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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.