During a recent visit, my dad was talking to me about life in their retirement village, and mentioned in passing (I can’t remember wh,y exactly) that the central event in the lives of many of the older women in the village was their weekly visit to the hairdresser. His theory was that this was because it was the only time in their week when they were actually touched by another human being. As someone who has, if anything, more opportunities than I’d like to have my face ‘massaged’ and my hair ‘styled’, it was sobering to imagine a life when these opportunities were reduced to once a week. It got me thinking about the way touch ebbs and flows at different stages of our lives; and (mock complaints aside) what a golden phase I am in at the moment. It hasn’t always been that way.
Looking back, I would say that I’ve always had a somewhat complex relationship with physical affection. I am a very affectionate person by nature (my parents assure me that I was a very huggy child), and yet I also happen to be an introvert. So while I hug almost all of my friends, I can be a bit physically awkward with people I don’t know well. Just as I am not good at starting romantic relationships, but am good at being in romantic relationships, so too I am not very good at negotiating my first kiss or hug with someone I am just getting to know, but once I am on hugging terms with someone, they better watch out.
The other factor that has always complicated things tactile for me (aside from being Anglo) is a paralysing oversensitivity to power dynamics. One of my greatest fears is of ever making someone (and that someone is almost always a woman) in any way uncomfortable by unwittingly crossing a line with her physically. I die inside at the thought of imposing an unwanted peck on the cheek. If ever I feel a body stiffen in response to an unwanted hug initiative, I die inside.
Now don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it is a good idea for men, in particular, to err on the side of caution when it comes to kissing and hugging acquaintances, but an oversensitivity to the possibility of your advances being unwanted or misconstrued can end up creating the awkwardness you so are desperately hoping to avoid.
Over the years, this paralysis has also been a feature of my interactions with other people’s children. I remember the first time I babysat my sister’s older child. I spent much of the night freaking out at what an enormous act of trust it is to leave your child with another adult, even if that other adult happens to be your brother. I found the incredible vulnerability and innocent trust of this small child somewhat overwhelming…
…As I was writing the above, I remembered that I wrote a kind of poem about this experience at the time. It wrote the original on a pedal-powered computer that only took floppy disks, but I have kept moving it (and a lot of other old files) from storage device to storage device over the years and I managed to find it on a memory stick. It’s called Alex, because that was/is the name of the child in question (who is now taller than me).
Here it is…
My sister asked me to come over,
Needed someone to look after her boy,
The usual person can’t make it,
So I say ‘Yeah sure’
I don’t see him very often
Maybe 5 times since he was born
It makes me sad but I won’t do much about it.
When I arrive she’s lost her keys
So I let her take my car,
She pulls the door behind her and it’s just me and him.
The boy can hardly walk
He’s just got a handful of words
He hardly knows me but he trusts me
If I were him I would be out of my mind
I’m so big and he’s so small
It’s strange to watch him play
Strange to have him touch me
I want to hold him but I don’t know if I have the right
I can’t believe how long he has to live
I feel such envy and such sadness
He has a chance to live it all
He is just at the beginning
He has no regrets
They’ll come too soon
As you may have guessed, I wasn’t in a particularly good place at the time (and not just because the Sigma I was driving at the time steered like a sponge).
I think that the heightened consciousness of paedophilia in our culture has also had an inhibiting effect on me at times – as a man who loves to play with children (to a great extent because of their dazzling lack of inhibition when it comes to the physical). I have often found myself policing my interactions with children because I don’t want to do anything that might be misconstrued. It’s exhausting, and probably counterproductive.
Now I confess all of this not to elicit sympathy (or disdain), but because it helps to explain why I prize so much the completely unselfconscious way I am able to be (and allow myself to be) with the bodies of my own two children. I have written before about the joy and importance of the everyday physical intimacies that you share with your children when they are young (or at least quoted Michael Chabon writing about it), but this is only half of it. The bodies of little humans are just so beautiful and having the freedom to hold and stroke and squeeze and pinch and nuzzle a couple of choice examples of those bodies is such an incredible privilege. How could you not want to grab large handfuls of these thighs, for example?
And the thing is, I know that this will change (and I’m not just talking about those legs). Especially given that I am the father of girls, the day will inevitably come when the complete freedom that I have with their bodies will come to an end. As they become self-conscious, as they become autonomous, as they increasingly take care of, and take charge of, their own bodies, things will change and they will start to establish new physical boundaries with me (moving to Canada, for example).
There will also, of course, be new and equally precious forms of intimacy in our relationship as they grow older, and I plan to enjoy those as much as the forms of intimacy that this stage allows me. But in the mean time, I will prize every minute of the this window of opportunity that I have to kiss my girls’ faces as many times as I like, and to wash their chubby bodies, and suck food off their sticky fingers, and wipe snot from their faces, and press the coolness of their feet against my cheeks, and smell the tops of their heads, and dance them around the room in my arms to the music of my choosing (though to be honest, Tilly already has some pretty definite taste in the music department, which will be the subject of another post).
And just in case all this strikes you as incredibly self-indulgent on my part, I should let you know that, apparently, my children get something out of all this constant physical touch as well. They even did some ground-breaking monkey research to prove it.