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 his sibling 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 (“Mommy! I need to see you!” “Not now, I’m in the bathroom.” “But I looooove you!”). One time at bedtime, she spontaneously said 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 was thinking, “Like? Really, like?” (And maybe, guiltily, a little bit, “You don’t know who birthed you kiddo!”) Out loud I said, “You don’t need to like either of us better.”
I let it go, and we continued our drive. But I really, really wanted to hear him say it. Why was this so hard? He can 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 rearview mirror. He bowed his head to the side as if he were 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, said, “I can’t…reach…you.” We both laughed. The moment was done. He didn’t say it—but I knew. I know.