Recently, Alanis Morissette— the formerly angry singer/screamer who used to make dudes cross their legs, like, really hard—said in an interview that America is touch-deprived. She said this because of backlash she’s received for saying that she’ll breastfeed her toddler son until he wants to stop.
Yes, I thought—that’s it! For years, I had tried to pinpoint the source of what I’d say is a general American discomfort toward breastfeeding—not just long-term breastfeeding, but nursing tiny babies too—and I hadn’t even considered Alanis’s conclusion: that touch, and all the emotions and meanings and assumptions that come with it, carries a charge, and this can be an uncomfortable thing for someone who’s grown up in a culture that, for the most part, promotes distance and self-reliance. This distance, unfortunately, also carries over to the self, I’ve noticed: too many women feel ashamed about touching their bodies, and exploring their deepest places.
Now, okay, the mother breastfeeding her toddler on the cover of Time not too long ago—that was over the top. She was sexualizing and broadcasting what would otherwise be considered a tender moment. Most women I know who offer up the boob after their kids are more than a year old do it privately, quietly, and definitely not in public. Because—let me clear something up—after a year or so, the boob is no longer a meal. It’s not like the kid needs it on-the-spot in the middle of a grocery store or something. It’s a pacifier. It’s comfort. It’s a supplement. It’s a little something extra. It’s a flipping awesome illness-fighter. Don’t worry – the kids are getting real food too, and you don’t have to avert your eyes from it at Chili’s.
I’m no expert on this, mind you. But I do have a four-year-old son, and my four-year-old son still prefers some nipple action before he goes to sleep. He can sleep over at friends’ houses with no trouble, and he’s fiercely independent. He’s not in danger of becoming my vestigial twin. But he’s four. And goodness gracious, that’s still a fucking tender age. If a ten-minute suck calms him down (and keeps him healthy), then fine. I was ready for this whole thing to be over a couple of years ago, but it’s a small thing I can do for him that lets him know that all is well in his world, so he can grow up to believe it’s a safe place. And really, taking it away from him any sooner would have done him more harm than good: Happy birthday, kid. I’m taking away your most favoritest thing EVER on the planet!
Of course, this is my particular kid. Other kids wean much sooner, or don’t have as much boob affinity. It’s not for everybody. But the mothers who do it aren’t so strange: average weaning age in more primitive cultures hovers around five.
There was a line in the movie Crash that went something like: “We miss human touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” Dude, what a beautiful line. And true, I think, to a certain extent. Isn’t it better, healthier, to extend ourselves in more meaningful, creative, productive ways?
It’s taken me a few decades to work this out for myself, after not-so-nice touching from some family members and various boyfriends. Therapy has worked okay. But what has worked best has been having a touchy-feely husband and son, whose access to my body feels good. Skin-to-skin, cheek-to-cheek, heart-to-heart. No more crashing, just so I can feel. No more listening to old-school Jagged Little Pill Alanis on a loop.
“This Girl Maria” by Eleanor Levine humorously unveils a character’s attempts at (and away from) human intimacy, as a relationship slowly evolves toward touch (or not). The narrator somehow invokes Molly Bloom’s yes! and also sprinkles the text with a thought on James Joyce’s fingerprints on toilet paper—the most intimate evidence of a dead author’s touch. Seal it all up with a line about sex with test tube babies versus those conceived body-to-body, and you’ve got a damn fine story.
Not quite as funny, but equally striking is “Voice Lessons” by Nathan Alling Long. Of all the senses, touching, and really feeling, the body—a body that’s failing itself—takes center stage. A body viewed as a separate entity is still attached, ever so slightly, to the narrator by the one sense that can’t ever truly be shared: someone can see what you see, but can’t feel what you feel. The narration here is brilliant.
Marc Vincenz knows this too—that there is a premium on touch, with its supreme intimacy, its evidence that the touch-er is alive. “Fossil” is haunted by an ethereal subject manifesting, brushing his fingers across the shells of animals. “Complex eyes” can see light from far distances, but touch is, by nature, immediate and close. There is a special tremor that comes when something, someone, was once within reach, but drifts out of grasp.
Photo by Thomas on Flickr