real life

'I'm in my 40s and my mum has never said the words "I love you". I don't blame her.'

My earliest memory of mum hugging me was about five years ago – when I was in my late 30s.

And to this day, she’s never said the words ‘I love you’.

I don’t remember her ever reading to me as a child, or cuddling me at bedtime, or even coming in to say goodnight.

Until five years ago, she would never hug hello or goodbye. Whenever I’ve called before an overseas trip, which I always do as I’m at the airport, I’ll say, “love you, mum”, and she’ll reply “okay”.

This absence of affection was hard to understand, growing up. I would watch Family Ties (you know, the one with Michael J. Fox in it), and think, that’s what’s supposed to happen; constant touching, a physical confirmation of love.

I would see this happen in other families, too. With my closest friends, their parents would be like that towards me – often, in front of my mum.

mum
"With my closest friends, their parents would be like that towards me - often, in front of my mum." Image: Getty

Interestingly, my dad was very affectionate. He was the greatest giver of dad hugs. I was always told how beautiful I am, smart, talented…you know, all the sorts of things/lies most dads say to their daughters.

But I never got any of that from my mother.

It meant that I never sought it from her, either. I don’t remember ever going to sit on her lap as a kid; and there are no happy, cuddly photos of me and my mum from my childhood.

I’m sad about that; those missing photos. The photos that should have been.

It was hard to understand, especially as mum wasn’t a negligent mum – far from it. She was an excellent provider for all the basics kid's needs; food, clothes, driving everywhere, and had advice if we ever needed it.

But there was just this implicit understanding that there was no vocal expression of love in our relationship. I accepted it as a kid, but there’s no doubt it hurt.

I reasoned it was because she was so busy working, and keeping house, keeping everything going, that she just didn’t have time to indulge in us. Years later, she’d agree that was partly true, and it’s something she regrets.

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I discovered that because as an adult, our relationship developed into a friendship, especially after I had my own child – because as all mums know, that changes everything. I’m now very close to my mum – she’s one of my best friends. I tell her everything. She knows all about my work dramas, and whatever’s happening with my family.

She’s the first person I call when anything goes wrong, and when anything goes wonderfully right. Mum is my number one champion.

My mother gives us her time and energy, and is generous with her hard-earned money, especially for her grandchildren. Even now, in my 40s, she spoils me, too. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that we’re the entire reason she’s worked her butt off all her life.

There’s just always been something there that’s stopped her from demonstrating her affection in a physical way.

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Five years ago, I decided that life’s too short to not say the things you want to; and not try to hear the things you so desperately want to hear.

I realised as an adult that mum was like this because that’s how she was raised.

So, I started forcing my affection on her.

At first, when I hugged her, she would literally stand there with her hands dangling by her sides. I persisted, and now she hugs back; although she’s never the one who initiates it.

The first time I told her I loved her, it was so awkward. It was not remotely natural, and it still isn’t. But what it is, is important. And it’s definitely easier.

My persistence has helped mum come a long way; now, instead of saying “okay”, she’ll mumble something back which is meant to sound like “love you, too”, but isn’t quite.

Still, it’s progress; and it’s a joy to hear her trying.

My relentless pursuit of my mother’s affection has changed her in another way; she’s admitted that watching me parent has changed her own parenting. It sounds extraordinary, but I don’t think she realised that kids needed to feel and hear affection from their mothers. I really think she thought she was doing the best for us by looking after us so well – because that’s what her own mother did – and that’s all we needed.

Growing up with a mum who wouldn’t show affection made me more determined to smother my child in love. I think I say ‘I love you’ at least three times a day – not in a forced way, but whenever I want to say it.

I’m relieved that’s come naturally to me, because I never want my kid to feel the way I did.

But I really don’t blame my mum, at all. As an adult, I see now that her love was always there, just in a different form.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

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