Mom recalls good old days when kids wanted hugs

April 20, 1997|By Susan Reimer

WHENEVER I REACH for my son, in an attempt to administer a hug, he snakes out of my grasp and says sharply, "Off. Off."

Whenever my daughter passes through the room, my husband reaches out to her, and, before he asks for yet another hug, she waves him away, saying, "Don't even think about it, Dad."

Occasionally, my tender-hearted daughter will sigh and stand still for an embrace because she feels sorry for us, but my son will not endure a hug without a promise of cash.

"This isn't a petting zoo, you know," he says.

I saw this coming long ago, this personal-space thing, this irritability at the touch of another.

And I asked my children to please warn me well in advance of my last hug, my last good-night snuggle. They acted as if I were

crazy. Never, did they imagine then, would they not want me to stroke their feverish heads, scratch their backs or kiss them good night as they drifted off to sleep.

To my everlasting regret, I was right, and they shun me now. An embrace is not physical affection anymore, it is physical restriction. I might as well turn the heat up in the room. They can not breathe with my arms around them. It is as if my touch causes their skin to itch, and they writhe away from me, grousing irritably as they go.

And the rare kisses given me feel like butterfly wings against my cheeks. I am more likely to sense their warm breath than their lips. And these kisses are over so quickly, I think I have dreamed them.

Like most mothers, I have loved to touch my children since they were first placed in my arms. Their skin was as smooth as warm water, their hair as soft as a dandelion crown gone to seed.

I never tired of the miracle of how they felt to my fingertips, and that miracle renews itself at each stage of their growing-up. My son feels long and stringy now, all sinew, veins and bone. My daughter feels as soft as a marshmallow, as warm as a hot-water bottle. Kiss her and your lips sink deep into her cheeks.

When they were young, my children needed to feel me close to them, and each had an animal or a blanket to take my place when I rose and left them for my own bed. Now I, suffering attacks of insecurity as they grow away from me, need to clutch them in the night. But they don't want to comfort me, preferring to fall asleep on their own, sorting out the events of the day as they go.

Ashley Montagu, in his 1971 landmark book, "Touching: The Human Significance of Skin," wrote of "touch starvation," a failure to thrive among infants who are not stimulated and comforted by the touch of an adult. I am sure the reverse is true, too.

Much is taught and learned through the thin covering of our skin, Montagu wrote; and those deprived of touch, particularly in mother-child relationships, feel lonely and estranged.

I know just what he means.

Montagu pointed to the chimp and gorilla culture, where babies cling to their mothers all day. But my children watch the Discovery Channel, and they suspect that if they give in to my pathetic begging for hugs that I will trap them in my long arms and pick nits out of their hair all day. I am sure they fear that if they come close, I will pin them down with a big paw and groom their fur until nightfall.

But my children do not have a fool for a mother, and I scheme for hugs and negotiate for kisses. I am patient, and I wait for them to show weakness, wait for them to feel tired, a little sick, or sad. Then I move in and wrap them in my arms, gathering up their long limbs as best I can and cooing softly the way I did when they were babies.

And before they can gather their wits to protest, I have hugged them.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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