The most basic fact about being a mother is that it is the most physical thing you will ever do in your life.
Unpack it: their life starts inside you. Inside you! I don’t think we give that enough credit. That little fetus feeds off you. For practically a year. When they are ready, they either travel through your body and come out from a location you spend a lot of time otherwise keeping safe, or, in my case, a doctor slices you open and hauls them out and then sews you back up. You are literally scarred for life because of them.
Then, they continue to feed off you. They cannot stay alive without you. Months of breastfeeding. And with that nursing comes intense physical contact. Their body glued to your body while they suck sustenance from you. If you’ve ever nursed a baby on a New England July night with 98 percent humidity, you get the intensity of it.
It goes beyond this, though. Your physical closeness, your touch, is what soothes them. When our daughter was born prematurely, and spent her first two months in a NICU, we did “kangarooing” with her — her little body laying on my or my husband’s bare chest. Her breathing and heart rate always dramatically improved during these times.
When they are babies you carry them around, and when they are toddlers you pick them up when they are tired, or sad, or worried, or hungry. They sit on your lap, they snuggle with you in bed, they hold your hand when they cross the street, they hug you spontaneously when they feel joy.
It’s one of those details that you usually miss while you are deep in the weeds of mothering — that those moment of physical contact become fewer and farther between. As they grow and mature they need you less (this is the whole point of parenting, after all, to create independent, free-thinking individuals who will go on to live their own lives), and so the physical contact grows scarce.
Suddenly one day you can’t remember the last time one of your kids reached out to hold your hand. Instead of snuggling with you in bed to read or watch TV, they are in their own beds, with their phones and their video games. Before you have even realized it’s happened, it’s done.
I don’t miss a lot about parenting young ones — I love my adult children and who they have become and are still becoming. I love talking with them, and hearing of their achievements and tribulations. I love not being responsible for every single minute.
But I do miss those touches. I see a mom and child walking hand in hand and there is a sharp sting of longing. I see a dad pick up a kid from a fall at a playground, and I hear myself sigh. I see a post on Facebook of parents snuggling in bed with kids on a Sunday morning, and my heart twinges just a bit.
A few days ago my 21-year-old son FaceTimed me from his term abroad. He is in Costa Rica, in the Cloud Forest of Monteverde, high up in the jungle. He was sitting on the side of a road, a spot where one of the locals had told him he would have the best view of the sunset.
“Mom,” he said. “I want you to see this sunset.” He flipped the camera, and I saw the mountains in the distance, and a fiery sun. “Is the phone even doing it justice?” he asked. “Not really,” I said. “It’s just kind of bright.” “Yeah I figured it wouldn’t work but I really wanted you to see it,” he said.
We stayed on the phone until it was almost all the way set, watching it slip into the mountains. When we clicked off, I sat for a moment unsure of what I was feeling, and it dawned on me that he had just given me the grown-up version of a spontaneous hug, of taking my hand, of asking me to pick him up.
And that was enough.