Why my mom and I rarely say ‘I love you’

Saying these words is easier done than said, for an Asian anyway.

My mother is a tough woman. By that, I mean literally and figuratively. She’s been a working mom my whole life, therefore instilling the importance of women working outside the home in a time when women were expected inside the home. She’s retired now, and spends her days in the presence of God, trips to the grocery store, and my home. She gives my kids money for their birthdays and Vietnamese holidays, such as Tet. And every once in awhile — a hug and a kiss.

This behavior is by far the opposite of what I experienced growing up. As a child of the nineties in Vietnam, I was part of a traditional Vietnamese family, where respect for elders, hard work and dedication in school as well as faith were by virtue, a demonstration of love and required of every child. We simply didn’t show our love by kissing or hugging each other, and we definitely did not say, “I love you” very often. Even saying “thank you” on a regular basis were uncommon.

It’s no surprise then that my mom fell into the category of the unaffectionate. She has never been one for showing affection. The closest I ever felt to her showing love for me was through her actions. She worked hard so that we could have food on the table and clothes on our bodies, but growing up, as a daughter, I yearned for love. Like most humans who crave social connections, I longed for her to hug me, kiss me, and touch me in a loving, tender way. That never happened.

I know that she loves me, but she has a hard time showing it. Instead, she’ll say things like, “You bring a child into the world, and you love them, but how do they repay you? By doing what you don’t want them to do.” Her words reminded me of a recent article in the New York Times, written by a fellow Vietnamese, an English professor named Viet Thanh Nguyen called, “Why We Struggle to Say I Love You.” In it, he wrote:

“…many of us children are not expected to say it either, but instead are expected to express love through gratitude, which means obeying our parents and following their wishes for how we should live our lives.” — Viet Thanh Nguyen

I am, by far, a rebel. Perhaps because I spent the majority of my childhood in America, the same way that the author did, I felt a higher inkling towards affection. Common phrases such as, “please” and “thank you” have been deeply ingrained in my mind. And yet, I still can’t find the courage to say, “I love you” to my mom and neither has she. The feeling is there, just not the words.

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

When my daughter was born, I felt an enormous amount of affection the first moment I held her in my arms. After being cleaned and measured, she was brought over to me by my husband, and as I gazed at her on my hospital bed, I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was what I would call “love at first sight.” I wondered if my mother ever felt that way about me.

As luck would have it, my daughter is an incredibly affectionate child. Where I lacked in receiving love from my mother, I made it up by receiving it from my daughter. There’s never a shortage of “I love you mommy,” drawings filled with hearts and smiling faces, and hugs. Being a mom to such a child has been a learning curve for me.

We Asians are complicated creatures. After being alive for 34 years, I still have yet to understand the ways of my elders. Be humble, work hard, bring home the money, and the rest is history — we equate love with stability. Sacrifice and humility are major tenets of Asian cultures, and no doubt will continue well into future generations. Of course, not every Asian family is like that — just mine.