A year ago, I was nursing my daughter. It was a hot spring afternoon -- the humidity had settled into our apartment even as the radiator relentlessly hissed. We were damp and smelled metallic from the playground. Even the curtains seemed to hang drowsily after hours of beating back the sun.
We melted into each other's arms to enjoy air-conditioning and an hour's rest.
My child's curls were tangled and one stray lock hung over her eye. I went to sweep it away.
A chill ran down my sweaty spine.
I know that flinch. I've flinched like that.
Don't touch me without asking. Don't correct anything about me. Don't make assumptions about how I want my hair. Don't meddle. Don't keep an attentive eye trained on me. Don't cross a boundary that exists here, suddenly, in this moment.
My daughter's eyes are often still trained on me. She visits me all over the house "to have a little chat" and she tells me that she misses me even when we are together. The bathroom door, as any parent knows, is no barrier to a child's visitations. She likes to brush my hair and read to me while I take a bath.
I think this is precisely why a mother's touch can be an annoyance.
How do I break free of this desperate need for my mother? the child wonders.
I was a child actor. I didn't know it at the time, but I was conflicted about my mother being on set. State law required I have a guardian. I always saw her scanning the set for strangers, looking out for my safety. More intrusive still, I felt her eyes on me.
She was not exactly a stage mother. Still, she worried when the camera wasn't set up on my better angles. She worried that a movie producer clearly preferred another child actor on set. She worried when I looked pale and sallow next to a cherubic classmate at my sixth grade holiday choral concert.
I'll never forget the car ride home that Christmas evening. My mother felt guilty that her child hadn't shone the way the other girl did. She fretted over how to fix it. For my sake, I truly have no doubt.
Still, It was not good for me.
A mother's touch extends not just from her fingers, but from her eyes and her words and -- at times--from her own insecurities.
Even if the touch is protective, it can damage as much as it can heal.
I admit I'm glad when my daughter picks out a dress that matches her socks.
I take too many photos of her.
I'm glad when she picks clothes I like because they play up her winsome charm.
Most of us have some tendency toward stage-parenthood.
The trick is to shut it off.
I take a deep breath when she doesn't choose the shoes I wish she would wear. I take a deep breath when she asks for a ponytail.
I want her curls to fly free.
I wet the hairbrush in the sink and then brush those beautiful waves smooth.
We all want to be touched. We all want to be left alone. We all want boundaries and we all want limitless love. I hope we can achieve this with our children.
Let go. Let go. Let go.
At birth, if you are lucky, your mother and then both parents and then a whole extended family are not only your universe, but your very identity. Gradually, you sprout an identity of your own and differentiate. If you are very lucky, so unshakable will that initial attachment be that you will take it for granted. You will not hesitate to build the highest walls when you want to, and you will not hesitate to tear them down when it suits you.
There is no greater gift I can give my child than the assumption that our fort can weather the storms of differentiation. There will come a time when those walls, tested enough, will be there for both of us to lean on. Someday, I may need her too, as my mother needs me now. And in little ways, as she grows, she has already given me so much.
But always, I must remind myself:
I am not allowed to touch my daughter when she doesn't want to be touched.
For my own sake, I never want to feel the flinch. The first one was a warning tremor.
Off you go, my darling girl. When you fall down, I'll happily kiss that scrape. It's a standing offer; take it if you like.
This piece was originally published at www.hungrylittleanimal.blogspot.com