"Babies need human contact and affection (and not just to be fed, warmed and cleaned). If they are not given this, they may easily die." Steve Biddulph, The Complete Secrets of Happy Children
A few weeks back I wrote about the book The 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell, specifically about the love language that I personally felt most challenged by: acts of service.
Today I want to tell a story about a love language that I LOVE - physical touch.
A lot of parenting books talk about the importance of touch for infants (see the quote above, for example).
I don't need much persuading about the importance of touch - I could be the definition of 'touchy-feely'. I am a qualified massage therapist, and I may be one of the few people who actually likes being patted down at airports - I find it relaxing, like a mini massage (- too much information???). I told this to the female security officer once and got a bit of a strange look in response... ;-)
But it's a funny thing to talk about, isn't it? The word - touch, touch, touch - sounds like something out of 50 Shades of Grey (I've not read it, but I understand the connotations ;-)). 'Touch' is such a loaded word, with hints of its dangerous underside always lurking in it, that we forget how crucial TOUCH is to our survival, to our very will to live.
Here's my story.
I wrote last week about my daughter's premature arrival. I didn't see her when she was born - not until several hours afterwards. I am so short-sighted that I couldn't see her on the other side of the room without my glasses, which had been stowed safely by the midwife, and she was whisked off to the intensive care unit by the crowd of doctors and nurses that had arrived in the birthing room just before her emergence.
After they took her away, I lay in a small grey room off a quiet hospital corridor, suddenly empty, trying to sleep, thinking about the unfinished tasks I had planned to complete before my maternity leave started, and of all the people I would need to notify of my sudden change in circumstances. Hardly thinking of the tiny bleating lamb I had heard but not seen on the other side of the room some hours before, my new child that I hadn't yet touched.
A nurse came to wheel me to the intensive care unit. 'It is important that you see your baby now,' she said.
My husband came too. I recognised her instantly because she looked like a tiny female version of her brother. I thought she was beautiful.
'Can we touch her?' I asked.
'You can...' the nurses said, hesitating. 'But we have to warn you: premature babies are very sensitive, they have so little body fat and their nerves are so raw that they don't like a lot of handling.'
She was hooked up to various monitors and breathing apparatuses. When we put our hands in through the holes in the incubator and stroked her skin, she started beeping like crazy - not actually her, but the heart rate monitor, the oxygen saturation monitor etc.. A nurse came hurrying over and told us she was too distressed, she didn't like it.
It is a pretty hard moment when you realize your new baby doesn't want you to touch her, in fact you are unable in any way to care for her. The medical staff could do what we - her parents - could not. After a while of standing and looking at her, we went back to the ward.
A bit later, another nurse came by and said they were transferring her to a bigger hospital in Stevenage where they had better facilities for premature babies.
'It is important that you come and touch her before she goes,' she said. 'To bond with her - feel that she is yours.'
'But she doesn't like it,' I said. 'She freaked out when we touched her before.'
'Never mind,' she said. 'Do it anyway. It's important.'
We went and saw her hooked up to this massive transport machine, like a dog in a spaceship. She was hard to find under the tubes and wires. We put our hands on her, as instructed. I don't know that she liked it any more than before, but we did as we were told.
That afternoon we meet other parents at the new hospital, saw babies much smaller and more premature than our daughter, and sensed, for the first time since her birth, how lucky we were, how big and strong our skinny, gasping baby was compared to others born even earlier than she.
I stayed overnight in the maternity ward. At midnight I woke to express milk, and with such a longing to go visit her.
I made my way down to the ground floor of the hospital, buzzed in to the intensive care unit and went over to her incubator. I stood and watched and watched her. I watched how the nurses cared for her, changing her feeding tube, her nappy, and put their hands gently over her head and tummy without stroking.
'Can I do that too?' I asked.
'Of course,' the nurse said. 'She's your baby.'
I stood with one hand on her forehead, the other on her tummy, and just held them there, feeling her breathe. She didn't freak out, she didn't beep. If I hadn't known better, I'd have said that she... relaxed.
The 3rd day, I finally got to cuddle her. It took some time for the nurse to get her out, adjusting all the wires and equipment so that she could lie on my chest, inside my jumper. My mother was there, watching but not touching.
I was so overwhelmed by the moment - holding her for the first time, trying to stop her big brother from crushing her as he paid his affection - that I didn't notice much else.
But my mother told me later: 'while you were holding her, her heart rate and oxygen saturation levels all improved and were more stable than any time when I've been visiting.'
I told the children about the love languages book. I explained about quality time.
'Oh! That's my love language!' my daughter said.
'Mine too,' said my son.
I summarized the language of gifts.
'Oh! that's me!' she said again.
'And me,' my son said.
I told them about acts of service.
Words of affirmation.
'And that's me!'
And the language of touch: kisses, cuddles, massages.
'It's me too, you know, not just you!'
Do we all claim ALL of the love languages as our own? Perhaps we should.
But, TOUCH. Where would we be without touch?
Perhaps: nowhere at all.
Thank goodness for touch.
I know this is rather black and white. Touch is complicated, and fascinating. It can be horribly misused, abused. Some people grow up with little loving touch, some people are uncomfortable with hugs and kisses and all of that stuff. We tend to believe that what comes easily for us must be easy and natural for other people too.
I am intrigued to hear from people about how they have managed the issue of touch in their lives/ parenting - particularly those who have perhaps struggled with 'speaking' that love language. Is it easier to manage it with your own children, or do you have to consciously remember to give physical strokes etc.?
I'd love to hear your views!
Oh - and go and give someone you like a big hug, or a nice stroke on the back. Why not?
Not the airport security staff though.
Love and hugs,
Elizabeth, aka The Writing Parent