BERKELEY, CALIF. — I know there are some women who would be very unhappy if they received a new hedge trimmer for Mother's Day or some other special event. I am not one of those women. I would instead be upset to receive an expensive bouquet of roses. But I realize there are women who feel exactly the opposite.
Understanding these differences has a big effect on relationships, understanding that there are many different languages of love.
I like to bake, but my husband, who is not fond of sweets, would not hear, "I care about you," in a batch of freshly baked cookies. He might appreciate the thought, but he would be much happier to get me out of the kitchen and off to a hike in the mountains.
We can learn to hear "I care about you" in someone's gesture, even if it is not in "our language." Over the years we learn that each person has a unique way that they express affection and love, and each person has a unique set of gestures they perceive as loving. Understanding on both sides makes it work.
At first, I didn't hear "I care for you," when my husband washed my car. Originally I thought, "I can just run it through the car wash." But then I realized that it was important to let my husband speak his language of love to me and equally important that I read it that way.
Gifts and gestures that express caring vary so broadly. One friend shared that her preferred combination of loving gifts and gestures was as follows: any high-tech add-on to her computer and someone to follow her toddler around and pick up all the clutter.
My own objection to expensive bouquets is not to flowers. I love flowers, but I am a gardener and an annoyingly practical person. I would rather have a plant for the yard. Once in a while, I do appreciate the gift of a certain perfume, but wonderful gardening tools are my real luxury. And even more wonderful - someone to follow me around and pick up the clippings as I prune.
As a mother, I have found wish lists a good way to help with translating these unique languages we have. My Mother's Day wish list always includes the request that the sometimes-unsweet siblings will be sweet to each other.
The first wish list included what I wanted for dinner. From that wish list, my family developed a traditional Mother's Day menu to speak my language. And just as important - though I do not like breakfast in bed - I "oohed" and "aahed" when my children were little and graced me with this honor. Breakfast in bed is not, in my language, a loving gesture, but it was in theirs and so it was important to "hear" and understand their language.
This comprehension of others' emotions even when not perfectly expressed is maybe the most loving language of all.
To this day, I remember the way that my father raved about the weird little salads that 5-year-old me served him on jar lids. One of his "favorites" was crumbled up saltines on shredded carrots! I love that he understood my language. His language was the understanding.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.