A fellow gay adoptive dad (who, being much smarter than me, waited until he was partnered before having kids) requested that I write a post on this topic: Saying “I love you” to the boys–how often did/do I say it, and what have their reactions been over the years.
My hunch is that he is expecting something like this: I used to say it a lot when they were younger, but over the years they have resisted/been embarrassed by it, so I stopped. That would be a fairly normal storyline, which of course means it’s not the one our family followed at all. The truth is much more embarrassing.
First, some background: Growing up, my family wasn’t very big on “I love you.” Among the seven of us—mom, dad, four sisters, me—I’m pretty sure I heard those words roughly, oh let’s just say for a ballpark, probably about: zero times. There was clearly some kind of (often awkward, clunky) love floating around, but verbalizing it wasn’t high in anyone’s skill set.
In best “I’m going to give my kids better than I got” fashion, when I put our little family together, I was a committed “I love you”-er. The minimum was once per day, at bedtime. After stories, wrestling, bedtime hits, whatever other rollicking activity we did, at the tuck-in point, I let each boy know: “I love you.”
As I say, that was the minimum. On days where I was more grounded and present, or just in a better mood, I might remember to toss out an unexpected “I love you” for no reason at all—except, of course, that I do.
The boys, being affection sponges (I’m pretty sure that’s the technical term), soaked it all up. During those first few years, I never once got a blush, or a deflection, or a “Dad, you’re embarrassing me.”
So the daily (plus) habit continued, until it didn’t. And when that shift took place, the culprit was … me.
I can’t believe I just wrote that.
I’ve described elsewhere my “what was I thinking?” relationship with my ex. Here is another reason to bang my head against the wall a few more times: At some point, I intuited—or maybe he told me directly—that my ex was jealous of the open affection I showed my kids. In his defense, I rarely showed him such affection (for reasons which, if you knew the two of us …).
Being an enlightened sort who has maybe the teeniest, tiniest tendency toward taking on other people’s stuff and being an emotional accommodater, I came up with what was clearly a brilliant solution: To stop being so openly affectionate toward my kids.
One of the casualties was our bedtime sign-off—or, at least, the “I” part. Somewhere during the ex years, our cuddly “I love you”s morphed into breezy “Love you”s, all thanks to dad’s dysfunctional inner workings.
The kids, true to form, neither balked at the change nor, for as long as it lasted, expressed any embarrassment at this abbreviated version.
Over the years, tuck-ins gave way to more casual check-ins, which eventually gave way to the kids just … going to bed with no parental involvement. That was probably when “(I) love you” went into hibernation.
Surprisingly—or not, depending on how you slice it—“Love you” made its comeback courtesy of Daveon. At some point just before or after he went off to college, Daveon began signing off our phone conversations—even the hard ones—with a cheery “Love you.” (To be fair, knowing Daveon, he might sign off all his communication—with his friends, his teachers, the cashier at the grocery store—this way.) So in this minor way, “Love you” has re-entered our world. And as with many things having to do with big hearts and open expression, I have my kids to thank.
(P.S. For what it’s worth, I think Mark would be embarrassed if I started signing off our calls with “Love you.” But when he leaves for school, I’m going to do it anyway. Which leads to this thought for anyone struggling with the more traditional “I want to (or do) say ‘I love you,’ but my kids balk” scenario: It’s a judgment call, but my own bias (and practice) is to allow the kids to lead in most things, especially as they get older (“This makes you uncomfortable, I’ll stop/modify it.”). But I also think it’s important to hold firm to the handful of things that matter most to you. As I jokingly—but truthfully—say about Mark, expressing “I love you” is that important to me when he’s far away, I’m gonna do it. If it makes him uncomfortable … well, sometimes (I) love (you) hurts, right?)