It was a washing detergent ad that set me off. A dad and his son through the ages documenting a decline in affection, both assuming it’s what the other one wanted. “In my teen years the hugging stopped completely”, says the lanky adolescent, their exchanges reduced to “emotionally distant” handshakes. The middle-aged father bursting with lament as he eyes his son in the corridor. “Teenage boys don’t really want to be hugged, do they?” he asks. Don’t they?
As a mother of young boys it’s hard to imagine, even harder to accept, that my daily doses of affection might eventually trail off. Now it’s on tap for whenever I get the urge (which I do often). #NeverStopHugging is the ad’s hashtag. I have no intention of it.
‘Touch has a memory,’ wrote Keats, and I believe it does. I aim to embed my touch into my children’s cellular memory so they carry it with them for life, a blueprint of my adoration and attentiveness. I hold them at any opportunity, chasing them around the house for cuddles if I have to as they screech with mock protest, peppering their soft white necks with a thousand kisses, running my fingers along their pudgy contours. I reach back in the car at red lights and squeeze their little legs. I let them jump on me, and lift them up, while I still can. ‘Carry me!’ demands the four year old. He’s twenty-five kilograms so it’s not easy, but I do it knowing pretty soon I won’t be able to, or he won’t want me to. Whichever comes first. We hold hands as we walk, the three of us, and I lie with them, nuzzling into the back of their curly heads, inhaling their sweet scent. It fills me as much as it fills them.
But it can’t go on forever, not like this. Who’ll be the one to stop it? Who’ll pull away first?
Parents of older kids say it’s not us, it’s them. The intensity of affection gradually diminishes over time proportionate to their degree of reliance on us. They stop so we stop. Stung by their adolescent rejection we settle for pats on the back, pecks on the cheek, handshakes, and paltry high-fives, taking what we can get. It means our teenagers are rarely held, yet they need it more than ever.
My first love and his dad used to hug and kiss each other on the cheek until the day he died at nineteen. “I kept waiting for him to put his hand out instead”, his Dad told me. “But he never did”. No regrets there.
“We are wired to interpret touch, to be calmed by our parents’ hugs”, says my friend, Claudia, who happens to be a family therapist. “This wiring helps us develop healthy and secure bonds that later translate into healthy non-verbal expression in other relationships”.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating attributes much of his sense of self to that inner knowing that he was loved. “I walked with grandmotherly and motherly love and I think that it kind of radiates for you and gives you that inner confidence that it’s almost like wearing the asbestos suit”, he told interviewer Kerry O’Brien.
But what if they don’t want it? When puberty strikes, the spell is broken. Sultry teens pull away, testing boundaries. The onus is on us not to take it personally, to keep our arms open, at the ready for when they return to the fold, trusting it’s a passing phase. It’s hard not to shut down too, assuming those days are over. It might feel like yet another responsibility, to keep the home fires burning despite the fear of being hurt, but we owe our children that.
American cartoonist Alison Bechdel writes graphically about the chasm that opened up in her maternal relationship when her mother stopped kissing her goodnight at seven, “almost as if she’d slapped me”. She blames the withdrawal for “that silence between us, our emotional gulf” which persists into adulthood.
Conversely, my friend Roisin, seven children of her own, recalls the healing power of being held by her own mum (a mother of nine herself) as a grown woman. “It turns out all I needed was a hug”.
Even at five my oldest shows signs of resistance, skirting off at the school gate. I track him down for hugs, playfully persisting, as he wipes my kisses with the back of his hand. He may not think he needs it now, but one day he will.
This article was first published in Sunday Life Magazine and DailyLife.com.au on 18th October 2015