Tuesday, January 1, 2013

When We Hold Children

After a 6 month break, the Hoosier Contrarian is back at it. 

Chatting with a friend recently about child rearing, she mentioned the Harlow monkey studies from the 1960s. Baby monkeys were isolated from their mothers at birth and placed with two fake surrogate mothers, one made of wire that dispensed milk, and another snuggly doll made of soft cloth that gave no milk. Most monkeys spent their time with the soft mother, preferring comfort to food.

Snuggling is powerful, and where children are concerned, I think it's a 2-way street.

When we hold children we tell ourselves that we do it for them, but sometimes, and maybe more than we ever realize, we do it for ourselves. The nurturing comforts the parent, too.

My first child was colicky on a Biblical scale, going hours each evening for weeks wailing as if in agony. Often when he’d screamed himself to sleep, I held him with a desperation that is hard to describe - part exhaustion, part relief, but also comfort. Comfort from the fear that I wasn’t cut out to parent to a child with such unknowable needs, comfort in knowing we’d survived another day, and yes, nurturing comfort simply in having that sleeping baby laid across my chest.

Sometimes for the sake of mental health I needed to put that sleeping baby down, make myself a stiff drink, and just sit in darkened silence. But more often then not I held him close for a while as he slept. Not just for him, but for me, too.

There’s something primal about the feeling of that little heart beating against yours. Maybe it’s as simple as feeling, “I’ve been given this sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying job to do as a parent and at least in this moment everything is okay.”

But of course it’s not just that. It’s something more.

In the same conversation, my friend told me about a survey of single moms that showed they tend to sleep in the same bed with their children at a far, far higher rate than parents in families with both a mother and father. And not just small children, but those aged 5-10 years old. That simple fact raises fascinating questions. I think it’s a complicated subject, but it's fair to say that to some degree these moms are doing it for themselves. They’re lonely and doing a difficult job that can be overwhelming even with help from a spouse. With so much on your shoulders alone, with no one else having your back, knowing your little charge is close at hand brings peace of mind. But I think it's also about the adult's need for nurturing human contact. To be loved in return.

We all need affection and comfort, no matter what our age, and when it comes from a child it comes with innocent simplicity and no ulterior motives.

When my youngest, Sally was a tot I worked a grueling schedule that often consumed my patience and cluttered my headspace. Sometimes when I came home from work I gathered her up in my arms, put music on the stereo and danced in the living room with that little girl's arm wrapped around my neck. I suspect I got way more from it than she did.

And because of that hectic schedule, I wasn’t always as patient as I might have been. I raised three children and cannot count the times a child ran to be in my arms because they were stung by a bee, or fell off their bike, or was mistreated by a friend. They came to me for comfort, but sometimes I dispensed hugs like mundane doses of aspirin, “Yeah, yeah, I know you’re hurt and I’m sorry, now give me a hug and go play, I’ve got work to do.”

So yeah, it’s not all comfort and joy. I’ve been reminded of all of this as new children have appeared in my life.

I went camping with my friend Myra and her 4-year-old son, Paul this past summer. On the first night in a tent in the North Carolina mountains I fell asleep with Paul’s raspy breath humming between his mother and me. I awoke in the middle of the night to find him sleeping sideways, his head resting on Myra’s rear like a pillow and his feet rested on my backside like he was kicked back in a Lazy Boy.

I sat up to consider this sorry arrangement and his eyes suddenly opened. I said, “Dude, this ain’t gonna work,” gripped him under one arm, and gently straightened him out against his sleeping mom. He quickly drifted off to that mysterious sleep of childhood, the drug-like sleep most adults can only recapture with drugs.

The next day we biked around Asheville on a perfect sunny Saturday and pretty much wore ourselves out exploring the city and hauling Paul behind us in a 2-wheeled carrier. On a late afternoon tour of the city in an open-air trolley, Paul fell asleep on Myra’s lap. Coming down a hill near the entrance to the Biltmore she rested her head on the wooden windowsill, her hand cradling her sleeping son’s head. I sensed in that moment it wasn’t just him recharging his batteries, she too was finding a sliver of peace at the end of a stressful day spent tending a busy child in an unfamiliar city. The 4-year-old dervish was at rest and his mother was absorbing peace and comfort from it happening against her chest as the sites of the mountain town flew by.

Often now when I visit their house for dinner, I bring a pile of children’s books to read to Paul. In truth I brought the books to help his mother, so I could distract Paul when she’s stressed and cooking, but eventually found he and I enjoy the time spent snuggled together on the couch reading. Again, I’m not sure who gets more out of it, him or me.

On a Saturday a couple weeks before Christmas I kept Paul and his 6-year-old cousin Luella while Myra and her sister worked. I set up a little workshop in the garage and we built 2 birdhouses as Christmas gifts for them to give their moms. My oldest, Cal, that former colicky baby, now 24, helped out.

Later, I settled them in front of the movie Ponyo and I tried to nap on the couch. As I started to fade, Luella appeared beside me and asked, “Is it okay if I lay down on top of you?” “Sure,” I lied. She climbed up and stretched out, lounging on me like I was a couch cushion, and went on watching the movie. I tried, pointlessly to drift back to sleep with a squirmy child lying on top of me. Eventually Luella poked my ribs with a finger. “Hey,” she said, “you’re really snuggly.”

“I get that a lot.” I grumbled back.

My own girl, Sally had just turned 18. Been a long time since that little girl and I held each other, dancing. It was a good reminder to open my eyes, stay awake and enjoy the movie with Luella and Paul. When a child wants to hold you close, you really ought to have a pretty damn good reason not to go along.

True, when we hold children, we’re sometimes not doing it for them, but for ourselves. And that’s perfectly normal, and perfectly right.


  1. SO true. I am so thankful that my son, even at nearly 16, is still a total hugger. We hug each other a few times a day. He knows his hugs heal my wounds after a bad day, and he just comes up and wraps his arms around me and makes everything better. I'm certain I get way more out of it than he does.