One of my children is very independent. Rather than hugging or kissing, she expresses affection indirectly, by leaning into people. If I ask her for a kiss goodbye at the school gates she offers me the side of her head, facing away. When she was around eight years old I realised that if I was too busy and didn’t make an effort a whole day could go by without me touching her, or telling her that I love her. Suddenly, sickeningly, I caught a glimpse of a gap that could open between us, and never close again.
This was the beginning point for my novel, Hope Farm. I thought: if the connection could so easily vanish between me – who has had every advantage in life and has every resource as a parent – and my child, what must happen when a mother isn’t as well-equipped? What would happen if that bond was tested to its absolute limit?
I’m not talking here about a lack of love. I’m talking about a failure of communication, where the love is there, but the expression of it has, for some reason, dried up. Is the love itself enough, I wanted to know, or do we need a language for it, and do we need to be fluent in that language?
When I was about 14 my mum and I had an argument and I managed to work myself into a state. This wasn’t something I did often, so it’s likely I was in fact upset about something more than not being allowed to get a puppy. School, my body, my parents’ break-up – take your pick.
I was sitting on the couch, crying hard – unstoppable, sob-wracked, snotty crying – when Mum did something unusual. It was a supreme effort for her, and I can still hear the awkwardness in her voice. She said: “You know we love you.”
This statement – in my memory anyway – is the closest my mum has ever come to saying “I love you”. I don’t recall my dad ever even coming close.
I was born in the mid-seventies. For a white, middle-class Australian of that vintage, a story like mine is not uncommon.
It’s not like my parents sat me and my siblings down and said, “Look, we love you but we don’t say it because we don’t think it’s necessary and also if you say it all the time it becomes meaningless”, but this reasoning was inherent in our family’s culture, in the way we operated.
My parents are scientific people, thoughtful and analytical. They are committed atheists. They value education, and do not suffer fools. They are also caring and warm. My dad signs his emails “Love”, with a long string of kisses. My mum, the master of approximation, ends phone calls with the phrase “Love to everyone”. But it seems that saying the exact words is beyond them.
I understand this. They have their own histories. And I’m aware of, and grateful for, the efforts they made to “get it right” when their turn came to be parents. I know they love me. But it does bother me that we can’t tell each other so.
Does it bother them? I don’t know, because I can’t muster the courage to directly broach the subject. I suspect they – in the age-old tradition of one generation being baffled by the ways of the next – simply would not understand my need to define and label feelings, to haul them out of the murk and shine a spotlight on them.
As a teenager I had a friend whose parents said “I love you” quite a lot – enough for me to overhear it regularly when visiting their house.
I reported on this to my mum. “If you say it all the time like that,” I told her, “it just doesn’t mean anything.” I can’t recall her response, but in memory it’s my voice that stands out, and what I hear is myself speaking for my own family, voicing our values and our justification for them.
This concern about overuse of the phrase is valid. It’s easy to see how meaningless an “I love you” could sound when said to a child by a parent who’s looking at their phone and walking out the door.
Saying “I love you” doesn’t make you a good parent, or partner, or daughter or son. It’s not a replacement for paying attention to someone or for empathising with them.
But assuming it’s not misused, assuming it’s for the most part said thoughtfully and with meaning, and assuming it’s done alongside other demonstrations of love, I don’t think that saying “I love you” on a regular basis cheapens the meaning of the phrase. Why should this basic, direct, acknowledgement of love be withheld or monitored any more closely than any other form of expression? Would you only kiss your child every once in a while, only on their birthday perhaps, so as not to lose the significance of a kiss?
I can’t help but suspect that the idea of showing love being enough is something of an excuse for a lack of emotional eloquence. There’s a difference between choosing not to do something because you don’t believe it’s necessary and choosing not to do it because you find it excruciatingly difficult.
What about the dense cloud of tension that accumulated as the 14-year-old me blubbered and the words “You know we love you” were spoken with such audible effort? Clearly, Mum felt at this time that I needed to be told as well as shown that I was loved.
As parents, we are not going to “get it right” all the time. Families can be messy, complex organisms, where communication isn’t always straightforward. If we can’t always tell what our children are thinking – and I know there are times with mine when I can’t – how can we expect them to divine our thoughts?
In the face of the heartbreaking impossibility of always being able to protect our children from hurt, at least we can do our best to ensure they know they have our unconditional love. Telling them so seems like a pretty good place to start.
Peggy Frew is the author of Hope Farm (Scribe, £12.99)