Do My Kids Get the Affection I Used To Show My Husband?

Originally published by the Washington Post’s “On Parenting” 

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I would have been able to respond intelligently, possibly even cleverly, to my mentor’s remarks if it hadn’t been for a hand, first lightly touching my lower back and then slowly creeping up my spine to rest, warm and firm, at the base of my neck. Darn it. I knew I shouldn’t have brought a date.

When we first got together, my husband and I found professional events challenging. Being in the same room without touching felt almost painful, barely possible. As newlyweds, we judged couples with king beds; if you don’t want to come into contact, what’s the point of sleeping together? And throughout my first pregnancy we spent hours every day curled up: reading while snuggling, working while cuddling, even eating with our bodies intertwined in some way or another.

Our desire for physical affection seemed as endless as our brunch mimosas.

That was then. Now, six years and three kids after we first caved on the mattress issue, we’re lucky to sneak in a quick peck when he departs for work in the morning and a hug upon his return late each night. We still make each other giggle every day, and we squeeze moments of marital bliss in there with enough frequency to leave us both satisfied (if you catch my euphemism); but there has been a precipitous decline in physical contact.

Some of it is logistical: with my husband minding the small humans from six to eight each morning so that I can go back to sleep (as recompense for me handling all the infant wake-ups, wet beds, and nightmares) and then working until nine or ten each night, we don’t spend much time in the same room.

But there’s more to it than that.

Fatigue is definitely at play, both of the “I’m too tired to stretch out my arm toward you” variety and the sort that’s more like “if one more person climbs, pulls, or rides on my body tonight I will emotionally implode.” As a stay-at-home mom I spend all day in close proximity to people who know the concept of physical space the way I know quantum mechanics, which is to say they have not the slightest clue what it is. Even without the contact, constant verbal and emotional interaction means I’m left needing head space in the evening, and somehow physical space is a prerequisite for that.

My fear is that there’s also a satiation issue. Like bear cubs trying to get honey from a jar, my kids bumblingly bat my body around. But they also offer me hugs and kisses. Each day I receive uncomplicated, totally adoring physical affection from three people, one of whom recently shouted, “There’s a horrible, mean lady. And it’s YOU, bad Mama.” But he concluded the tirade—still hysterically screaming each word—with “I need a snuggle, and I want you to come to college with me and sleep in my bed every night!” Then he threw himself into my arms.

In other words, I get a lot of calming, affirming physical touch.

And it’s now my youngest—with her impossibly pliable, downy neck folds—who receives my eye-closing, deep-breathing, soul-unfurling embrace.

So maybe I’m not just too busy to brunch and too hungover to fully partake when I do. Maybe I grabbed mimosas with someone else beforehand. Perhaps the pit I once believed was bottomless is filled up with love from my kids, leaving less need or desire for my husband’s touch.

As awful as that sounds, the adaptation makes sense; it’s even optimal. Lord knows, the new independent and low-maintenance me suits my exhausted and more introverted husband just fine.

But it scares me. I assume a time will come when co-sleeping in an extra-long twin no longer seems attractive to my son. When our kids flee the nest, will our relationship have enough elasticity to bring us back together physically—or will we be so used to the necessity of our separateness that we never reconnect in incidental, nonessential ways?

I can’t say for sure. But the trepidation lessens when his hand randomly lifts and clasps mine across the dining room table. The worry subsides when he awakes on my side of the bed, having subconsciously gravitated toward me after a rough day at work. It all but disappears when I catch him smelling the top of my head on a random Tuesday morning.

We may never again be the couple who coordinated brushing our teeth so that we could hold hands while completing the chore. But these little physical gestures, seconds stolen back from the all-consuming whirlpool that is parenting young kids, give me confidence. They give me faith that soon enough it will once more be his arms into which I retreat for my eye-closing, deep-breathing, soul-unfurling embrace.

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