Consider This is a column focused on how important elements of a woman's life look in single life and in marriage. This week, we're considering the role of physical touch in the lives of single and married women. One single woman and one married woman have written essays, to be published on different days. On a third day, they respond to each other's experience. The reflection from a single woman can be found here.
Last night was rough.
My four-month-old baby’s reflux was in rare form, keeping her tossing and turning and in need of comfort for hours. This morning my back aches from holding and bouncing her, my milk ducts are clogged and nipples sore from nursing her. Everything hurts—my body expended for the sake of the touch she desperately needed.
But a certain little boy woke up to his sixth birthday and deserves a big bear hug. The two-year-old continues his streak of refusing to eat unless my body is wrapped around him on the bench. Two more children yelp with needs as they get ready for school. This is my season of life right now: to offer myself, wholly and bodily, to those in my care.
Many days I love the physicality of motherhood: the feeling of chubby legs squeezed around my hips or little fingers stroking my cheeks are some of the best parts about my life. The touch of my children can nourish me in a way nothing else can.
And yet. It’s complicated.
Even those who love touch can be overwhelmed by it
I have always been someone who thrived on physical touch. Growing up in a demonstratively affectionate family set a precedent that has stuck with me for over three and a half decades, and it will always be a part of who I am. I remember hearing the premise of the 5 Love Languages book years ago and didn’t even have to read it to know that physical touch was mine. Scratch my back for five minutes and I’m your best friend for life.
As natural sexual desire started to manifest in me, my teens and early twenties were marked by a confusion over what my needs actually were and how to meet them in safe and healthy ways. When I married my husband Eric after college, I left behind a string of unhealthy relationships and a rather poor experience of sex. Although I had worked out much of my former baggage through counseling and prayer by the time of our engagement, we were several years into marriage before I managed to fully relinquish that old feeling of being used for sex—much to the pain of my husband.
The good news is that addressing all of those issues with someone who loved me deeply and was committed to me forever was a healing process. While my former sexual relationships were temporary and in some ways conditional, working out my sexuality with Eric has always felt safe, healthy, and deeply good. Now, 13 years into marriage, our sexual relationship is far better than ever, and I only see that continuing as we age and become more intimate.
But even still, receiving the constant touch of my children often makes it hard to feel interested in sex. And I’ve learned that sometimes what I need is to tell Eric that I just want to be alone and take a hot bath with a candle and a book. But I’ve also learned that in this physically exhausting season of motherhood, sex has an important and sacred place: it is there that I have control over when, where, and how I am touched in a way that is pleasing to me. That has been a powerful part of maintaining a sense of my own individual personhood in this life stage of so much self-giving.
Meeting the need for physical touch outside of marriage
But physical touch in marriage isn’t just about sex. My husband did not grow up in a particularly affectionate family and does not have a marked need for non-sexual physical touch. In the beginning of our marriage I was disappointed that he didn’t enjoy things like snuggling close on the couch or putting his arm around me for no reason. We communicated about physical touch a lot back then and have learned to compromise with one another, but we will always have differences in preference and that’s okay. I have learned to notice when he does make an effort to show non-sexual physical affection, and I am better now at recognizing the many other ways he expresses love to me too.
Before marriage, I always assumed my need for physical touch would someday be completely met in my future spouse. But since that hasn’t been the case, it’s made me more aware of the places that my need is being met, especially by my girl friends, sister, mom, and other women. The females in my life seem to be the ones who know how to scratch my back or rub my palms just right, or—bliss of all bliss— know what to do with the request, “play with my hair.”
I’ve found that even getting a professional massage or haircut feels like an act of care when the woman responsible embodies that nurturing spirit so specific to femininity. When Eric and I lived in Indonesia for two years, where relaxation treatments are dramatically cheaper than in the States, I would get a massage once a month. It was there that I first realized how the tradition of female-to-female touch spans both history and culture. It seems we are simply wired to give and receive nurture with other women.
Managing the “touched out ” dilemma
But now that I have five kids, I’m not exactly frequenting the spa these days. In motherhood I have found the most bewildering of juxtapositions: my children both give expression to my love of physical touch and also violate my capacity for it. One hour I will be relishing in the sweetness of newborn snuggles, and the next I am sure I will have a panic attack if I have to soothe her one more time.
But it’s not just the baby stage that requires my body’s full presence. Parenting a lively gaggle of boys means I am almost constantly being climbed on, leaned against, or pulled somewhere. I often adore their nearness, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t become slightly less welcome as the years and babies stacked up. Before I had kids, I heard women who were mothers complain of being “touched out” and thought that would never happen to me. Yet here I am, sputtering out through gritted teeth requests to “please not touch me right now” when someone leans against my back as I bend to change a diaper.
And yet there are ways to manage the tension, and I’ve found the burden of responsibility falls on me. I can’t wait around for someone else to advocate for my need for boundaries; that’s my job to do for myself. So as I reflect back on my relationship to physical touch—both wanted and unwanted, sexual and non-sexual—I think what I’ve learned is to communicate my needs. But before I can do that I must check in with myself and honestly assess what those needs are, whether that be cuddling with a child, getting alone time, or calling the shots in the bedroom. If I fail to assess and communicate, I’m left feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. But if I seek to maintain a healthy balance of it, the physical touch of my loved ones can be one of the sweetest gifts of my life.
Do you have an experience about physical touch you'd like to share? Tell us here, and your response may be published by Verily at a later date.