I blast through my parents’ front door – a toddler perched regally on my hip, ready to be celebrated for her arrival, as toddlers always are. With 17 totes dangling from my arm, I reach a hand halfway around my mom’s shoulders and turn my body, just a teeny bit, her way. That “hug” is all the tender touch she’ll get from me, her grown daughter, today. A trombone lets out a womp womp in the distance.
Do you show your parents physical affection as an adult? Maybe a slow hug? A greeting peck on the lips? A knowing hand squeeze? I had not thought much about my lackluster physical affection until now, as I stumbled through my first year of motherhood and was smacked in the face by the primal and physical intimacy of mothering.
Of course, there are the demands of pregnancy and labor – if that’s your journey to parenthood – but more than that, everyday life with a toddler includes constant touch. Little limbs hurled around my calf while I scramble eggs; an ever-observant hand on my knee while I use the toilet; sticky fingers finding solace in my hair. Bathwater and backwash and pillows are shared; she smells of my perfume when the day is done; I am covered in meals and activities and things I dare not question. Every bit of my body is touched by motherhood – in its creation, its action, and its aftermath.
Physical touch is absolutely not my love language but somehow, with my daughter, I pine for it! I swoon for every open-mouthed, slobbery smooch; I melt to a puddle when she pats my back in the same rhythm I do hers; I inhale the scent of her soapy hair before bed. And while all of this cozy and gross and nonstop physicality occurs, one person bubbles again and again to the surface of my memory: my mom.
She did all of this? For me? All this cradling, this nursing, this comforting – and now I greet her with a limp hug and a 70% text response rate? Am I a monster or is this just the natural progression of intimacy for a mother and child? If it’s bound to happen, how long do I have? Seventeen hundred more peanut-butter-flavored kisses? Three more years of drooly sleep on my shoulder?
I’ve been thinking about when the tides shifted, when kisses stalled and the hugs grew stiff. Do you remember for yourself, or your kids? I think it might have been just before puberty, once I started daydreaming about a “real kiss,” delivered by my one true love: Casper the ghost, played by Devon Sawa. Somehow, all of a sudden, a peck or too-long hug felt mortifying. It didn’t take much to be socially ostracized in middle school, and a kiss from your mom at drop-off? High risk. Did the ball really just drop one day or did my mom watch the tenderness slip away slowly, knowingly? Both answers seem like a gut punch.
Of course, it’s also possible that this falloff of physical affection varies from family to family, culture to culture. I stood in a tornado of affection in my Italian neighbors’ kitchen – cheek squishes and nonna pecks and head pats were guaranteed, teenager or not. It’s interesting to think of this familial affection as a spectrum. I’m curious, where does your family fall? Are you happy with your station? Would you change it, if you could?
“I am going to start cheek-kiss greetings, like a European,” I announce to my husband, onions sizzling on the stovetop. His face is bewildered, as it often is. Go on, his eyebrows say. “With my parents, family, friends. It’s just sad that I never express any physical affection. ” What will happen if I’m vulnerable enough to express love this way? It will definitely keep my toddler from growing up and giving me half hugs… right?
Jessica Lopez is a writer and mother based in Southern California. She has contributed to BRIDES, Byrdie, THE / THIRTY and more, and she currently enjoys (over) thinking and writing about parenthood. You can connect with her on Instagram, if you’d like.
(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo.)