My father had to coach my mother in many things. I expect he had to teach her a lot in the bedroom, too, but I don’t spend much time imagining that. I correlate my mother’s reticent temperament, and low self-esteem, with the fact that she witnessed physical abuse as a child. Like all parents, hers did the best they could. They didn’t know any better, insensitive to the effects of their frustration on their daughters. A garage door. Her mother, my Puerto Rican grandmother, was raised in an orphanage with her biological sisters, so she always put her siblings before her own daughters. It’s what she knew; it was her modeling. My mother has two older sisters who were repeatedly abused in front of her. An iron. So she learned to keep silent and do as she was told. A thick leather belt. She lived in fear, cowering behind walls and hiding in closets.
When it came to cooking, fishing, laughing, dancing with her eyes closed, and anything categorized as creative, my mother didn’t need lessons; it was in her genes. Sometimes, my parents would analyze her tennis serve or my father would teach her a new grip for her golf swing, but this isn’t the schooling about which I’m referring. When it came to—actually, when it comes to—assertiveness, communication, and the expression of love, my mother needs help.
She has always put her sisters before anyone else, my father, my sister, me. According to my ex-therapist, my father did the mothering in the house. A little too much mothering and not enough fathering. “It’s the mother’s role,” she’d whine, “to teach her daughter about being a woman. About how to be savvy. The mother talks to her daughter about her body, and leads by example.” My mother has always been thin, protruding collarbones thin, despite the fact that she eats like a truck driver. And when she undressed, she hid in her closet, and sometimes, when she’d need something from her dresser drawer, she’d scurry over, covering her nipples with her hands. My mother was ashamed.
It was her job to discipline fat Stephanie, and according to the ex-therapist, “your father’s role to treat you like Daddy’s little girl, to love you unconditionally.” My parents did the best they could. My father thought he was helping by telling me no man would want me if I were fat. “Men are shallow dogs, Stephanie.” He was right, and he was wrong.
Late at night, in their bed, with a muffled baseball game on the television, he’d ask my mother, “Did you tell the girls you love them today?” She’d shrug. “It’s very important that you tell them, Yolanda. They need to hear it.” It wasn’t what she knew, and it was really hard for her to say.
My sister said it constantly, to anyone who’d listen. I remember hearing her tell one of her camp friends, “I love you,” over the phone and thinking, “Oh my God. She tells her friends she loves them?” I envied it. I also remember times when she turned red from crying tantrums, thinking I didn’t love her. “Stephanie, you don’t love me; you never say it.” She was probably only eight years old at the time, and she is still the type of person who needs constantly. She craves touch, wants me to pet her head and hold her hand. “You don’t really love me, do you?” is her way of saying, “I need more from you.” She’s starved for affection; it’s why she loves children and my needy dog.
In contrast, I never touched my friends or told them I loved them. Telling a friend, “I love you,” is like having seex for the first time. It’s a big deal for me. I don’t love all of my friends.
How do you know when it’s love between friends? I try to imagine how I’d feel if they died. How much of a loss would I feel? What if I died? What songs would they hear that made them think of me, how long would it take them to get over me, for it to stop hurting? Who will wonder if I knew how much they loved me? If they died, who, of my friends, would I worry didn’t know how much they meant to me? That’s my gauge. If I worry at all the person doesn’t know how much they mean to me, it means I’m ready to tell them I love them. That’s my tell.
I now touch my friends and tell them I love them. I’m not afraid they won’t know how to respond. It’s not about vulnerability about getting to it first. For me, it’s a fear they won’t know their worth to me. It’s why I say it. I’m just not an, “I love you,” abuser. I don’t throw it out there at the end of phone calls. I say it like I mean it. When someone is upset, when I’m drunk, or when a friend makes me laugh. Sometimes it’s, “I love you; you’re just like I am.” That’s really narcissistic of me, but it’s a reason I love some of my friends.
Now with a man, I’ll say it—I’ll even say it first—if I love him in that, “you need to know how important you are to me” way. If he died, I’d want him to know, so I say it. But, with a man, it means a lot more than that, even to me. “I love you,” from me to a man is a promise. It’s my heart. But, it’s not forever. “I love you,” means different things to different people.
For some, it’s a declaration of forever. If you say the L-word, it means marriage and babies, and always. It means you’re ready to spend forever together buttoning one another’s hard to reach buttons. So it’s a phrase they reserve for those they’d take a bullet for, and for family (because even if you hate them, you’ll always love them. You’re born with that.) And if you say it first, to someone who thinks this way, you might get a blank stare in response. Your stomach will tighten, and you’ll wish you could snatch it back up. Or you’ll get a “too” and wish you’d waited for them to say it first… in which case, you’ll sit at your computer trying to figure out which songs you’d like played at your funeral. Like I’m doing now. Like I’m always doing. I’m kinda sick that way, too.