I have a strong memory of spending a lot of time when I was a little girl snuggled up in bed next to my mother, her skin warm and her smell comforting. In that memory, my mother is always reading and her arm is around me so that I am nestled next to her. I realize now as an adult that this was when I was five-years-old and my mother was pregnant with her seventh child, my little brother Sam. She’d had a baby only two years before – a baby that came prematurely at 8 months – and who couldn’t breathe on his own. Baby Robert would have easily lived today with modern medical intervention, but in 1955, he did not survive. My father told me when I was in high school that when Robert died, their family doctor (and close friend) advised my parents to get pregnant again as soon as possible to lessen the pain of losing an almost full-term baby. This answers why I have a memory of so much snuggle-time with my mother – her doctor had confined her to full bed-rest for almost all that pregnancy, and I am sure she was still grieving over the loss of baby Robert.
People who know our family with all of its six children, often ask me why I am so different from all of my other siblings. Several close friends have even taken to calling me “Marilyn” after the blonde young woman in The Munsters, who was the only “normal” one. I am the only person in my family who hasn’t battled with either depression and/or some degree of substance abuse and as a consequence, my life has been calmer and perhaps more “normal.” After much reflection, I am wondering if this wisp of a memory doesn’t answer that question. I had the benefit of love and touch from my mother at a time that was critical to my development. Recent research at UC Irvine, in fact, shows that a mother’s touch can increase “resiliency to stress” http://www.healthaffairs.uci.edu/features/feature_sensory_07072010.asp. This is not to say that my mother didn’t lovingly cuddle with my other siblings. I know she did. But they certainly didn’t get the benefit of several months of snuggling as I did.
“Touch” therapies are arising as a result of these research findings, and are demonstrating positive results. It seems we humans can benefit from even a pat on the back or a handshake. Basically, anything that physically connects us to one another. One researcher said that a warm mug of tea or coffee can also bring about a sense of comfort and healing simply because it activates the touch receptors in our hands. And for some time, therapists have encouraged “self-soothing” techniques when stressed, such as cradling one’s face or lovingly stroking one’s own cheek. And certainly, there is a great deal of research that demonstrates that a loving sexual relationship works wonders for stress reduction and a sense of well-being. Skin to skin contact, whether non-sexual or sexual, appears to have a myriad of healing effects. In fact, Tiffany Field, Ph.D., of the Touch Institute at the University of Miami medical school states, “The healing power of touch extends across the lifespan, from helping babies grow and children concentrate at school to decreasing chronic illnesses and disease.” http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/heal-touch.
Ironically, a very sad event may be the reason that I am the “Marilyn” in the family. My mother’s need to feel the warmth of her youngest child after losing her baby brought healing to us both. My siblings, who eventually fought and won their individual battles with addiction, grew up with a stressed mother who didn’t have a lot of time for snuggling. I, however, was the only child not at school when my mother so badly needed the healing power of touch for herself. Through the luck of the draw, I won a lifetime gift.
The lesson here? Mothers and fathers, hold and cuddle your little ones as much as you can. We now know it can make a world of difference.