Do we need to say those three little words?

Is showing love enough?
Is showing love enough? Photo: Getty Images

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 upset about something more than not being allowed to get a puppy. School, my body, my parents' breakup – take your pick.

I was sitting on the couch, crying hard – 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-1970s. 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 can and do say "I love you", with ease and regularity, to my children and my partner – and I probably owe this to my upbringing. But I have never said it to my dad, and the two times I've said it to my mum it's been hard work, accompanied by a pounding heart.

When I started writing about this, I thought I should involve my parents.

I felt most comfortable contacting them by email and, rather than focusing on my own childhood, I instead asked them about theirs. "Did you feel like your parents loved you?" I wrote. "Did they ever tell you they loved you?"

My dad replied to say that these were "very hard" questions, and that he'd have to think about it, signing off with his customary row of kisses. A few weeks later he called me. At no point did he directly address my questions, but in the soft, swirling tone of reminiscence, spoke about his childhood and his parents, drifting from thought to thought.

My mum emailed her answers, which were "yes" and "no", then followed up with a phone call in which we discussed social norms in Australia and the history of relationships since World War I. All the while I was wondering how the conversation was going to end. Would she issue her usual "love to everyone" – which I can't help but view as a cop-out – or would some kind of breakthrough happen? As it turned out her phone reception faded, and our goodbyes were lost in a mess of broken signal.

After both these calls I felt, very strongly, love for my parents. I was moved by their willingness to engage with me, their encouragement and support on an intellectual level. This is one of the ways they show their love.

But there was sadness, too, and I realised that I wish we did say "I love you" to each other. It feels important that I can say it to my children. It bothers me that I can't open this line of communication with my parents.

But does it bother them? I don't know, because I can't muster the courage to directly broach the subject. I suspect that – in the age-old tradition of one generation being baffled by the ways of the next – they simply would not understand my need to define and label feelings, to haul them out of the murk and shine a spotlight on them.

I can't help but suspect, though, that the idea that showing love is 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 a good place to start. 

Peggy Frew's new novel is Hope Farm (Scribe).

Sun Herald