Words by Megan Cahn
I met my mom for coffee at the Ferry Building in San Francisco the day before flying back to New York after a divorced family Christmas. You know, driving, planning, un-relaxed relaxation. We got our lattes and sat outside despite the damp fogginess of an SF December. Per usual we got into a discussion that when relayed to my friend later was met with “wait, weren’t you just meeting for coffee for a few minutes before you caught the Ferry.” Yes. But we have a tendency, despite the time that goes by between these quickly intense conversations, to get into it deep, about life, love, relationships, my father and her.
They were married for 24 years and had 4 kids (myself and three older brothers) before the divorce, and my mom says it was rough from the start—they were so different, their eyes were not level, the love between them was of a norm, not a passion. From the fucking beginning. And to me, that is just like, “are you serious?” Why stay together for so long? Why deal with it? But they had a common goal—family. To raise a perfect family. And when my mom talks of her children now, all spread around the world in London, New York and San Francisco pursuing what she may describe as intriguing ventures in life, it almost seems like she did the job.
We were all made to play instruments. The cello was my choice, because if I was going to be forced to do anything, I certainly wanted my parents to be reminded of it every time they had to maneuver that obtuse object into their station wagon. Television was kept to an extreme minimum, and never would you find a soda or a bag of chips in the cupboard. She even made my older brothers drink cod liver oil, which despite how much it made their little stomachs turn, some 1970s parenting article must have said it would do wonders for them.
She just wanted to be the perfect mother, she explained as we watched families with two cute dogs and racing siblings pass by on their way to buy organic vegetables at the farmers market. I kept my true thoughts to myself, because you just can’t go back. But it seems to me, despite her research and need to follow that perfect recipe for whipping up some extraordinary kids, she may have forgotten a very key ingredient—an ingredient that was missing in her marriage as well. Not that my mother didn’t love us, and not that I don’t love her, but there was an absence of something I believe important—three simple words. I love you.
Certain things from childhood we all believe are normal, common—my whole family put our pajamas away under our pillows. Until one day my first sleepover boyfriend was like “why are your pjs in your bed?” Well because that is where they go. Wait, everyone doesn’t do that? I used to say just the word “Grace” before dinner to commence eating. Hey Megan, saying Grace isn’t just saying the word “Grace,” it’s a blessing and it’s called Grace. Hmmm. Interesting.
How are you supposed to know what is normal if you don’t have anything to compare it to? In my house the absence of “I love you,” was the way it went. It didn’t pop out of my parents mouths at the end of a quick check-in “can I have dinner at Samantha’s house?” phone call, it was never added to a goodnight kiss on the forehead or jotted at the end of a birthday card. Children, maybe even adults, all over the world are thinking their lives are the norm—until they step outside.
I fell in love for the first time at the end of high school—the kind of love that is so encompassing and life altering because neither of you yet have anything to hold it against—and with that I was taken in and introduced to a whole new home. One of the other kind. One that despite divorced parents, had an energy seeping through the walls and in every crevice, an admiration for one another that was so apparent it was intoxicating. The air was constantly flowing and it fueled the love I found for him, and his family. The door was opened and I realized the stagnate state of my home only staled us and suffocated our best.
Coincidentally, at that exact time my father had the same right of passage and met the woman (my stepmom) who changed his life, our lives, breaking down the wall that was up for so long because of a loveless marriage and generations past. And now today, even though it still catches me off guard at times, my dad says those words freely and often. Maybe being in love just makes it easier?
Unfortunately, my mom never got taken to the other side. Yes, she fell in love again and remarried, but for some reason it didn’t quite break the seal. It softened her and I look at her now with eyes I had never opened. But the icy world that her strict Catholic parents made and her first marriage solidified, never quite melted down. I don’t hold it against her. It’s not her fault—it isn’t easy to break a habit.
People have a hard time saying I love you because of fear of rejection or lack of familiarity (I would say most parents are of the latter). Dr. Jane Bluestein conducts workshops on positive parenting and how to say those three scary words. One of the women taking her course admitted she had such a hard time saying “I love you” that she had to practice on her dog before she was able to utter it to her kids. Yes, her fucking dog. Maybe my mom should have let us get a dog.
This doctor suggests that you tell your children as much as possible, for if it is only connected to something a person has done it becomes a statement of “conditional caring.” One of my brothers takes the opposite stance. He is from the “I love you is a gift” school of thought. If you say it too much it devalues the sentiment. So you only love your children at special times? I guess this is one way to reinterpret a childhood where those words weren’t often there. To justify and not vilify. I don’t think I am vilifying, but I also hope my parents don’t read this.
When thinking about this article despite the overbearing presence of my own diatribe, I actually did some research. It seems the lack-of-I-love-you-household was quite common for many of us. Although the friends of mine that had the opposite couldn’t believe that to be true. Yes, they too thought what they had was completely normal. Anyway, about half of the people I asked were like me, for a variety of reasons, or interpretations of their parents’ reasons.
One had seven siblings and a working mother who maybe just didn’t have the time to say it. One set of parents wanted their children to be fiercely independent like them—not reliant on their words. One mom was just really passive and mellow. Another friend described her parents as simply not the touchy-feely type. Some were too busy trying to dictate their children’s lives to tell them how they felt. Another mom was just an “ice queen.”
And how has this affected all of us as adults? Am I on a constant search for love, but often find myself with people that just don’t know how to give it, because of this? Did my brother womanize his way through young adulthood as a result? Who the fuck knows? All we can do is try and break the cycle. Despite the difficulty, change the generations past. It seems many of these parents of my friends, like my dad, have done such. One says that after her dad began to have heart problems, he became more open and loving with his children.
We all have the events in our lives that dictate them in ways we could never predict. I see my oldest brother, who definitely got the iron fist from my parents the hardest, with his nine month old daughter now. So comfortable, as if there’s a permanent stickiness between his hand and her little body that could never let go despite all the tosses and turns he initiates to make her smile. You would never guess that he was built for anything but to be a dad. His wife, the type A of the twosome, also wants to be the perfect mom. Just like my mother. She too has probably every book on parenting written in the last year and holds life to a strict schedule—but their home is one of the fluid ones. You walk in and you can feel it. They whisper those three words to that baby girl every chance they get. I am proud that my brother has broken the cycle, for whatever his reason may be. And it was amazing to see my mom with her first grandchild, holding her for hours not wanting to give her up. Maybe now it’s her turn.