A virus has come to visit our house. It’s ferocious and mean and seems to be jumping from one person to the next like a grasshopper. I’m in day three of nursing sick children. It’s made me think about how vital physical contact is to the job of motherhood. Nobody ever really mentioned that, when I was pregnant with my first. I heard all about sleepless nights, temper tantrums, nursing problems, potty training, when to start solid foods…I even heard all about the emotionally draining years of the teens. But, nobody ever talked about how much I was going to use physical touch in order to be a good mom.
My two year old is very sick. Call the doctor kind of sick. The nurse on the phone said take him to the emergency room. I asked what I could do at home first before I took that step. She suggested Pedialyte. If it worked, I should be ok at home, if it didn’t work, go to the hospital for dehydration. Good news, the Pedialyte has been working so far. I’m keeping a close count on wet diapers, keeping track of how many ounces of fluid he takes, what time he last drank something. The problem is that everything just keeps coming out, both ends. Let’s be honest here. That’s gross. Throw-up is disgusting. It makes me want to sympathy-throw-up. Nasty diapers that smell like toxic waste are also disgusting. It also makes me want to run away. But what does a mother do? She picks up the sick child, bathes him, dresses him. Holds him in her arms, rocks him, murmurs comforting words. Lays down on her bed with him till he can go back to sleep. He snuggles up against his mama, taking comfort in her physical presence.
My four year old was also sick, though not with the same intensity as the younger one. I put him on my bed in the afternoon and he slept. Occasionally I would go in and touch his head to see how hot he felt. Kiss his hair, rub his little back. He was still sleeping at bedtime so I made a pallet on the floor next to my bed and laid him there so I could help him in the night if he needed it. He woke up once, restless, achy. I rolled over, put my hand on him and he settled down and went back to sleep.
The eight year old got sick too. I put her to bed in her own bed, but told her that if she needed me in the night she could come lay on the pallet that was still next to my bed. She showed up around midnight. I reached my arm out and patted her on the back to let her know I was there if she needed me. She went back to sleep, comforted at being close to her mom.
Usually, sickness is an indicator that we need to stay away from someone. Oh, you’re sick? Here, let me move about five feet away…how contagious are you?? I tell this to my other children. Your brother is sick, please don’t go near him. The baby is sick, don’t kiss or hug him. But Moms have different rules. Your son is sick. Pick him up and hold him. The baby is sick. Cuddle him close, murmur love words against his head while he sleeps in your arms.
How do mother’s learn to do this? I’m going to guess it’s partly instinct and, if you were fortunate, partly remembering what your mom did for you. I remember my mom’s cool hand on my hot head, placing wet washcloths on my forehead while I struggled through some harsh tropical sickness. I remember her making potato soup for me, her hands stroking my hair while I tried to eat a couple bites. I remember, as a child in Haiti, when I was very, very sick, we were far away from any hospitals and the medicine wasn’t working. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, my mom’s hand on my head while she quietly, fervently prayed that God would heal me. Healing from a mother’s touch.
And I carry it on to the next generation. You’re crying? Come sit on my lap. You hurt yourself? Let me kiss it. You’re sad? Let me hug you. You’re sick? Come, climb in my bed, I will take care of you.
May this urge to use our hands, arms, bodies to administer love and care, may this never cease. May it pass on to the next generation of mothers, and the next, and the next. Full-body mothering. Grace in a tangible form.