Dear Care and Feeding,
I have been married for five years to a wonderful man. He is funny, affectionate, and a great parenting partner. I was raised in a very warm household, where my parents constantly expressed love and appreciation for each other and for me, in words. My husband’s family, while clearly still loving, is much less demonstrative. We have a 20-month-old son, and I know that my husband adores him. I can see it every minute of every day. But I have never heard him tell our son, “I love you.” Whereas I say it every day! I’ve asked him if he could try to tell our son that he loves him, because I know he does and because I am worried that, as our son develops understanding, he will wonder why his mother says it but his father does not. He says he doesn’t see the point, that our son would not understand what he was saying anyway, but I am not sure this true. And maybe he will suddenly start to say it when our son is older, but maybe he won’t. Am I making too big a deal out of this? I really want our son to see that his father is willing to express his emotions in words, because I think it’s part of raising a healthy child who can manage his own emotions. Any advice for how to discuss this further, or should I just let him get there in his own time?
—Love Me Do!
As it happens, I spend a lot of time thinking about words. I take them seriously (some might say too seriously). They are my very favorite things—honestly, I am wildly in love with them.
My husband, himself a man of few words, thinks I use way too many of them. Once, when our daughter was just 10 months old and had discovered that words could be strung together to make meaning, the three of us were in the car on the long drive to visit his family in Georgia, and she and I had been talking nonstop for hours. My husband pulled the car off the road and, face buried in hands, cried, “Is this what my life is going to be like from now on?”
The family he grew up in has some similarities to your husband’s. This took me some getting used to, since I come from a family that uses both a lot of words and a lot of physical demonstrations of affection. My husband was pretty confused by my family at first, too, since he’d never spent time with people who were so noisy—or who were constantly draping their arms around one another and randomly hugging or kissing the tops of each other’s heads.
When you first partner up with someone, you spend a lot of energy trying to figure out how to live with their “otherness.” That’s part of what attracted you to each other in the first place, of course, but it can also be a struggle in your day-to-day living. My husband grew up in East Texas and likes to listen to music that is just arbitrary loud sounds to me; I’m from Brooklyn, the granddaughter of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, and when I put on Laura Nyro, he finds it so painful he has to leave the room. He’s a solitary sort of person, a painter who spends long hours in his studio and his downtime at home; when he has hobbies, they are almost always the sort of hobbies that are practiced alone. Lately, he’s been building his own bass guitars. He’s good with his hands (obviously). I spend a lot of time alone too, writing, but I like to be with other people for a part of every day. I can’t build or fix anything.
And, at least in part as a result of our very different upbringings, we have different “love languages.” Do you know about this notion? Despite its origins in evangelical Christianity, it’s the only self-help construct I’ve ever found the least bit useful to me: It describes a framework that I’d always taken for granted without (for once!) putting it into words. I was struck at once by the rightness of the idea that there are five “languages” of love—words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, time, and touch.
Supposedly everyone has one primary love language, and this is where the theory falls apart a little bit for me, since I feel loved mostly through acts of service (I am not the sort of person who is usually taken care of—I am the caretaker in almost every situation—but when something is done for me without my asking for it, I am moved to tears) and express love quite extravagantly through four of the five equally (I’m not so great with giving time). But the principle overall makes good sense to me, and I urge you to think about it too.
My husband, like yours, never used the words I love you to his child when she was very young. She’s grown up now, and, like me, she puts everything she feels into words—and when she says “I love you” to him at the end of a phone call, he always says, “I love you too.” Would he say it, even now, without prompting? I doubt it. But just as you are certain that your husband loves your son even though he doesn’t say it, I have never had any doubt—nor has my daughter—that my husband loves her.
I don’t think it’s fair (or a winnable battle) to insist that your husband express his love for your child in the same way you do. While I absolutely sympathize with your wish to have him put his feelings into words, as a woman married for 27 years to someone for whom this is anathema, I can assure you that if you put into words how much this is bothering you and why—i.e., “discussing this further”—it will not achieve the results you hope for. I know this from extensive personal experience. There are hours—weeks, months (probably years)—wasted in pointless discussing-this-furthers I’d like to get back. (Maybe then I’d have that quality time to offer to the people I love.)
Look, it would be nice if we could force our partners to do things exactly the way we want them to—the way we do. (OK, it wouldn’t really be nice. It would be terrible.) It’s easy to think that if only we could get that pesky other parent to see the light, everything would go as it’s supposed to. But raising a child is not like loading the dishwasher—which my husband is not allowed to do because he does it so haphazardly I can’t stand it. It’s not like anything else, really, because when it comes to child rearing by two loving parents, there’s actually a huge advantage in the different approaches they each bring to it.
What’s going to happen in your family will probably be what happened in mine: You are going to be the parent who demonstrates that emotions have names. Your husband will demonstrate that not everything has to be said in order to be conveyed. And your child will learn that there are different ways to express yourself—not just different ways to show love, but also different ways to be.
I can remember my daughter, as young as 3 or 4, talking to me about the differences between her father and me, pondering them aloud. (If she’d turned out to be more like her dad than like me, she would have pondered them only to herself, in silence.) Some of the things she wanted to talk to me about were serious (her father was—is—Christian; I’m a nonbelieving Jew) and some of them seemed hilarious to her (“Daddy thinks the perfect house would be a remodeled old gas station in the country, where we’d have no neighbors! And you like New York City, which is so crowded!”). Even then she was already aware, thanks to being raised by two parents who themselves were raised so differently and experience the world and interact with it in such different ways, that there was more than one way to live in the world, more than one way to think about things, more than one way to communicate, more than one way to love.
When she and I spent time alone together, there was a lot of let’s pretend, a lot of storytelling, a lot of long conversations about her friends and how she felt about them and how they seemed to feel about her. She’d wake up in the morning and want to tell me what she’d dreamed; she took to the idea as soon as I offered it that dreams might be able to tell us things we were feeling without being aware of them. In other words: She lived in my world with me. And when she was alone with her father, she lived in his: They built things together, they drew and painted and made sculptures and collages, they read Bible stories. They took horseback-riding lessons together. They did “research projects” (dinosaurs, architecture). They spent time in companionable silence.
As an adult, she lives in both those worlds. She is a talker and endless analyzer and she spends as much time as she can in nature, in silence. She rides horses every chance she gets. She is patient and levelheaded when a situation calls for it in a way that I can’t seem to be—she has the same calm capability in an emergency her father has. And she is exuberant, like me. She is also a person other people go to for advice. I am often in awe of the ways I see both my husband and myself in her (for better and for worse) and the ways that my approach to life and his have blended and braided within her and turned into something else altogether—something bigger than both of us.
I would suggest you pay close (or closer) attention to what your husband is going to teach your child that you can’t. It took me longer than it should have to recognize that my husband’s ability to be still, to allow for silence in a way I’m not able to, was as important to our daughter’s well-being and her education of what it means to be human as all my conversations with her were.
Let your husband show his love in his own way—and remember, for future battlegrounds between you: Neither one of you alone is in charge of how your son is raised. This is the sort of advice that sounds obvious but that turns out to be hard to keep in mind when you’re in the trenches. You have years ahead of different approaches, different ideas and philosophies, different styles—different things you each feel passionate about—to navigate between. Sometimes you’ll need to split the difference. Sometimes one of you will have to take the lead. In some areas, you’ll just do things two different ways.
Because I’m a veteran of the we-couldn’t-be-more-different school of parenting, I can tell you with great certainty that one parent’s insistence on the right way to go about raising a child who has two parents is a recipe for trouble. I know because I made that trouble, many times. While I didn’t worry about the particular thing you’re worried about (who knows why, when I worried about so many other things?), I had a my-way-or-the-highway attitude about plenty of others.
You both have things to teach your son and different strengths to bring to your family. I know how hard it is to resist the urge to try to control everything. Resist it anyway.
More Advice From Slate
What do you say to your 18-year-old niece wearing a Make America Great Again hat at a family party? Respect her autonomy as an adult to peacefully display her political views? Counsel her privately that her choice to wear the hat makes you and other people uncomfortable? Ask her why she’s wearing the hat?
Get more Care and Feeding
Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Jamilah Lemieux every week. They also help support Slate’s journalism.