“My life was mostly touch in those days. . . All day long I touched the clean plates and bowls as I put them away, and the children’s heads slimy under shampoo in the tub, and the softness of their faces, and the scrape of poop off their goose pimpling backsides, the hot noodles, the heavy wet laundry as I threw it into the dryer, and the brick front steps as i sat reading to myself for eight minutes while they played just beyond the page in the prickling new grass, and then when one of them fell down I touched the grass and the mud and the scraped knee, and the sticky Band-Aids, and the wet cheek, and my jeans, and the dangling shoelace.” — Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves.
I used to think of myself as an affectionate person. At least I don’t remember being repulsed by human contact. In the last six years since having kids, however, I’ve learned the term “touched out.”
I almost dread being touched.
Not all the time, but often enough. I especially don’t like hugging, which offends and confuses my extended family.
It is like I was born with a finite limit for physical contact, and I use it up- all up- daily with my kids. I am a ridiculously affectionate mother. My hand constantly reaches to my side to clasp a little one’s paw, stroke their golden heads, or fondle their delicate, silky necks.
My son relishes my ear massages at bedtime, and I have been known to impetuously lean over the shopping cart to embrace and nuzzle my daughter on our weekly grocery trips.
My son nursed until 23 months (he is now six,) and my daughter is still nursing at 22 months. Both of my children were worn as infants against my beating heart, and I never hesitate to pick them up. They are familiar with both my touches of gentle comfort, and also the firm hands with which I will lead them to time out when necessary, or place their bodies out of harm’s way while they thrash and tantrum.
There are the touches I adore, such as when my daughter leans against me, sighing, “Mama.” Or when my son sits on my lap and the growing weight of him anchors me to this earth.
There are the touches that are not so fine, such as the ones that cause me to screech, “I think she just dislocated my rib with her foot!” when Emily pounces on me. Or, “He tried to hit me with that forklift!” when I am in the path of a toy thrown out of anger.
We are in almost constant contact and connection with our children, if not physically touching and caring for them, then mentally dwelling on their safety and well-being.
If you’re not familiar with the term, “touched out” is the physical and emotional sensation of wanting to hatch out of your own flesh at the touch of another. For me it manifests as an internal itching and crawling of my skin. It comes from the never-ending demands our little ones place on our physical and emotional being, since conception. At least this is how I understand it. I’ve never read an actual definition; all I have is my anecdotal evidence for you.
Many women also experience being put off by sex and intimacy with their partners from the exhaustion of being in physical contact with the world all day, every day.
While it is completely natural for our babies and children to be close and connected to us, it is also totally normal for moms to feel a sense of wanting to escape to a desert island, just for a few.
I don’t have a desert island, so I spend a few extra minutes in the bathroom with the door locked. Sometimes I treat myself to the luxury of going to the drug store sans kinder, then sit in my car and listen to music in solitude for a while. Escaping in a book when I have the time is a wonderful release from my physical self into another landscape all together.
I’ve been touched out in the postpartum periods with both my children. After having Jack, the demands of breast feeding and holding my colicky son almost constantly, wore me down. But once we all started sleeping a little better, I got over my internal itchies.
After having Emily, oh man, I’m not going to lie to you, I literally felt like I was going to unzip my skin right down my midline, climb out, then go screaming down the street. The arrival of Emily increased Jack’s need to be all up in my business, especially while I was dealing with rampant cluster-feeding and nipple trauma and did not want to be touched by a pale breeze, let alone my bulldog son.
To cope, I would zone out on my cell phone or in front of the television during the endless nursing sessions. Looking back, I have some regret that I was not more “present” during these times, but on the other hand, I am glad that I got through them.
My children are no longer newborns who need constant nursing, wearing, or co sleeping. But they still have constant needs for me and my body. The physical sensation of being touched-out has shifted into more of an emotional one.
Sometimes it feels like my brain and spirit are a delicate silk-velvet that my kids have been ever so gently stroking until I am bare, without any texture.
Sometimes I feel the urge to snap at them, like a cat or dog who’s suckling babes have nipped them.
Being aware of my limitations, trying to have a sense of humor, and giving myself even a couple minutes of self care and space every now and then is about the best I can do.
My body is not my own, and somedays I wonder if I will ever get it back, though I would gladly give it for my children again and again. Being touched out can feel excruciatingly unpleasant, but it is also a right of passage into motherhood, a sign and symptom that I have granted these beings passage into this world through my own body, and must now nudge and guide them.
In the blink of an eye, before I even know what is happening, they will let go my hand, and I know I will crave the closeness of their little bodies with a whole new feeling whose name I do not yet know.