I Grew Up Without 'I Love You' And It HUGELY Swayed My Own Parenting

Photo: Julia Park Tracey
I Grew Up Without 'I Love You'
Love, Self

As it turns out, affection looks loving. Kind. Gentle. Beautiful. It doesn't hurt.

My daughters adore each other. They actually hug, kiss and say, "I love you" to one another on a regular basis. That shouldn't be such a shocker, but to me it still feels like a gift. I grew up in a family where we were more likely to hit each other than to say that we cared.

It's not that we were abused — we weren't. But between my stern Scottish father and my proper English mother, plus five kids competing for attention, the words "I love you" weren't wasted very often, if at all, and certainly not between siblings. We showed affection by saying the opposite.

"Hey, ugly!" was how we often greeted each other. There was plenty of roughhousing and teasing, but no tenderness. The closest we got to loving-kindness was if an outsider threatened; when a girl on the school bus picked on me, my older sister promised her a reign of terror if she didn't stop.

We had cousins and neighbors who hugged and said they loved each other, but all that mushy stuff was better left to television families like The Brady Bunch or Donny & Marie. We didn't say out loud how we really felt. And in fact, I honestly didn't really know how we felt. Feelings weren't a topic of conversation ... ever.

I moved cautiously though my life until junior high. When I was 13, I slept over at a new friend's house for the first time. Melly had a wonderful older sister, Cindy, who made us spaghetti, cuddled with us on the couch, and let us stay up late. I wanted to show Cindy my gratitude; she was loving in a way I had never quite experienced.

As we were watching TV, I nudged Cindy with my foot and said, "Hey, your dumb sister Cindy makes good popcorn." No one said anything back. I nudged Cindy again, and said to Melly, "Your ugly sister makes good popcorn."

In the silence that followed, my face turned red, at first because no one acknowledged me and my "compliment," and then, as I realized how insulting I had sounded. The girls didn't know that this is how my family spoke to each other, how we had shown affection. I was too embarrassed to take back the words and try to apologize.

In college and in my 20s I had to determine if a man was worth dating by how he showed affection, and my guesses weren't always right. Men, boyfriends showing affection with brutality, with criticism, brought me all kinds of heartbreak. And it took me longer than I care to admit now to learn what love and kindness felt like.

As it turns out, affection looks loving. Kind. Gentle. Beautiful. It doesn't hurt.

Eventually I had a child of my own, and from the beginning I couldn't stop myself from telling her how much I loved her. I adored my daughter and overflowed with joy just spending time with her, cuddling, playing, singing, and napping together.

I had no roadmap for how to do it right but I remembered wondering as a child if my parents loved me and not knowing the answer. I swore I wouldn't let my daughter wonder. She would always know, the way we know that the sky is up and the earth is down, that I loved her no matter what, that my love was unconditional and endless and eternal. And besides that, I loved her baby kisses and hugs.

I had three daughters, and later remarried and gained a daughter and a son  a total of five children and the two of us, harried adults. We love our children. They love each other. As a stepfamily, a family by choice, the seven of us have had plenty of opportunities to learn what love is. Each of us has had rough times, health issues or broken hearts, but we've learned, perhaps by taking the plunge to trust each other, that this family is made by love.

And sometimes, it's still hard for me. I can be stiff, awkward, unyielding. I'm not as prone to hug, kiss or say the three words as I wish I were, and as my children are. It's surprising how hard it is to let that love wash over me sometimes. It's a lot harder than you might think to let go and let love in.

When we text, we text hearts. We text kisses. Our phone calls end with "I love you" and so do our voicemails. Birthday cards are covered in Xs and we greet and depart with hugs, always. I never thought to ponder what other people think about our affectionate family. It works for us, and that's pretty much all that matters now.


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