One mom's heart-bursting letter to her sons about what saying 'I love you' really means.

As a child, I remember all the times my mother said “I love you” to me. She’d say it before she hung up the phone, every single time. She’d say it as I was walking out the door to head to school. She said it every time she dropped me off at a friend’s house, right before I stepped out of her car.

I used to feel embarrassed and a little annoyed because I didn’t understand what she was really saying. But now that I have children of my own, I know that she wasn’t just saying those three words over and over.


Me with my sons in 1999. Photo used with permission of the author.

When a mother says “I love you,” it means so many different things. So this is a letter to my sons about the many true meanings of my “I love you.”

Dear son: I need to tell you that I love you.

And I want you to know how complex and intricate and meaningful those three words are when they come from me. I have been saying them to you throughout your entire life, but I often wonder if you know exactly what I mean when I say them.

You, my child, are supposed to take my love for granted. You should know that I love you just as well as you know your own name. My love was your very first love, and it will last last your entire lifetime, even long after I’m gone. But in case you ever wonder, I want to tell you exactly what “I love you” means to me.

When I say I love you, it’s more than a natural feeling a mother has for her child.

It means I think of you all the time. All throughout my day, my thoughts of you are too many to count. When I think about you, it can be a simple hope that you are making the best of this current moment. If you’re at school, I often hope that you’re content, that you’re patient, that you’re learning or challenged or enjoying yourself.

When you’re home, I hope that home is serene, peaceful, and comfortable. If you’re out with friends, I hope that you’re fulfilled and happy. My love is much more than admiration. My love is more than pride for who you are and what you’ll become. My love is steadfast hope that never fades.

I love you also means you are the person for whom I would stop everything.

If you ever need me, even if I can’t (physically) be there for you instantly, in my heart, I’m by your side. I’m holding your hand. I’m holding you up. I’m holding you close. I’m guiding you forward. I am there for whatever you need. No matter where you are, I am with you. No matter what, you can always call on me. So when you run out the door and you hear me say, “goodbye, I love you!” remember, this is what it means.

Because I am your mother, my love is part of your foundation.

It helped you grow into who you are today. But I know it’s not enough. I hope you know your priceless worth, yet you are humble and graceful. I hope my love has helped your heart become strong, yet vulnerable and open. I hope all your efforts are brave, but careful. I hope your heart is generous, but discerning. You must believe that you are enough to make this world a little bit better. When I tell you I love you, I’m also reminding you to believe in yourself and to love who you are.

When I do special things for you, it’s not to hear you say “thanks” or to watch for your appreciation. It’s another way to say I love you.

When I prepare your breakfast before you wake up, it’s because I want your morning to be a little easier. Your carefully crafted birthday cakes are a way for me to say, “I love you so much that my time, energy and creativity are for no one else but you today.”

Every stitch of every Halloween costume was from my heart to yours so you could be whatever your imagination desired. When you wonder why I ironed your shirt when you didn’t ask me to or why I made your favorite meal two nights in a row or why I made sure you could find your gloves and hat on a cold winter day, it’s only because I want to give you little bits of comfort and joy, even if you barely notice them.

My love for you won’t erase your mistakes.

It won’t always catch you when you fall. It won’t spare you from heartbreak or failure.

But my love for you is why I always want what’s best for you. And while what’s best might not always be what’s easiest, you can be sure that I will always have space to encourage, champion, or comfort you.

It doesn’t matter how far away you are or how old we both become. It doesn’t matter how many years go by or how many children of your own you have someday. You will always be the fire in my heart, the greatest joy in my memories, and the reason I sometimes stay awake and worry. I will love you on your happiest days, I will love you through your lowest points, I will love you when you break my heart. This love of mine will take on a thousand different forms, yet it will never change.

As you grow older, you might forget some of the little things I used to do. But I hope you’ll always know how much it means when I say I love you.

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