It's an iconic snapshot: A new parent, exhausted but deeply blissful, is caught dozing with a baby. Sharing that sleepy tableau has become something of a rite of passage for modern moms and dads, just like the week-by-week belly shots and grainy ultrasound tacked to the fridge. Sometimes it seems as if every person I know has dutifully uploaded a similar postpartum image to Facebook or Flickr, a pic flaunting a warm body nestled contentedly at the nape of Mom's neck, impossibly small limbs draped akimbo on her chest.
But I don't have that photo -- or anything close to it. My 21-month-old daughter, Mia, is many wonderful things: curious, energetic, mischievous, and as healthy as I could hope for. But what she's not, and has never been, is a cuddler.
In those first few months, Mia not only hated tummy time, as so many infants do, but she also loathed being in any position in which she was chest down. Whenever I'd try to hold her while I took a break or collapsed into a chair, she'd bob her little head around, trying to get a better view of the room, or she'd simply cry until I stood up with her in my arms. She never fell asleep on my chest after feeding, dripping blobs of milk across my collarbone; I never answered the door with her curled floppy and catlike over my shoulder. Mia was most content when tightly swaddled, swaying in a swing or sleeping in her crib.
It's not that she didn't enjoy being attended to. Oh, my Mia demanded plenty of attention, but not in that singularly gooey, cozy, soft-focus way I yearned for, especially when I was delirious and desperately wanted to lie down with her for a spell. Sure, she'd snooze happily during the hours I wore her in a carrier. And later, after she could steady her head and neck, she was thrilled to perch on my hip and look around. (We called her the "nosiest baby on the block.") And yet, I found myself longing for more, craving a real-life version of that gauzy image I carried in my head, the heart-to-heart snuggling that seemed such an integral part of motherhood.
Before I became a mom, I'd hold babies tentatively. Somehow I knew, though, that once I had my own child, I'd feel at ease and relish my all-access pass to the exclusive world of mother-and-child intimacy. But when Mia struggled with colic as an infant, I despaired that I couldn't bring her relief. Being held by me, in any position, didn't do much to calm her down. In my self-pitying moments, I even worried that Mia and I weren't as bonded as the moms and babes I knew who seemed attached at the torso.
A Reassuring Revelation
Finally, I confessed my frustrations to my own mother. Her reply surprised me: "You were very similar, Liz. You tolerated being held, but you certainly didn't prefer it." So my daughter's hands- off attitude came from me! And, reassuringly, the lack of snuggle time didn't harm my long-term bond with my own mom. Today when I visit my parents' home, my mother and I often make a beeline to the living room sofa or to my old bed after dinner to curl up together and watch mindless TV until we both drift off to sleep. In fact, now that I'm an adult, I'm like an exuberant puppy, ready to leap into the lap of anyone who will have me.
I realized that maybe my frustration with Mia's standoffishness was misplaced. My neediness was just that, my own, not hers. My expectation that motherhood would be a never-ending spree of nuzzling and nesting was na?ve. I had feared that my connection with Mia would suffer if I didn't spend ten minutes every night rocking her to music and feeling her strong little body let go of the day's activities. But this fear wasn't rational, I learned, and it definitely wasn't helpful. It hit me that fixating so intently on this one aspect of my daughter's personality had kept me from fully relishing all her other sunny traits.
Luckily, around the time of Mia's first birthday, things began to change -- for both of us. It's not that I gave up on cuddling, but I did let my obsession wane. The effect was startling. I felt liberated. The half hour before bed, when I used to try so hard to corral her into my lap for a reading of Goodnight Moon, turned into playtime as we frolicked on the floor together. And she began seeking me out -- for hugs and holding. Sometimes, after a nasty spill or while she was fighting a bad cold, she even rested her head on my shoulder and allowed me to rock her. She also "discovered" my lap. Now, dozens of times a day, she toddles over, clasping a book, and wedges her tiny rear onto my thighs. I sneak sniffs of her scent, loving every second of it.
Sure, it could be a phase. If I've learned anything about parenting over the last year or so, it's that kids are constantly, maddeningly, amazingly changing. They go through clingy periods as well as stretches of surprising independence. And although Mia now has moments of holding, clinging, and clutching, she still prefers to check things out on her own and shows little tolerance for being constrained.
I've mellowed out, and Mia has met me in the middle. But should she wriggle away again, that's okay. I've broadened my definition of closeness. It doesn't have to be skin-to-skin or nose-to-nose. My growing girl and I are connected when I watch her explore, learn, and play, when our eyes meet during peekaboo, when she cackles after dunking her hand in the dog's water bowl, when she demands yet another game of ring-around-a-rosy. As long as I can be with her for these moments and for those to come, I've got everything I need.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.