Yesterday morning was one of those mornings. The kind of morning where there are missing papers, no clean socks, and not a single acceptable t-shirt to be found. The kind of morning that is just par for the course when you are a free-spirited, somewhat careless person like myself. The kind of morning that, I know now, makes my oldest son feel un-loved.
After searching for 20 minutes for the doctor’s form that he needed to go on a school trip next month, he came to me with angry eyes. “You’re not taking care of me, Mom. You lost my important paper, all my socks are dirty, and I’ve been wearing the same shirt for three days.”
My first instinct was to justify myself. I told him that the form was his responsibility too, that he’d have clean socks if he just put them in the hamper, that his pre-teen tastes have gotten so specific I have no clue what to buy him anymore.
I assured him that I’d find the paper, then reached out to hug him. His body stiffened and he pulled away hard. That’s when I saw them. The tiny pools in his eyes he was blinking back furiously to keep from shedding.
And my heart…my heart broke into a million pieces.
A lot of things about being a new mother were difficult for me. The sleepless nights, the inconsolable cries, the loneliness. But, loving my children? That came easily.
Shortly after my son was born 12 years ago, it became evident that we were vastly different people. His organized, analytical approach to life was a sharp deviation from the creatively chaotic world I’d built.
We didn’t always understand each other—he and I. But, of course, I loved him.
I loved him by holding him and making him laugh, by feeding him nutritious food and taking him interesting places, by letting him sleep in my bed for far too long and breastfeeding him for much longer than necessary. I loved him with surprises and tickles, with shared stories and long talks. And, more than anything, I loved him with hugs and kisses, even when he was too busy or too embarrassed to acknowledge them.
No matter how often we frustrated each other, how many times we didn’t meet each other’s expectations, there was one thing that I was confident of: My son was absolutely sure of my love for him.
Turns out I was wrong.
How could it have taken me so long to figure out that, just as my son and I see the world in such drastically different ways, we feel love in very different ways, too?
To me, the paperwork and the clothes were insignificant issues that could easily be rectified. But to him, they were concrete symbols of my love for him.
I had a flashback then, to my own childhood. My mother was (is) an extremely warm, loving person. But, she was also busy and distracted and caught up in the struggle of earning a living for her young family. This meant that she would often be late picking us up from after-school activities or friends’ houses—sometimes dramatically late.
I remember the sharp pangs of embarrassment and hurt that I’d feel while a teacher would have to stay late after school with me, or my friend’s family would have to change their plans so that they wouldn’t leave me alone.
As much as I knew in my mind that my mom loved me, in those minutes, I just didn’t feel loved.
Looking at my son standing there in the kitchen, his arms folded, his jaw clenched, his eyes wet, I saw that same uncertainty in his heart.
My first impulse was to try again to hug him. I took one step towards him and stopped myself. A hug at that moment would have been for me, not for him. I’m the one that needed physical reassurance that he was OK, that we were OK. But, the truth is, we were not OK. I hadn’t been there for him in a way that was clearly a big deal, and he was angry and hurt.
So I stayed where I was and talked softly. I apologized for not having what he needed for the day and assured him that I would have everything in better order the next day. He was still hurt when he left for school, so hurt in fact that he barely said goodbye.
That hurt stayed with me all day. I carried it with me as I matched socks and bought him new shirts. It was still there in my heart when I finally found the paper he needed (at the bottom of a laundry basket no less!) and even when he came home from school bubbling with excitement over an upcoming project.
It didn’t leave me, in fact, until he saw his new shirts and practically barreled me over with an enormous bear hug.
Seeing his face and feeling his hug let me know that things were right between us, that he had forgiven me, that once again, he felt loved and loved me back in return.
What I’ve taken from this experience is that, while feelings of love may come naturally to me, acts of love are not always so clear when it comes to my children. I would never show my love by taking my theater-hating friend to a Broadway show or by buying my non-fiction loving husband a novel. So why do I so often rely on hugs to show my space-needing son that he is loved?
Physical affection is important… even if my son doesn’t always realize it. But, more important is the understanding that the people in his life will keep working to find ways to show him that he is loved in a language that he can understand.