I've never been a hugger. Recently I started the first of thirty 30-day challenges. And this month one of them is to give my family members hugs, on purpose, every single day.
Of all my challenges in this set, I've found this one the hardest to uphold. And being perfectly honest, I've missed a few days. Bedtime came and I realized I'd hugged neither my eldest nor my husband. My toddlers essentially force me to hug them so those are easy. And it hits me that it shouldn't be this damn hard to give a fucking hug.
I’m not averse to touching. But even as a kid, I wasn’t very cuddly. My mom said as I didn’t demand much holding even as an infant. My personal bubble has always been a little larger than most. I could be amenable to a bit spooning in bed with a partner, maybe some hand-holding on a romantic stroll. But for the most part, you have your space, I have mine, and everyone is happy.
This arrangement was safe and comfortable for me. And then I had kids. It’s incredible how many “transformation testimonials” begin with ‘And then I had kids.’
My eldest was born thirteen years ago. She exhibited the standard need for cuddles. My firstborn would run to me when she fell or got scared. She fell asleep on my shoulder countless times. But since I worked out of the home for most of her first ten years, some of the cuddle duty was spread out among her caregivers and teachers.
My boundaries had loosened but I still wasn’t a hugger.
Despite my non-hugging preference, I savored every touch of her chubby fingers. But she grew up and slowly outgrew the toddler touchy-feelies. The memories of tiny hands constantly clutching faded. My boundaries had loosened, but I still wasn’t a hugger. And then I had more kids.
I now have two-year-old twins. I’m also a work-at-home mom this time around. That means it’s all the cuddles all the time.
For children, hugs, cuddles, and touches are a crucial part of healthy development according to the science folk. Hugging releases oxytocin, which science has linked to several growth hormones in children. It also reduces stress, which explains why our littles come running for a hug when they are scared or upset.
But what about for adults? As we get older, our want for hugs and social touching may taper off, but that doesn’t mean the need has. Michael Murphy, Ph.D., a post-doctoral research associate at the Carnegie Mellon Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease co-authored a study that says hugs remain an important stress reliever in adults.
“Feeling safer and cared for, in turn, can make us less sensitive to physical pain and less reactive when faced with potentially threatening experiences, especially socially threatening experiences.”
Murphy’s study pointed to the lower stress response and negative feelings people experience after receiving hugs, even when embroiled in interpersonal conflict. Their personal lives could be a complete disaster, but a hug still made them feel a little bit better. Okay, so I’ve got the science that says hugging is excellent. Still not a hugger. At least I wasn’t. My children are teaching me differently.
Even before he has words or the knowledge that few things in this world are improved by licking them, my son understands the comfort of human touch.
My son is definitely a hugger. For no discernible reason, he reaches his chubby little arms up at me, asking in the common toddler tongue to be picked up. He will lay his blonde head against my shoulder for a millisecond once in my arms and then demand to be put back down. Near as I can tell, that is his version of a hug.
Even before he has words or the knowledge that few things in this world are improved by licking them, my son understands the comfort of human touch. Without knowing it, they are training me to seek out hugs and caresses. They do this by continually touching me. With two of them, there is seldom a moment in my day I don’t have a little palm contacting me somehow.
For a one-year-old, there are very few wrongs that cannot be righted with a cuddle. Sister has a toy, any toy, and the only correct response is a full nuclear meltdown. Three of five times, that involves waddling over to me to sob on my shoulder until he feels better. Brother shoved her down. While she is unhurt, she was surprised, and her ego wounded. A hug from mom makes it better.
And for every hug I offer my children, I get one in return — with the bonus of snot all over my shirt. For all that oxytocin my hugs pump into their developing brains, I get a little boost of my own. Their crying naturally stresses me out. It’s supposed to. But the easiest resolution to toddler tears is a cuddle. This, in turn, reduces everyone’s stress. And we loop right back up to the science of hugs above.
But my need for a hug has moved beyond helping my children grow. I’ve found I reach out to touch my husband more often. We hold hands more often. I’ll stop him in the hallway for a brief embrace. Even with three kids, our sex life is improving as I’m getting cuddlier. I’ve begun asking my eldest for more hugs. And not the bullshit one-armed, drive-by number. I’m looking for a full-on embrace complete with a squeeze. We’re still working on that one but she’s thirteen and I’m uncool as shit right now. She’ll come back around eventually.
Probably. I don’t know. Toddlers I get, teenagers not so much. I digress.
My toddlers, with their grabby hands and constant need to be half sprawled on Mom, are retraining me on the value of physical closeness. I’m not quite a hugger yet, but if you want one, I’ve got a few to spare.