When you're a mom, you're a climbing frame, a cushion, a mode of transport, and a hug machine. Motherhood is incredibly physical. The second I get home, my daughters yell, "Mom's home!" and want to leap into my lap or climb onto my shoulders. But they know that after I hug and greet them, I need five minutes to myself without being touched. I go upstairs to change into comfortable clothes, and when I return to the playroom, it's game on for the human pyramid. You are probably familiar with the concept of moms feeling "touched out" from constantly giving to their families, physically, but the reason I put in place this rule is a little more complex.
My daughters are used to jumping on my lap when we are on the couch or hanging onto my leg when I’m washing dishes in the kitchen. And I do love that we are an affectionate family — that I can give and receive, now my daughters are a little older. But there are many times when I’m completely touched out and need to not have little hands all over me. When I feel this way, I tell my daughters I do not want to be touched. If they don’t listen to me, I tell them again more forcefully. This might go against your instincts as a parent, but I think that communicating my own needs is important for teaching my daughter’s consent.
I've taught our daughters that it’s okay to ask for space when they need it.
As their primary role model, I'm demonstrating how their rights over their bodies work. My daughters know that they can’t touch me unless I tell them I want to be touched by them. This is partly just good manners, but the revelations of the past few weeks, with victim after victim coming forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment, have convinced me that this piece of education is absolutely critical. Reading each new story that surfaces, I feel heartbroken for the parents of these women, many of whom were just kids when their trust was abused. I will do everything in my power to ensure my daughters can recognize coercive and abusive tactics, and stand up to them.
It's easy to hold yourself to a different standard than your children. As women, we are used to just "dealing" with uncomfortable situations with men. But I'll bet you won't just put up with this kind of behavior against your children. I'll bet just the thought of it awakens a wild beast within you. Living in a climate where numerous men in power, including the president, have been accused of harassing women, has only heightened my resolve to ensure my daughters understand they are in charge of their bodies.
I've taught our daughters that it’s okay to ask for space when they need it. Both girls request to be left alone several times a the week — and we honor those requests. They also let us know when they do not want a hug or a cuddle. They tell us when they do not want to be held or if they don’t want to be kissed. My 4 year old likes to have her back rubbed or her hair brushed when she’s going to bed, but not always. She was shy to tell me that she did not want me to rub her back one night several months ago when we were laying in bed. My sweet girl started to move away from me instead of toward me, and when I asked her why she was moving away she said she didn’t really want her back rubbed.
“Does that hurt your feelings if I say that,” she asked. “No, not at all, I told her, I’m just glad that you are honest with me and I’m proud of you for telling me.”
It’s okay to hurt other people’s feelings if they’re not listening to you and you’re feeling uncomfortable, I explained to her.
My girls need to understand consent and how to say yes or no. Most importantly I need them to understand that they can say yes or no at any time during any situation with any person and that their words need to be accepted. So, every day I try to lead by example and show them that it’s okay to tell others no.
This technique carries over to school friends and relatives as well. We do not force them to give hugs if they don’t want to. I’ve explained to my daughters that sometimes I don’t want a hug from their dad, because I do not want to be touched, especially if it’s really hot or I’m in a bad mood. If I am hugging them and it’s been going on for a while and I feel them start to pull away, I will ask them, “Do you want me to stop hugging you so tight?” and if they say yes, I ask them to verbalize that need in the future.
It’s all a process though. Some days they stop touching me as soon as I ask, but other days it takes using a more forceful "no" before they stop. In that case, I tell them I should not have to ask more than once to not be touched, and if I do, then the second, third or fourth times are going to sound like I’m raising my voice. I said no, and they need to respect that and back away. Period.
My youngest daughter is having a more difficult time understanding personal space, or rather a hard time respecting my request to not touch me at certain times. She loves to grab my face and pull it towards hers or lay her head on my face as her little hand rubs my face. While I love her affection towards me, there are times when I just need some space. It makes me uncomfortable to always have one of them on me and they need to understand that. I’m showing them how people express their feelings and how to respond to those feelings.
I hate to hurt their feelings and I always explain that I love them, and love their hugs and kisses and cuddles, but not just at times that they want that same physical contact. I’ll use examples of when one of them didn’t want to be cuddled but I wanted to cuddle them and I had to stop because they were not in the mood and had not granted me permission to touch them. I explain that even though they didn’t want to be cuddled, I still know that they love me and may want to cuddle later. Honestly, I do feel guilty when I tell my girls not to touch me, because I have an irrational belief that moms should always want their kids around them — especially knowing how quickly our kids will stop seeking hugs and kisses from their parents. But I’m still me, and I need to not have a child draped all over me all the time.
The important lesson I want to impart is that they are in charge of their bodies — not me. And when we share a hug, or my daughter climbs on me, it's because we both feel affectionate or playful. Or because we're doing a human pyramid.
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