I was never a girl who fell in love quickly. But, with him, it was instant. The moment I met him was the clichéd “love at first sight.” Without hesitation, I told him how much I loved him. Each pronouncement of my feelings was punctuated with a kiss on his cheek, his hand, and his tiny head. Swaddled in hospital issued blankets and capped with a knit beanie, my infant son became the love of my life as soon as he was placed in my arms.
The love for your child is the kind that sweeps you off your feet unexpectedly and in new ways with the passage of time. Our initial bond as mother and son broadened with each month passed and milestone met. The first time my son smiled at me, the first time he toddled to me and the first time he cooed the word, “mama” to me, I fell in love with him again and again.
Every age and stage brought forth a deeper affection for this little person. And, never once, did I hold back my feelings. Instead, I freely expressed my affection so that he would know the immense love I felt for him.
I knew that my son loved me as well. I felt it in the way his tiny hand encircled my finger and the way his chubby toddler legs ran to me. If there were any doubts, they quickly disappeared when he learned to say the words, “I love you.” With an increased vocabulary and a deeper understanding of emotion, my son could now verbally express his feelings. And much to my delight, he did so often.
Without prompting, my little guy easily articulated his love for me with the free abandon of a preschooler. Picking him up from school became a physical hazard as he ran, full tilt, into my arms often knocking me over. Spontaneously grabbing my hand or wrapping his small arms around my waist in a tight hug were actions of affection he took without restraint. My son’s comfort in expressing his affection lulled me into the belief that it would never end until it did.
The first day of first grade, my son and I stood at the bus stop. The anticipation of a new school made us both excited and nervous. With a summer’s growth spurt adding an inch to his body and his hair neatly combed, he looked far different than the kindergartner who crawled off the bus and into my arms. Bittersweet, I smiled, appreciating the new boy and missing the one who’d been replaced. I, of course, believed that any changes began and ended with his new height and his insistence on choosing his shirt. I was wrong.
A mistake I realized when I leaned in to hug him good-bye as the bus slowed to a stop. Looking around, self-consciously, he barely tapped my arm. Naively, I believed it was nerves. I stuck to this belief even when my “I love you” was met with a grunt and a dash towards the bus.
I convinced myself that this was a first day anomaly until each day was met with the same response. I toyed with different theories and concocted corresponding solutions. Each failed. It wasn’t until the day he glanced at his friends and groaned when I tried to hug him that I realized he was embarrassed. It was a fitting retribution for the years I made my own mom hide in the car, but it was also heartbreaking.
I asked my son why he no longer hugged me or told me that he loved me. Red-cheeked he mumbled that the other kids would laugh at him. Although I told him it was important to show love regardless of who sees it, I also understood the importance of playground rules. So, we struck a silent bargain. Beginning the next morning and every one after, I hugged him and told him I loved him in the privacy of our garage.
Although my head knew this was one more stage he would pass through, my heart hurt in the interim. I missed the little boy who tackled me with full force hugs, but I understood the big boy who needed his space. As the days and months passed, I’d became so accustomed to saying “I love you” to a stony-faced boy who simply responded, “uh huh” that I was shocked when, one day, he returned the sentiment. Smiling, he simply said, “I love you, too” before galloping towards the waiting bus.
That was it. That was all it took to erase all the days of doubt. I’m not sure if this stage of self-conscious refusal of affection is over, but I know that when he stops saying, “I love you,” it isn’t because he’s stopped loving me.