What It Means for a Mom to Feel 'Touched Out' and How to Cope
Dare to mention to your mom friends that you sometimes daydream about being Snow White. Go on to explain it's not for the rest she gets or her cooking/cleaning skills. It's about the glass structure that was built around her to keep people's hands off her while she slept. I'm betting you will be met with some variation of, "Oh, you'll miss all the cuddles someday." It may or may not be accompanied with that eyebrow—you know, the one that is sympathetic and yet, also seems judgmental.
How could you not want those little hands in yours? Those antsy little hands. Those antsy little grubby hands. Those antsy little grubby hands attached to that body that seems unable to just sit still for one second on your lap. Those antsy little grubby hands attached to that squiggly, wiggly body that just whacked you in the face with Barbie. Yep friends, I'll totally miss explaining how Barbie gave me a shiner to my kickboxing class. I'll miss looking down at my feet and seeing bruise upon bruise from the kids literally walking on my feet because being next to me isn't enough (I am pretty great.) Honestly, I just want one full day when no one touches me—not my kids, not my partner. No one.
Clearly, I'm feeling "touched out." And thankfully it's becoming more common for moms to talk about what we are feeling. Being touched out is when a parent is tapped by their children, significant other, and even that dang dog for physical comfort throughout the day and becomes irritable as a result of missing out on their autonomy. Some may compare it to parenting burnout, but feeling touched out can go beyond parenting to affect the relationship between partners.
Some moms go as far as saying they don't want to hug, kiss, or be intimate in any way with their partner after a full day of being clung to by their kids. They physically cringe at the idea of being touched even one more time during the day.
The reasons that this occurs might vary slightly, but it could relate to a 2018 survey that found parents only have 32 minutes to themselves a day—and that was before the pandemic. These days, moms are carrying the load of child care and housework and COVID-19 burnout can be overwhelming.
After reviewing this topic with Mary Kay Fleming, Ph.D., a former professor specializing in human development, early childhood, and parenting at Mount St. Joseph University in Ohio, more possibilities emerged. Dr. Fleming pointed out that in past generations women were socialized into the full-time motherhood role—they were not expected to be a mother and also be full-time professionals. She also pinpointed that the technological advancements meant to make our life easier have actually made us feel like we are on call 24/7. In short, some of the pressure being felt by mothers that are touched out could be a culmination of all the demands, not just the direct physical demand of a child. A physical roadblock is the easiest to see and address, therefore it becomes the thing we feel and struggle against.
So, what can be done about this? Luckily, Dr. Fleming offered some advice.
Take a Break
"Taking a break can be the absolute best treatment in certain situations," says Dr. Fleming. "Moms need time to themselves and time away to refresh, refocus, and replenish that deep reservoir needed to nurture." This is not something that should be applied in infancy as a baby that cries is truly in need and Dr. Fleming makes sure to point out that allowing an infant to cry is not advisable. Instead, ask for help. If someone else is there to care for the baby, that is the best way to get a moment to yourself.
"The adults need to communicate with one another about their needs and expectations, for one another and for their children, and get on the same page," explains Dr. Fleming. That's the real key to happiness. Two parents in the same home are part of a collective endeavor—the most important ones of their lives—they are building something special together. If they don't support each other, the kids will pay the price." This involves the boundaries set for the children and the time spent together. All things can be talked out.
Direct the Touching
Instead of touching solely focused on caregiving for others, add in touching that is beneficial to your well-being. Maybe a massage or a pedicure. Carolyn Wagner, a Chicago-area therapist at the Wilmette Counseling Center specializing in maternal mental health, says, "Doing something that is focused solely on taking care of yourself, and including touch as a main component, is a great way to remind yourself and your body that being close and connected to others can be fulfilling and positive."
Battle Those Unrealistic Expectations
"Another enemy is unrealistic expectations," says Dr. Fleming. "If we expect ourselves to give 100 percent all the time—with anything less perceived as failure—we're doomed before we begin. No one can meet those expectations." Be kind to yourself while you walk through the different milestones and needs of your child. You will have bad days and you will have good days. Understand that and keep your internal dialogue similar to what you would say to a struggling friend.