too, part two

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.



  1. That was beautiful and definately something I can relate to, always having a hard time saying "I love you" and also growing up not hearing it that much.

  2. wonderful. thanks.
    that three-word phrase can be wrought with uncertainty and vulnerability, regardless of the relationship.

  3. My boyfriend says saying "I love you." is like crying, men just don't do it. He thinks Americans are tooooo free and easy with the word "love". Hard to explain to a Scottish man how you can love your guy best friend, who happens to be gay! He said he will tell me he loves me when he is putting a diamond ROCK, and I mean a BIG ONE, on my fingers. But i know he thinks about and he cares, that is all that matters.

  4. I once tutored the right responses to a boyfriend. I felt he meant well and that he was socially challenged. I was wrong.

  5. it's a bit unnerving to know that somewhere, someone out there you have never met has such incredible insight into who you truly are that you wonder how these things are possible.

    I feel something of a voyeur and it creeps me out, which is why I haven't posted until now.

    For whatever reason, I finally felt compelled to say "hey" and drone on about how I could relate to a lot of things you have written about. I don't know if that makes you a great writer or just a person who has an uncanny ability to consistently write about things that are happening in my own life in a manner that forces me to think and rethink, but whatever it is – keep it up.

  6. I liked this one. It told me a lot more about you and your past than a lot of the others. It was very cool. (BTW, I've considered the whole funeral music stuff too. I'd definitely like to have Adagio for Strings somewhere in there.) Thanks for being so open.

  7. Like a bad habit we can coach ourselves out of: "I will quit smoking, I will drink less, I will exercise more", coaching ourselves to say "I love you" seems the most daunting of prospects, but a worthy one to overcome no less.

  8. This was one of your best posts… I love the ones that give more of you. You give so much of your day-to-day, but I really dig your way-back-when.


  9. yes, i agree, definitely one of your more thoughtful posts…when you go deeper into yourself rather than staying on the surface with your comings and goings, your posts have more
    substance…and i won't tell you again
    to seek psychotherapy, since you make it clear
    in this post you've already had some experience in it.

  10. But does it really have to be said to be felt? My parents never tell me they love me, and once upon a time, when I inquired about it, I was given an "of course I love you" plus the whole shifting-eyes-uncomfortably deal. It wasn't disheartening, but instead one of the most endearing things my parents ever did for me. I felt that they love me so much that they can't even bring themselves to say it in words because three little words can't get their point across. Of course, I never say "I love you" to my parents either, because I don't think it's sufficient either.

  11. When both people know that they love each other, then it becomes a matter of chilvary like walking towards a door. Everyone knows that at some point, someone's going to have to say it first/open the door, and custom suggests that the gentleman should take the lead.

    But I have no idea how it's suppose to go when there's uncertainty.

  12. This post spoke to me more than any other of yours I read. Sometimes I feel like if it's shot right back to you that your original expression becomes lost, a throw away. It needs time to set there, to be felt and absorbed. If someone says "neil you look very nice", I won't shoot right back with "so do you" for fear that they will think it's just an obligatory response. I wan't the other person to know that I mean it when I say it. There is a third response to "I love you". It may seem like splitting hairs. Simply omit the word "too". Then it's not a call and response, but an expression of the same level. It doesn't say, "I love you cause you love me" It means, I love you in the same manner and as deeply as you love me. I don't like throwing things around either. I tell very few of my friends that I love them. The word can become diluted. The special people in my life know they're special.

  13. It's ironic that I read this just now. I just (about 5 minutes ago) talked to my grandfather and told him I love him. It is the first time I can recall doing this, I did it becuase it is true and I don't think I practice communicating my love often enough. It felt awkward, since I'm just getting started. He said it back without hesitation. That makes me feel–so happy.

  14. Telling someone you love them irrespective of how that someone will react is a threat. It's a threat because it demands a response, whether you believe it does or not. You're putting a person on notice when you tell them you love them. And what right do you have to do that? If you're doing it for yourself, that's selfish. And if you're doing it for them, you have no idea how they will necessarily react. That's irresponsible. Telling a person you love them crosses a very important line that shouldn't be trifled with. Love isn't a Hallmark card. It's something that matters and should be treated with dignity, respect and, yes, caution. Cause in this crazy, mixed-up world, love is all we've got and we can't afford to F it up.

  15. My mother, for all her faults, set a really good example of love for her own body. She was/is a supermodel in her own mind :)

    It was just her and my sister and I. So we lived like semi-nudists during the summer. Swanning about the house in our underroos…

    I still feel fat sometimes. But when I look in the mirror I can see myself for what I am, almost objectively. I don't have any distortion like so many other women I know.

  16. Actually, there are people who always say "thank you" to an "I love you"……and the other person´s happy. I think it´s a sign of appreciation for the other´s feelings.

  17. I don't know if you're the same, but I find it intensely difficult to write about my family because of all the tumultuous, unresolved feelings underlying relationships. This was very sensitively written. What does your mother think of this though?!

  18. I rarely say it. And when I do, it's only to those special few.

    I used to have a friend that would say "What if you died tomorrow? Wouldn't you be glad that you said it? Even if that person already knew you loved them, maybe they just needed to hear it."

    But I think that just saying "I love you" does not make it so.

  19. Gosh! this is good. This is true, honest in the art of being. The theme of love, vulnerability and oh the mommy thing. Universal, any writer that can do that with seeming effortlessness thats great.

  20. Very interesting post, you definitely have the knack for analyzing why people act the way they do. A big thing to remember though, is once you've figured out your parents and grandparents et al were just doing what they knew, and what they thought was best – you need to forgive them.

    Your life is/will be different, you take the good you learned from them, you avoid the mistakes they made – you'll have your own to make.

    Being able to see more than what's on the surface for people's actions is a good thing, but don't let it hang you up – once you know the WHY – you can just accept them and love them – flaws and all.

  21. Again, you have to bellitle the fact that you are puertorrican. What does your grandmother's nationality has to do with the fact that your mom was abused?

  22. So few people quote Sabrina. I love that you use the "button each other's hard to reach buttons" phrase. Its one of my favorites.

  23. Ive always stood that when you say 'i love you' it means forever and the guy i was with knew this from the start. When he said he loved me, i just staired. Since our relationship or mess should i say ended, i realise he didnt love me at all but maybe i was the fool who loved him. He said it, didnt mean it, i mean it and didnt say it, my first love. Can love ever be simple??

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