I am the demonstrative sort. Perhaps not always in the physical sense, but when it comes to words, I can’t help but say what I feel.
Years ago, when I was teaching, a lovely human being came to work in my classroom for the summer as an aide. She was remarkable with the children—it was just something she exuded—a deep calm and radiant warmth. There was an instant connection between us, an effortlessness, a simpatico that went beyond words. Not long into the relationship, we met for dinner. We spent hours sharing stories, hopping restaurants for drinks, then dinner, then coffee and dessert. As we sipped our lattes, I felt a welling inside, and, though I knew it was odd, I leaned in and said, “I just have to tell you.... I love you.” I waited for her to be completely weirded out and ask for the check. She smiled and said, “I feel the same way.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I believe it is important to not only tell the people you love that you love them, as frequently as it occurs to you, but to show them—by listening intently and being fully present, helping when help is needed, and expressing gratitude for what they bring. I know, at times, this can seem over-the-top, particularly to those recipients who return my affections in more subtle ways. But I’d rather have those I love be quite sure of my love. No one will go to the grave wondering if I truly cared about them.
My relationships are the most important thing in my life, and Sophia, of course, is among the most cherished.
Despite my own ambivalent relationship to physical affection, I am compelled to manhandle my child. I want to pet her head, trace the outline of her face, plant raspberries on her belly, pinch her tushie, and hold her close.
Some children love to be held and cuddled. They thrive on the attention. They beg to be picked up. They snuggle on the couch. They freely hug and kiss. Sophia is not one of these children. She never has been. Even as an infant, she would rather be exploring than held in the confines of my arms. Now, I scoop her up for a hug, and she wriggles out of my grasp. If I ask for a kiss, I get a flash of a peck. I eye my friends’ more affectionate children jealously. How did I wind up with such a cold fish?
It is actually one of the hardest things about being Sophia’s parent. I would love nothing better than to embrace her and whisper confectionary words into her hair, but the only way I can get her to stay nestled at my side is by reading her piles and piles of picture books. And if she is hurt, rather than reaching out for me, she pushes me away, bearing her pain on her own, recovering quickly, and returning to the world.
What do I do with my unwanted affection? “That’s why you need to have another,” my mother says in an unveiled pitch for a grandchild. I remind her that there are no guarantees. “That child could also have my prickly genes. No thank you.” I will stick with the devil I know. The one who refuses to hold my hand or lounge with me in bed. And I will continue to flood her with torrents of my emotion, unable and with no desire to dam my feeling, hopeful that, invisibly, it feeds her in important ways.
Yet, despite her obvious discomfort with caresses and nuzzles, I am quite sure of her love. The signs are everywhere. It’s in the music in her voice as she calls for me when she wakes; it’s in the comfort with which she leaves my side to be with others; it’s in the bright smile she casts my way when we are reunited. And then there are the subtle, sacred articulations of her love—an adoring look in my rearview mirror, “Mo-mmy,” said with a deep, satisfied, sigh, a small hand that sneaks onto my thigh as I tell her a story.
These moments sustain me, but, in truth, I’m always hungry for more.