Why It Took Me Years to Say I Love You to My Parents

I do love them, but I still struggle to say it sometimes

Quy Ma
Quy Ma
Dec 8, 2020 · 12 min read
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I honestly can’t remember the first time (or last time, for that matter) I said “I love you” to either of my parents. If I racked my brain hard enough to recall the specific memory, I think it was it was when I was well on my own and out of the house as an adult. Dad and I were talking on the phone.

When my father and I call each other, we don’t chit chat or banter. Our calls are brief and short. Our calls last no longer than 10 minutes. Usually, we only call each other if either of us needs something from the other person. And we only talk on the phone about once every month.

I was raised in Houston, Texas but left town to go to college for a few years. In college, I rarely visited home. I lived on my own while both of my brothers eventually moved back home with my parents to help save money.

I did move back to Houston after college though. I was typically only 20 minutes away from them. Despite being back in Houston, I again rarely visited my parents — maybe once every 3 months. Holidays didn’t offer a reprieve for visits either as I had worked in grocery retail for 5 years after college. Holidays were usually the busiest times of the year so I had to work long hours during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

After my retail days, I ended up moving away to Utah for a career change and got married. I was now 1,300 miles away from them. The move definitely didn’t help with our communication gap.

Normally, we visit my in-laws for the holidays instead of my own family. If I happen to be in Houston, I’ll drop by my parents’ house, but it’s usually not for long.

Going back to the memory, I can’t remember the specifics of this particular call with my father, but we were wrapping up the call. He said, “Love you, son.”

Dad also said it in Vietnamese, which somehow has a different weight to the phrase to me personally, compared to English. I’ve heard the phrase, “I love you,” in English more times than I’ve ever heard it in Vietnamese.

I remember pausing for a second before replying back, “I love you too, dad.” The call ended.

I didn’t really make a big deal out of it at the time. Hell, I have a hard time remembering the specifics of that memory with my father. It wasn’t significant or meaningful to me.

To be clear, I didn’t pause because I was asking myself whether I loved him or not. I paused because I had to acknowledge what I was saying and making sure I was saying it to the right person.

How else can I best describe it? The best comparison I can make is making sure you don’t say “I love you” accidentally to a person you’re not accustomed to being warm towards — like a co-worker or acquaintance.

I’m sure many fathers struggle to express sentimental words or emotions. But I’m also sure many fathers have said “I love you” enough to their children where the behavior is normalized.

In regards to my mom, she can express emotions more easily than my dad. But I can’t recall when I first said “I love you” or “I love you too” to her as well. But I do remember it’s been more frequent in recent memory.

My mom was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s last year. She’s only 56. I’ve recently increased the number of calls back home as a result, aiming to call once a week so I can make the best of the limited time we have with her.

But since then, the calls with either of my parents still end after 10 to 15 minutes. Small talk and casual conversations just aren’t in our blood. And saying “I love you” to each other when we say goodbye on the phone is still rare.

COVID-19 has made travel harder. My parents are both high-risk. I live 1,300 miles away. I turned the question inwards and wondered to myself, “Why did it take me years to say ‘I love you’ to my parents?”

In fact, despite everything that is going on in the world and my recent epiphany about our lack of communication, it’s still hard for me to say the words to my parents.

I pause every single time.

Why?

Reflecting

I think it’s weird to express affection towards my parents. Awkward, even. I don’t say I love you to them as much as I should. I don’t kiss them on the cheeks. I barely hug them. And the lack of affection goes both ways too.

Despite my lack of outward affection towards my parents, I don’t have a problem showing affection for others I care about. I actually love giving to and receiving words of affirmation from others. It’s my main love language.

Actually, I think I express my affections too much sometimes. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and attach to people easily. Back when I was dating, I was more likely to be the first in romantic relationships to profess my love for my partner. Sometimes, I fell so hard that I did everything in my power to not say it on the first date. Yikes!

I first became self-aware of the oddity of me not saying “I love you” to my parents because of dating. The partners in my relationships all talked to their parents on a regular basis and said “I love you” to them with such ease.

When the relationship turned serious enough to where I could be introduced to my partners’ family, I saw loads of love at their family gatherings. I saw their eyes light up when they saw us pulling into the driveway. I saw hugs between parent and child that went on forever. I was not accustomed to these outward displays of love.

Another instance where I noticed the uniqueness of my situation was when a friend of mine said she and her mom had some sort of falling out with each other. She promised, “I’m so mad at her. I’m not going to speak to her for two weeks.”

She lasted three days.

Recently, a co-worker told me she couldn’t imagine a world where she wasn’t best friends with her adult daughter. I thought to myself that I couldn’t imagine a world where I was best friends with either of my parents. What a strange thought! What would my parents and I even talk about?

Raising us

Deep down, I know two facts:

  • I love my parents unequivocally
  • They love me unconditionally

So what’s the problem? Why is it hard to express love to them? I don’t know the answers exactly and I can only guess.

My parents fled Communist Vietnam in the early 1980s to make a new life in America. They found themselves in a foreign land, surrounded by people who spoke a different language than their mother tongue.

From the very beginning, our family, like many other immigrant families, found themselves in a fight-or-die environment. It was like survival of the fittest and my parents worked very hard to keep us going.

For years, we were poor — surviving off food stamps and government aid. Dad put himself through college, teaching himself as much mechanical engineering as possible. He went through each textbook page carefully, struggling to retain the information.

Mom went to cosmetology school while raising three rambunctious and energetic boys. She eventually ran her own nail salon in Houston and became a small business owner.

They worked anywhere from 60–80 hours weekly. Dad woke up at 5 AM, went to work at 6:30 AM, and picked us up from our babysitter, a Vietnamese family friend, at about 7 or 8 PM every weekday. Mom worked 6 days a week, the last one to close shop and leave after her ladies had gone home.

Sometimes, we ate dinner at the babysitter’s house because my parents couldn’t make it home in time.

On many late nights, I saw my dad or mom punching away on the calculator in the home office, closing out the books for mom’s business. The work came home with them.

What little free time my parents had was devoted to binge-watching Vietnamese dramas or Chinese historical fiction TV shows on VHS. Their limited evening hours were precious and they did not want us disturbing their time of relaxation understandably.

As soon as my brothers and I got home, we would complete our homework dutifully or play video games quietly in our rooms before tucking ourselves away in bed for school in the morning.

Love

As teenagers, the end of the Vietnam War brought an end to life as my parents knew it. My parents never told us what life was like after Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975. They were able to escape the country in the early 1980s. All I know is that my parents vowed to never let their children experience struggle or hardship.

After starting a family in America, my parents wanted what was best for us. At all costs. In their minds, they sacrificed everything by leaving their homeland and their family for a life in a new world. They were not shy to remind us of their sacrifices — both past and present.

Early on, they ingrained in our heads that the only way to have a happy life was to be successful with our future career and money. They believed faithfully in the American Dream, where you can achieve anything if you just work hard enough. They epitomized relentlessness, determination, and drive. My parents made sure my brothers and I shared those traits as well.

My parents’ main purpose in raising us wasn’t to foster a nurturing, loving environment — it was to prepare us for the harsh realities of the world. They wanted us to grow up, understanding that nothing is handed to you. You have to earn your keep. Society has no room for the weak and unmotivated, especially if you’re a child of immigrants in White America.

Nothing less than an A on reports cards was acceptable to them. The only respectable future career paths in their minds were either a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or business owner. Sometimes, it felt like an 18-year training course for life.

I was also the firstborn son, which in Asian culture comes with more expectations and obligations than the other children. A firstborn son seeks to be a role model for his younger siblings in both standards and achievements.

As a child, I felt that my ultimate goal was to produce results that were satisfactory to my parents. Life became an eternal struggle to be successful. Maybe even perfect.

I was a stellar student. I was one of the top readers in my school consistently. I participated in many extracurricular activities. I stayed out of gangs and avoided drugs. I never acted up or stayed out later than I was supposed to.

I felt it was never enough. Or at least, I perceived it that way. If I did meet a goal, my parents told me to improve upon my new benchmark. “Improve. Always improve,” they said. “You can do better.” I found myself in a perpetual loop of seeking their approval.

I constantly sought their approval as a way to validate my self-worth. For years, I was desperate to hear the coveted phrase from my parents, “I’m proud of you.”

Yet I rarely got praise or words of affection from my parents, even when I surpassed their expectations. I remember years later, I got my first big kid job. I was going into a management training program to become a retail grocery store manager.

I was considered a longshot candidate since I lacked experience and was fresh out of college. The interview process was long and grueling. But I managed to impress the senior leadership team and got the job offer. The salary was competitive and the job came with amazing benefits. I would also be one of the youngest store managers for the company.

Elated, I called my dad to tell him the good news. “This is it,” I thought to myself. “This is the moment where Dad will be proud of me!”

I could hear him take a deep breath from his cigarette on the phone after he was done listening. He finally replied, “That sounds good, son. But you know what I think you should do? You should go get yourself an MBA.”

Trust

My parents had a hard time trusting people outside our immediate family. I honestly don’t know what was the root cause of their suspicious nature of others. But I remember Mom telling me repeatedly that the only people you can ever rely on is family — Not even your friends. Nobody.

My extended family is quite huge. I have uncles, aunts, cousins, great-you-name-it. But growing up, extended family gatherings were far and in-between. The only relative that lived nearby was one uncle and his family.

The rest of my family was dispersed across the globe after the Vietnam War. This made it difficult to travel to and gather everyone, especially if there wasn’t a lot of discretionary income. Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays were intimate affairs with only immediate family in attendance.

My parents allowed me to have friends, but sleepovers and birthday parties weren’t common in our household. Mom always hesitated on allowing people to come over. Trust issues, I suspect. I found it easier and less awkward to go to my friend’s houses to hang out instead.

As a result of my limited contact with extended family and friends, I never grew a robust personal support network outside of my parents and brothers. And we already weren’t the best at giving each other affection and love.

Nowadays, whenever my wife calls her family, I always catch myself listening in on their conversation. I can’t help it. It’s fascinating to me. Her calls with her mother can go for hours as they catch up on the latest news in their daily lives. It’s both impressive and strange to me.

I get excited when they include me in the conversation, but I usually don’t contribute much. I sometimes feel like I’m interrupting a special private moment between mother and daughter — something that I would never be able to understand.

Sometimes, my wife’s phone blows up from a massive string of texts between uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins.

Comparatively, my own texts to my brothers, and vice versa, go unanswered for weeks. My texts with my dad are brief and short. My mom, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, can no longer hold a meaningful conversation with me anymore.

Closing Thoughts

I never heard my parents tell me if they were ever proud of me. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever hear it, especially from my father. But despite my parents’ flaws and inability to show affection, deep down inside, I know my parents are proud of me.

My father once told me on a phone call a few years ago, “I no longer need to worry about you boys.” That was as close as I was going to get to admission with him.

I recently listened to a wonderful audiobook. It’s a memoir, written by Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, called Shoe Dog. In Phil Knight’s quest for success, he also yearned for his father’s affections and to make him proud. Knight worked relentlessly to build his shoe empire but never heard the words from his father either.

However, Phil Knight knew his father was proud when his father commented on the fact that his son’s company logo was everywhere when he watched basketball games.

My brothers and I are all full-grown adults now. We are all college-educated and have successful careers of our own. I live with my wife and two Siberian huskies in a beautiful home nestled right below the Wasatch Front in Utah. Instead of working 60+ hours a week, I’m spending my free time doing what I enjoy such as traveling, writing, and gaming.

By all measures, I’m living a successful life that would be the envy of many immigrants or children of immigrants. My parents did everything they could to provide that foundation for us, but it came at a personal cost to them. Sacrifice, even.

It took me years to realize that people express and receive love differently. And sometimes, you don’t need words to tell others that you love someone. For my parents, their way of expressing love for us was through their sacrifice, their relentless drive, and acts of service.

My parents will probably never read this. They aren’t even aware that I write. So although I may struggle to say the words directly to them, I have no problem writing the words out publicly in front of a bunch of online strangers…

I love you, Mom and Dad.

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Quy Ma

Written by

Quy Ma

Texan living in Utah. Market Researcher. INFJ. 1st Gen Child of Refugees. Empath. 6x Top Writer. Obsessed with unlocking people’s potential. Pragmatist.

Family Matters

A publication for parents and families of all types to share their experiences.

Quy Ma

Written by

Quy Ma

Texan living in Utah. Market Researcher. INFJ. 1st Gen Child of Refugees. Empath. 6x Top Writer. Obsessed with unlocking people’s potential. Pragmatist.

Family Matters

A publication for parents and families of all types to share their experiences.

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