When Moms Get Touched Out
When we need a break from being touched and how to get it.
Posted September 20, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Being touched out is a normal experience of motherhood.
- Mothers are often expected to let their body be completely available to their children, and this may lead to anxiety and stress.
- Communicating with your partner and family about your need for bodily autonomy is good for you and your children.
One of the things we aren’t told about motherhood is how once you become a mother, your body is no longer yours. As soon as you become pregnant, doctor’s visits focus on the health of the child, with attention paid to your health only as far as it affects the baby. This is your first introduction to the biological and social imperative that will hang over you from now on: Your health and well-being come secondary to the baby’s.
For a lot of mothers, this goes without saying and is easily and even happily embraced. At the same time, it can be exhausting. I want to talk about one of the ways that this imperative impacts our emotional health and our relationships as mothers: being touched out.
A friend called me a few weeks ago and told me that for some reason, when her husband wanted to hug her, she felt panicked. She tolerated the hug because she felt it was the right thing to do, but she couldn't understand why she felt so uncomfortable. I asked her how much time without someone touching her she had had to herself that day, and she couldn't think of more than a 30-minute span when she didn't have a child breastfeeding, needing to be held, or wanting to sit in her lap.
Physical affection is incredibly important for the emotional and physical health of children, and mothers still provide the majority of the affection and physical presence for their children (Coltrane, 2000). Women also provide the majority of the affection and physical presence for their male partners; men tend to go to their female partners for emotional and physical support while women seek support from their female friends (Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001).
What does all this mean? Quite simply, we mothers are completely touched out.
If you’re a mom, you probably instinctively know what this means. It means feeling completely saturated with physical touch, to the point where one more attempt at physicality feels like it might push you over the edge. It can feel like panic at the thought of a child sitting in your lap, repulsion at your partner attempting to hug you, or general resentment when engaging physically with anyone.
We are tapped out in terms of providing love, affection, and physical comfort to others. We love our children deeply. We love our physical contact with them deeply; we yearn for it and gain so much from it. And at the exact same time, our need for bodily autonomy (or the sense that your body belongs to you alone) drives feelings of irritation and panic when that contact comes when we don’t want it or when we need a break. With this sensation comes tremendous guilt: A fun thing about motherhood is you almost always feel like you are being a bad mother if you have a normal human reaction to difficult experiences.
This can all be especially difficult if a mother has a history of interpersonal trauma, in which her bodily autonomy was not respected. To be able to give your body completely to a tiny human when you are still working through reclaiming it is an incredibly emotionally and physically taxing act, and it’s one that many mothers have difficulty coping with.
So how do we manage being touched out?
The first step is understanding why it happens, understanding that it is a normal and shared experience among mothers, and giving yourself some compassion for the experience. Notice the guilt you have when you are having a negative reaction to physical touch and recognize that it does not reflect the love you have for your family in any way. It is a natural reaction to needing a normal amount of space so that you can reclaim a sense of bodily autonomy. This is a normal human need.
Second, communication about this experience with your partner is important. If you have a partner, show them this blog. Really! It can help explain the experience in a way that reduces defensiveness.
Again, your negative reaction to touch is not to them, it’s to being needed physically in that moment for someone else’s comfort. For many partners, physical affection is a primary love language (Chapman, 2015). Being able to show and receive love in one of the other ways (e.g., acts of service, words of affirmation) for the time being can help you maintain the relationship you want with your partner.
Finally, begin setting regular daily breaks for yourself away from your family. This will be difficult, especially if your children are used to having your physical presence whenever they want it. However, it is far better to have your kids expect regular breaks from them than to continue pushing through until you break.
It is also absolutely OK to tell your kids you need a little space. You can say, “Mommy loves sitting with you, and she would like a little space around her body while we sit together.” This has the dual purpose of helping you assert your needs for your body and modeling for your children ways that they too can assert their bodily autonomy.
These acts can reduce your sense of physical saturation so that you can delight in the physical affection from your loved ones as well as demonstrating for your children how to manage bodily boundaries.
Chapman, G. D. (2015). The five love languages: The secret to love that lasts: Northfield Publishing.