This Father’s Day I’m expecting my children to come up trumps. And by that, I don’t mean they’ll be breaking open their poorly-funded piggy banks to get their old man a new watch or one of the umpteen books I’ve been making subtle hints to their mum about for the past month.
No, I hope that – along with a slightly shonky breakfast in bed of Cheerios in a mug or a crisp and ketchup sandwich – my young son and daughter will throw their little arms around me, give me a snotty kiss and say those three magic words: “I love you.”
It’s a ridiculous thing really, but that gesture means the world to me. We say it to each other constantly – getting up, going to bed, while playing, tending grazed knees, nursing through illness – and it never loses its power. The feeling of such unconditional love is like electricity, capable of kick-starting my cynical old heart no matter how tough or exhausting the day has been.
So, you would expect me to be the same with my own father? Well, no. Because like thousands of sons and daughters across the county who will this weekend press a bad biography or card featuring beer, slippers or golf, into their old pop’s hands, I can’t remember the last time I said “I love you” to my dad.
According to a recent survey, a staggering one in four people claim they feel too awkward to come clean and tell their dads how much they care about them. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the study – commissioned by Wilkinson Sword – found a whopping 49% only greet their dad verbally when they meet. No hug, no Cheerios in a mug and definitely no kiss (snotty or otherwise).
Psychologist and consultant social scientist Anjula Mutanda claims the phenomenon is less about bad jokes and terrible dancing and more about a social unease at expressing feelings as we grow up.
“There is a lot of love for dads,” she explains, “however, these results identify how awkward and uncomfortable Brits can feel when it comes to actually directly telling their dads that they love them. Young children generally tend to express love and affection towards their parents more freely but, from the pre-teens onwards, the hugs and the ‘I love yous’ between parent and child can diminish.
“As time goes by, we can then fall out of the habit of saying ‘I love you’. The longer this goes on, the more avoidant we can become.”
I admit it. I do feel awkward about putting my feelings towards my dad into words – perhaps more so than with my mum. There’s a sense that it’s just not cricket to go around blurting out emotions to ‘a bloke’ in such a care-free fashion. More to the point, I think my dad would also feel deeply uncomfortable with such a bold statement, even if he would also be secretly pleased. He’s a caring, gentle man but I imagine any such face-to-face proclamation would be met with an embarrassed, mumbled reciprocation and a faintly awkward hug.
There are those, I’m sure, who see such hesitancy or muted affection as alien or a sign of a poor relationship. But, in my case at least, and I’m certain for many more sons, daughters and fathers, this couldn’t be further from the truth. After all emotional intimacy is not about words and there are plenty of ways you can tell your father “I love you” without having to go through all the toe-curling embarrassment of having to actually say it.
One of the simplest ways to demonstrate how much someone means to you is actually spending time with them and talking to them. I would much rather be the son that never says I love you, rather than the son who doesn’t know a thing about the man his dad really is.
I also know that in turning to my father for advice – or more accurately begging for help on that most dadliest of pursuits DIY – has meant invaluable time learning, talking and laughing (as well as getting shelves that don’t wobble, a tarpaulin over a leaking shed and an antique mirror that doesn’t fall down).
Anjula insists the more we say ‘I love you’ the easier and more natural it becomes. To be honest, I’m not convinced. Maybe it’s a generational thing?
I can’t remember ever hearing my dad say those words to his father, but then, I’m also pretty sure I never doubted the strength of their relationship – cemented in the workplace and maintained through the challenges of family change and age.
So, I will stick to my guns and to the bear hugs, back slaps and beer that dad and I are both more comfortable with. But just this once – because it’s Father’s Day and because I know there’ll be 30 miles between us when he finally gets round to reading this – “thanks dad, I love you”.
Commissioned and published by the East Anglian Daily Times