I’ve been thinking about touching lately. Physical contact between people is so radically different depending on context that it’s one of the most fascinating things I know. I remember as a child figuring out for the first time that tickling only made you laugh if you liked the person who was doing the tickling. That struck me as amazing that the physical sensation alone was not enough to determine my reaction to it. My relationship to the other person had more influence over the situation than any actual sensation my body was experiencing.
This is why I find explaining ‘good touch/bad touch’ issues with children is so complicated. My oldest daughter is eight and her body is changing fast enough that we’ve had to start having more detailed and explicit conversations about her getting her period one day. We have a book we’ve been reading from each night about caring for her body, and she’s understandably nervous and excited and scared and disgusted all at the same time. I’ve talked to all my kids since they were very small about their bodies and how they work, and I’ve done my best to define where their private areas are, but without context it doesn’t make any sense. There aren’t any private areas on a toddler or a baby, or even a preschooler who still needs help in the bathroom. Aden once asked me why it was okay for us to see their brother’s penis, but not her daddy’s. I told her that her brother was too young to keep himself clean properly, but as soon as he didn’t need my help with that anymore he would start keeping it private. I also explained that a lot of it is cultural. Where we live women’s breasts are considered private and are generally covered in public, but in other parts of the world they can be exposed and it’s considered fine. There are places where showing her hair or bare arms would be considered inappropriate, but here it’s okay. In any case, my daughter’s reached an age where we need to start discussing other people’s sexual reactions to her body and it makes me sad. She’s still so innocent and carefree in that regard, but if she can’t analyze the intent of other people when they touch her, she can’t make good decisions about situations she may find herself in. She needs to know why a touch could be bad even if the physical sensation isn’t. And how the same touch at the right time and place will someday be fine. She needs context.
I think the blurring of all that context is more confusing for new parents than they sometimes acknowledge. Parenting is extremely physical, and particularly for a woman who has given birth to a child all the boundaries on our bodies change and it can be disorienting. I remember very clearly when I was in labor the first time (before we had to change the plan to a C-section) how the last of my modesty went out the proverbial window. I was in a shower at the hospital trying to deal with the back pain, sitting on a big ball because the bouncing helped a little, when the nurse asked if she could come in to check the baby’s heart rate. I said sure, and while she was in the middle of probing around on my belly with her monitor it hit me that I’d crossed some line of feeling private about my body. I was naked, wet, huge, bouncing on a ball, and if this woman I didn’t know had said she was coming in and she was bringing her boyfriend along I wouldn’t have cared. Pregnancy will do that to you. So will breast feeding. I just kind of breast fed my kids wherever and never had a problem, so I’m always fascinated by stories of nursing mothers being confronted by strangers in public. I would think someone would be embarrassed to admit seeing a baby being fed and conflating it with something sexual, but that’s a whole other can of worms I suppose.
Anyway, I’ve always been most comfortable with a fairly large personal space that I let just a handful of people inside. I like hugs, but am really only comfortable with kissing among my most immediate family. It’s fun to lean on my brothers and snuggle with my dad and I’ll rub my mom’s foot while she scratches my neck if we’re watching TV together, and that’s all nice, but I wouldn’t be comfortable doing those things with many other people, even ones I know well. When my husband is here I like the freedom we have between us to touch each other pretty much anywhere depending on the appropriateness of time and place. But having kids is like being in an avalanche of touching that for me was unprecedented. It’s everywhere all the time, and it’s wonderful and sometimes weird. To go from having my breasts touched in only clinical or sexual ways, to being a source of food and playful poking was sort of liberating and odd. Now I’m in the process of reverting back, and telling my kids they can’t just grab one of my boobs for fun. My son nursed until he was almost two, and he still sometimes asks at random moments if he can have some milk and I explain to him again that it’s all gone. At three he’s too old to fondle me the way he wants to. It’s not sexual, but it’s not appropriate. It’s a contextual grey area because I’m not exactly sure how to tell him it’s not okay now even though he remembers it being okay so recently. Of course in the grand scheme it gets really strange, because in a few years he will be mortified to think he ever touched his mother’s breasts, and what was once a sweet and lovely thing will be completely taboo.
The juxtaposition of sexual and non-sexual touching that comes with becoming a parent is awkward. Some of the nicest and simultaneously most peculiar moments of my life have been when I’ve lain in bed with my husband pressed against me on one side and a baby pressed up on the other. It’s a loving happy sandwich to be in, but touch-wise it sometimes made me almost short circuit. There was an exhibit I experienced at the Toronto Science Center as a kid that had alternating hot and cold strips of metal laid out in a pad big enough to put your hand on. Feeling equal amounts of hot and cold all over your hand at once is not technically uncomfortable, but the confusion of the signals is so bizarre that it’s unpleasant, and everyone I saw who touched it jerked his or her hand back almost instantly. Having the physical contact on each side of my body mean such completely different things was like good touch/bad touch run amok. It all felt nice, but I don’t want to think of myself in a sexual manner while holding my kids, and at the same time I’m glad to feel that way when I’m with my husband. People talk about learning to shift gears from parenting mode to spouse mode in order to maintain your sex life after having kids, but what do you do when the transmission is so mangled you’re in two gears at once?
Not that this is an issue for me at the moment. With Ian in Iraq I have to be content with being in mom mode all the time. Involuntary celibacy is not easy, but at least I don’t lack for physical contact. I think often how much harder it must be for Ian to be in a place where there are no loving touches of any kind for him. I may not be getting all the types of physical contact I want right now, but my days are filled with hugs and kisses and nuzzles of the adorable kid variety. Unless there is something special Ian’s not telling me about his interpreters, he’s not getting anything like that. Years ago the mother of one of my violin students told me about caring for an elderly parent and how she taught her little girl to not be afraid to hold her grandma’s hand or give her kisses. Apparently old people in particular can suffer from lack of touch, and that idea really stayed with me. I make a point of keeping in physical touch during my visits with my grandma when I see her in the nursing home, and I do see a difference in how well she responds to me when I stroke her arm while we talk as opposed to just trying to maintain eye contact. It’s lonely not being touched.
To compare and contrast the behaviors of my children and how they interact with people physically is interesting to me. Aden was a content little baby, but not overly cuddly. The older she’s gotten the more physical with her affection she’s become. Mona was cuddly as a baby, but when she is hurt (either emotionally or physically) she spurns any kind of contact. But if she’s in a good mood she’ll even hug strangers. Quinn will occasionally sit on someone else’s lap or hold someone else’s hand if I’m not around, but in general with people other than myself he’s somewhat reserved. He’s always rested against me as if my body is just an extension of his own. I’ll be interested to see how that will evolve as he spends more time away from me in the future.
For someone who always liked her wide personal space, I’m amazed at how quickly I embraced round the clock physical contact with my kids. I’ll miss that element of parenting as it phases out. I like being a pillow or a headrest or an armchair with actual arms for the small people in my house. But right now I deeply miss the kinds of contact and caresses only my husband provides. There are no plans to phase that out ever, and I wish he were home so I could put my arms around him again. I’m looking forward to hugs that aren’t just around my waist and knees. In the meantime I have Aden’s hand to hold, Mona’s funny nuzzles, and Quinn’s sweet little head on my shoulder to remind me I’m loved. Not a bad deal.
(Good touch all the way: Ian greeting Quinn and Mona on the playground when he was home on leave back in April.)