My parents never told us that they loved us. I don’t remember a single occasion when they said, I love you, to me or my brothers. Neither in English, nor in our mother tongue Konkani, which we spoke at home.
And yet I grew up feeling solidly confident about my abilities and realistically sensible about my weaknesses. There was an air of affection that cocooned and sheltered us, even in the absence of those three words.
After La Niña was born, I suddenly metamorphosed into someone who wanted the comfort of saying those words out loud, not caring who heard them. I won’t say it was an overnight transformation, because that wouldn’t be true. It was more instantaneous.
It was after we had brought La Niña home from the hospital. I had just nursed her and she had fallen asleep mid-feed. I looked at her sweet, wrinkly five-day-old face and said, “I love you, my darling” to her, willing her to respond. She smiled in her sleep, as newborns do. Emboldened, I repeated the words. I remember still how refreshingly liberated I felt.
Over the next month or two, I invented a new method of reinforcing those words, hoping for some reciprocity. I would hold my hand to my heart and say, “I,” then touch my lips while saying, “love” and finally touch her chest, while saying a resounding “you.”
When she was about 9 or 10 months old, she began to mimic my actions, whenever we performed our little ritual which was twice or thrice a day. When she grew old enough to speak small sentences, she began to participate more fully. My mother-heart would swell with pride when she would do the gestures, and add, “I yove oo.”
El Niño was equally responsive to the declaration of love. “Avoo” surfaced concurrently with words such as Mamma, mum-mum and paa (short for paani or water). To demystify Avoo, the A comes from the ‘a’ sound that precedes the I and the ‘v’ from the tail end of love, followed by ‘oo.’ No matter how many times I say, I love you, to him, I am always rewarded by the reciprocal declaration, Avoo. Repeated hearings have not dulled the charm and sentiment of all that is contained in that one word.
Over the last 4+ years of motherhood, I have come to strongly believe that hearing the three words, “I love you,” and their equivalents in other languages, are important for a child’s growth and development. This is not to say that not hearing these words is detrimental to a child’s well being. Our parents’ generation did its parenting at a time when actions spoke louder than words, and parents were so busy raising multiple children on the strength of a few resources, that they rarely had the time or the inclination to speak their love. We turned out well, of course, and had happy childhoods, in spite of not hearing those words.
Saying, and repeating, those words, however, serves as positive reinforcement to a child that he/she is loved unconditionally. Of course, if we keep mouthing those words, without showing much for it, our children, who are equipped with a super-advanced radar for ferreting out any fake emotion, will call our bluff.
While it is easy to say, I love you, when my kids are gracious and well-behaved, I must admit I do struggle with feelings of anger and irritation when they aren’t. At such times I have to mentally shake myself in order to remember that I am correcting them because I love them. I also need to remind La Niña that just because I correct her does not mean I have stopped loving her. La Niña, of course, doesn’t see it quite that way, and is quick to tell me, “I don’t like/love you.”
I was devastated when she first put the word, don’t, before the word, love. Since then, I have rallied around, and have come to realise that children are too young to understand the full meaning of the words they bandy about so freely. The more-informed me no longer takes it as a personal affront now when La Niña shouts, I don’t like you. Instead, I counter back with the words, “But I love you.” Sometimes the corners of her mouth tilt downwards in a barely-there smile that she vainly struggles against. At other times, she gives way and we giggle wildly and hug each other.
Once she came to me and said, “Mamma, I know you don’t love me.” I began to protest at this, but she interrupted and re-phrased, “You’re just saying it. I know you love me very little, as much as the namak (salt) we put in our food.” I was reminded of that famous story, which incidentally La Niña does not know, in which a king asks his three daughters how much they love him. Often mistaken as the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear, this story sees the older two speak of their love in glowing terms, while the youngest tells her father that she loves him as much as salt. Furious at being compared to a kitchen ingredient, the king disinherits her. It is only when the sympathetic cook stops adding salt to the food that the king understands the worth of his daughter’s love.
I replied to her, “That’s not true. I love you very, very much, and just to prove that, next time I will add 100-million-ek-lakh-one-thousand-and-twenty (La Niña’s understanding of an infinite number) grains of salt into your food.”
I love you isn’t the only thing our kids need to hear from us. They also need to hear from us that we are proud of them when they say or do something good. Approval is as intrinsic to a child’s sense of self-worth as love is.
With every positive expression, we are building up our children’s self-image. The easiest bricks available for this laudable task are the three little words that ought to be some of the most overused in every parent’s vocabulary.
Cynthia Rodrigues Manchekar loves being mamma to 4-year-old La Niña and 18-month-old El Niño. A working mother, she enjoys writing short stories and poems and looks forward to being published someday. She blogs at http://cynthology.blogspot.in and tweets @Cynth_Rodrigues.