Friday, November 20, 2009

Turn-keys: touch

I've written a bit about what I have found, for us at least, to be "turn-keys" in the process of adoption and adjustment. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about another key (again, disclaimer: These are just my humble bossy opinions, not any expert or professional claim to knowledge). This key is one of the oldest and most important, for all parenting, but ever more so - if possible - for the process of adjustment in adoption. Yup, it's "touch."

I know, doh.
Touch.
A no-brainer, right?

Well, maybe not so much. Maybe it's a no brainer if you are a naturally 'touchy-feely' person (And really, I think most would say I am, but still...). Maybe its a no-brainer if you are talking about giving birth to a child, or even adopting a tiny infant. With babies, bio or otherwise, our species is biologically programmed to respond to the cries of an infant, to hold to soothe to touch it to comfort. It's a natural, right?

But with any child, and I mean ANY child, regardless of their mode of arrival into your family.....there are times when, you know, you just don't really feel like touching them so much.

Shocked, are you?
Have I revealed too much of my cold stony selfish heart?
Hmmm, c'mon, admit it, who hasn't been grossed out by the quantity and quality of projectile vomit that a smallish baby or child can, um, expel?
Who hasn't been gagging when their baby smears the contents of their diaper all around the crib? (Hey, 8 kids, yes, they've done that. Don't judge me.)
Call me crazy, but I'm not so into the cuddly canoodling at those times. I am more than happy for a little personal space....
And really, who hasn't thought "Fine then" when the attitude riven teen throws a snit and stomps out of the room? Who hasn't been grateful, even ONCE, to have them sleep in, just a little while for that peaceful solo quiet time in the morning?
Not you? Well, then, stop reading, this post is not for you.

But for the rest of us, for ME, this is a huge deal.
Touch.
For your standard issue kid, its a huge deal when they are tots and need all that imprinting bonding caring loving. It's at least as big or a bigger deal as they move through their stages of wild little kid, to the scary times as the world opens up to them in school and beyond, to the awkward times of preteen and the touchy times of full blown "I know everything" teenagerhood. This is when you have to remember: touch them.
Hug them, they need it so much.
They might only lean against you as a hug back. They might not even seem to register that pat on the arm, but it makes a difference. A huge huge difference. Prickly or not, possibly even more then, those little touches during a day can bridge a lot of troubled water.

This brings me to the turn-key. If touch can make such a huge, ongoing, difference in the relationship and life of a child in your home from infancy, imagine the importance of touch with a child who is new to your home. And if you are talking about an older child (And, of course, I am now), and if that child is a hurt child (Which most older children who are adopted are, of course), and if that child doesn't have your language....well, this turn-key is made of gold.

So it seems, again, simple, a no brainer, right?
Touch the kid.
Let them touch you.
Hug them.
And yet, it's not nearly so simple after all. Because what you don't read so much in all those stacks of adoption books is that it can be hard, touch-wise, with an older child. Cuddling a baby or toddler is automatic, almost, we are primed and programmed and enchanted to do it. An older child is, forgive me as this is not so "politically correct," not necessarily always so enchanting and we are not primed and programmed to touch them. We are strangers. We have not crossed those boundaries yet. Formally, on paper, yes. But in actual practice, no.

The initial meet and hugs and kisses are kind of driven along by adrenaline on both sides. But then comes the moment when you all kind of look at each other and wonder. It's much like an arranged marriage, without the extended courtship and chaperones.

Many older adopted children are also simply starved for physical affection. Starved. Hungry. Hungry to touch and be touched. And so you do, they do, you must. They are starved for safe comforting embracing touch - touch that doesn't hurt in any way. So, we had, and so many have, an intense instant need on Marta's part for touch, kiss, hugs, holds, just skin on skin. And it's weird. In a way, it's strange to immediately jump boundaries that our modern American ways have fixed into place over decades.

But this is a key, one of THE keys. You touch.
You do it.
And its by the doing, the touching that you start to step over those walls, you stop being strangers, you start being family. The more I touch her, in the caring mode of mom, the closer I get - literally and figuratively. The more I sit nestled next to her, with her feet draped over my shins, the more time our skin is next to skin, the more we blend together.

It sounds so simple, but in practice, it can be an act of will. Wash her back, paint her nails, do her hair, put lotion on face, hold her when she's sobbing, hold her when she's sick.

And oddly enough this touching is a sort of claiming.
At first it's a formal dance of sorts, an acting out of the proper roles.
Eventually, it starts to become real. It's an intimacy of family. Only family brings the sick kid into mom and dad's bed, clammy, with her holding your hand to her sore throat, not letting go.
Babies claim you as they sleep snuggle and cling to you for their every need.
Toddlers and little kids claim you in passing fierce hugs and climbing on you when needy.
Older kids, they claim you by leaning on you, by sitting next to you or draped across you, asking you to do their hair, fix their clothes, feel their forehead.
I know, this is all obvious.
But the part of the key that is important, for me, is the part that "fits in my hand". See the keys up top? See the scrolled beautiful head of the key? This is the part I, or you, hold. And this is MY part. Because now I see that by touching this child, caring for her, letting her claim me by touch and touching her back as mine, giving her a sponge bath for a fever, checking her eyes for stray lashes, her braces for sprung wire...I claim her too. And I think, or am learning, that if I hold back from those touches, no matter how strange at first, then I lose.

It's the touch itself that seals the claim, builds it, and turns it into family.

8 comments:

Robin said...

You are my new hero!!!! Thank you for writing this post!!!!

Tara said...

Amen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sara said...

Your girl's smile just shines from the screen. This was a lovely post and I'm a bit weepy now.

Christine said...

I think this was a very brave piece of writing. It really struck a chord with me because outside of my little family I am a touch-me-not. I love your analogy of the arranged marriage feeling, that was brilliant.

Ryane said...

Great, great post!

What I want to know is when you are going to write a book. Seriously, you are an amazing writer!

Kathy said...

Very thought provoking. Thank you for your insight.

Teresa Rieke said...

it made me cry! it is true for other people in your life. just a touch on their arm or a pat can soften someones heart and make them feel a bond with you. i have just gotten out of isolation from radioactive iodine treatment and not being able to touch anyone was absolutely horrible! after that i was reminded to hug people in my life a lot more! thanks again for the reminder.

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