Seth has a difficult time telling me that he loves me. He can tell a stuffed animal that he loves it, but it is rarely directed at a family member. I can't remember the last time I have heard him freely say it. I never make him say it, but I admit that sometimes it hurts a little that he doesn't want to (or isn't able to)...especially because I'm pretty darn sure that he does love me.
At bed time, when I'm tucking him in and kissing him good night, I always tell him that I love him, and I usually try to tell him something that I love about him. I occasionally pause for a heartbeat after I tell him that I love him and he undoubtedly knows what I'm waiting for. On those occasions, he will usually groan and cover his eyes with his arm and spit out in a low, growly voice: "It's too haaarrrrd." Inevitably I tell him that it's totally ok, that I know he loves me and that I love him, too. Occasionally I will ask him if he likes it when I tell him that I love him and, on those occasions, he always answers with a fervent "yes!"
(Note: Very recently, I have stopped telling him that I know he loves me; it has occurred to me that there might be times when he doesn't actually feel love for me, or feels mixed things towards me, and I don't want him to feel guilty if I say that I know he loves me.)
Not that long ago, when he was telling me that it was so hard to say the words, I asked him why he found it so difficult (though it's pretty clear why, frankly). With his usual-but-still-surprising level of self-knowledge, he said that he couldn't tell me that because it would mean that he did love me. I asked him why it would be a problem for him if he admitted to loving me, and he said that he was scared then that I would be taken away from him.
Well, of course that's what's going on. It makes perfect sense. That poor kid lost everything already in his life. Every. single. thing. that should be his isn't. He's got the experience of an old man under his belt and he's only barely seven.
He makes up for the lack of words, though. I love it when he leans on me, or asks if I can feed him, or (more and more regularly) asks if he can be on my lap. If he's been away from me for any length of time, he yells for me and comes racing to find me and often has something he wants to tell me. Sometimes these things are accompanied by a shyness or a quick ducking of his head, as if he can hardly bear to express a need for affection. This is all great - all signs of his increasing comfort with closeness. Other times, many times, he shows his affection in ways that are not very comfortable for me. He crashes into me when I least expect it, often from behind; my teeth rattle and I've had more than a few bruises on my back. He sits close by me on my bed, while pushing at me with his feet until I ask him to stop. When, not that long ago, I was bent over the bathroom sink vomiting, it was Seth by my side, thumping my back in an effort to comfort, not realizing that his rough thumps were actually somewhat painful. When I sit in our library with Seth on my lap, he pokes and prods at me and pulls hair into my eyes and digs his chin into my shoulder or neck or, on gentler occasions, combs my hair. Again, until I ask him to stop. These moments are often not relaxing for me. Though his gestures are often not very gentle, it is abundantly clear to me that these are gestures of affection. He may simply be a kid who is not comfortable with verbal expressions of love, and demonstrate it through his actions. That's ok, too.
There's a reason for how Seth is, what he does. He's showing me love in a physical way because not only does he need to receive it, but he needs to offer it as well. It's his way of showing me that he has a need to be close to me physically but the not-always-gentle manner in which he does this tempers the emotion behind it, which keeps him safe emotionally. I believe he actually waits for me to tell him to stop, and I have come also to believe that he does things deliberately that I will have to ask him to stop because it allows him to retreat again and to feel like my 'rejection' of his overtures validates his reasons for not wanting to love me. It's that push-pull thing that I've seen in him so often.
Too complicated for you yet?
Well, let me tell you that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Despite what you see in the boy that your kids might play with someday, Seth is a very, very complex little boy. In so many ways, he's such an old soul, full of life-altering experience. But even this is complicated by his having the emotional maturity and capacity of a boy who, despite being seven in linear age, isn't quite seven in emotional age. That combination makes his emotional life a big uncertainty for him.
One thing that seems to have a very gentling effect on Seth's emotions is being around animals - particularly cats. Though he was terrified of my cat before she died last summer, he has come to adore those little felines and, over and over, I have seen how they bring out something very fragile and precious in Seth. To further that, I have deliberately taught him how to touch, beckon, and talk to cats (cats being a love of mine, too), and have even taken him during a one-on-one time to a pet store so that we could together experience a bit of that soft side of him while he handled the animals. During those times, I am very deliberate about telling Seth how gentle and loving a boy he is, and how sensitive his heart is for animals and people. The effect of those feline encounters usually has lingering effects.
Some time ago, I developed another strategy for Seth. I created an 'alternate personality' for myself in an effort to create a kind of play with the kids. I pull this persona out every couple of weeks or so, and only under circumstances where the kids are acting in a particularly non-cooperative way.
Note: It's a little embarrassing to be talking about this!
I call her Nasty Momma. I am Nasty Momma. In those moments, I bend my head and pull all of my hair over my face. I look at the kids through the hair hanging in my face. I lower my voice until it's barely more than a nasty growl, and I tell the kids that Nasty Momma has come to visit and that she's feeling more than a little nasty.
Nasty Momma doesn't like affection. She doesn't like kindness or harmony; she would prefer the kids to be really nasty with each other by not cooperating and by bickering and arguing. In fact, she is nauseated by declarations of love and affection. Nasty Momma tells the kids that they are not allowed to hug or kiss each other and they are certainly not allowed to show affection or love towards her. In fact, the worst possible thing to do is to tell Nasty Momma that they love her.
It's the classic reverse psychology tool.
You can imagine that my kids love Nasty Momma. The moment she comes out, the bickering stops and all of their attention focuses on her. They laugh themselves silly about her voice and about her disgust at anything kind or loving. They fall all over themselves telling each other that they love each other, they hug each other freely, and then laugh again when Nasty Momma voices disgust. But the best part of all is when they tell Nasty Momma that they love her. She grows increasingly horrified by the declarations of love directed towards her: She feigns vomiting; growls and rages every time she hears them say that they love her; and sometimes even falls to the ground in utter disgust at the love stuff.
My sole reason for creating the Nasty Momma character is to accustom Seth to just saying those three magic words. He's learning how to give voice, to give shape, to those words. To make them less scary. These days when we're in the full swing of a Nasty Momma encounter, Seth laughs down to his belly and yells "I love you" with joy and exultation. You can't imagine how thankful I am to be Nasty Momma when he screams it out loud forty or fifty times over the course of the ten minutes that Nasty Momma is around. He falls on the floor with laughing so hard, all the while shrieking "I love you" to Nasty Momma. And though the words are not directed at me, exactly, he surely knows the woman behind the hair just as I surely know that every time he says it his lips and tongue are acquiring the ability, the muscle memory if you will, to say the words.
I believe that this is a kid who is someday going to be able to say those three magic words to the real me. And if he never does, well, that's ok too because there are lots of ways other than verbal to understand, show, and receive love. Either way, I get to see the expression of joy and anticipation in his face every time I come home from somewhere - whether it's a 24-hour visit to my retreat centre or a quick trip to the grocery store. It's always Seth who's the first to run to greet me and there is no mistaking the look: It is a look of love.