In a caption to a meme about being what parents online call “touched out,” Becca Maberly, who posts on Instagram as @amotherplace, describes the intense fleshiness of parenting: “[My baby’s] small hands clawing at me. His legs kicking me as he writhed in pain and frustration with the wind stuck in his tummy. Every time I put him down, he screamed. His cries were so piercing at times and the sound went straight through me and really hit a nerve. I had no choice but to pick him up again.” And in a popular TikTok video, one woman says motherhood transformed her from “a hugger” who loved physical touch to someone who pushes her husband away. “All day my body belongs to another human being, and at the end of the day I am done being touched,” she says.
When I became a mother, there were substantially fewer accounts of feeling “touched out” online. But I felt it. My body quickly became a curio, claimed and set aside by my child’s request. Though I was trained as a writer and academic, I took a job at a home day care when I couldn’t afford child care, and there I heard some pointed refrains, spoken by mothers who wrestled children off their backs, in and out of shoes, at drop-off and pickup. Alone at home with my daughter, at the end of a long day being pawed by multiple toddlers, I tried out the mothers’ firm phrases. I sat on the couch, and as my daughter scaled me, I took a heavy breath and said, “Mommy is not a jungle gym.”
I continued to struggle with my daughter’s constant use of my body. Eventually, I found advice on the internet. I set boundaries, reminding myself I was teaching her about consent. These were lessons that were important to me because I had grown up without them. As a girl in the 1990s and early 2000s, I had never learned to say no to unwelcome physical touch. As a new mother, I tried to find the words to secure my own autonomy, barreling through convoluted phrasing and metaphors. When that didn’t work, I ran away. “Mommy just needs a break,” I’d say, fleeing to another room, my daughter chasing after me.
It was hard to locate what exactly I needed a break from. I eventually learned the term touched out by reading parenting forums online and talking with other mothers at the day care. At the time, reports of the tendency for mothers to be triggered by physical touch seemed to appear mostly on subreddits and parenting message boards, with posters linking the sense of bodily shutdown primarily to breastfeeding. A 2016 article on the feeling posted on the website of La Leche League described a mix of anxiety, claustrophobia, and “guilt over feeling irritated by your loved ones.” That tracked with my own experience. But the La Leche League guidance also implied that perhaps the problem was bigger: The author traced touched-out-ed-ness not only to evening cluster feeds but to mothers being “the vehicle baby goes everywhere with” and the parent who worries about giving her baby “secure attachment.”
The idea that mothers should make their bodies, as well as their focus and their time, completely available to their children is a historically specific one, emerging from the widespread popularity of attachment theory, but I didn’t see it this way in my early years of motherhood. In the late 2010s, though I picked up some language online for affirming my own autonomy, I also received opposing messages. Attachment parenting gurus like Bill and Martha Sears encouraged mothers—the presumed figures of primary attachment—to set aside their own needs to perform the “7 Baby B’s”: birth bonding, breastfeeding, babywearing, bed sharing, being responsive, bewaring of trainers, and balance. Trying to follow these guidelines and maintain boundaries around my body felt like some mystifying puzzle.
My days as a mother were, in those early years, filled with pulls of skin, pokes of face, smears of food across my chest. Despite my attempts at boundary-setting, I had become not just jungle gym but also transport, toy, chair, napkin, utensil, and comfort object. As I loaned my body to my child, I thought back on my own experiences with assault and harassment. At times, my rejection of touch felt like a form of rebellion, however misaimed, against a misogynistic culture that expects women not only to service the emotional and physical needs of their children but also the needs of men. Other times, when I ran from my child or pushed them away—or when my need to not be touched transformed into rage—I spiraled into cycles of regret, confusion, and shame, knowing how American culture side-eyes any negative emotions felt by mothers, especially when those emotions lead to rejections of closeness or tenderness.
In the years since my early motherhood, the challenges of American parenting have become more visible in the media. Some have begun to question our cultural attachment to attachment science and to resist the intensive parenting practices that now dominate American parenthood. Millennial mothers have also become more aware of the touched-out phenomenon, an understanding that is inseparable from consent culture, which began informing parenting practices in the late 2010s. After the #MeToo movement began in 2017, some parents embraced teaching children “healthy boundaries,” modeling lessons on bodily autonomy and coercive touch. But these resources were rarely explicitly connected to the prevalence of parents’ own struggles with touch and consent in a culture with enduring gender trouble both inside and outside the home.
Not surprisingly, however, the pandemic led to another surge of writing and online discussion of mothers who feel “touched out.” By the time COVID hit, I had regained some sense of agency over both my professional life and my body, and my irrepressible and sudden urges to push away those I loved had lessened. But, as for many parents in America, school closures and quarantines reminded me of the early days of motherhood. Waves of physical withdrawal surfaced each day. Frustrated by my inability to access anything like personal agency or bodily autonomy, I became consumed by the question of how the expectations of American motherhood echoed the rape culture in which I had grown up. The ease with which we’ve accepted women having overwhelming compulsions to rip off their own skin (as one poster wrote in a BabyCenter Birth Club forum) is telling.
Despite the complex set of social, cultural, and political stressors at play in early parenthood, posts on motherhood blogs and coverage of mothers’ touch aversion on mainstream news sites frequently normalize and excuse women’s suffering, claiming that not wanting to be touched by your husband and children is caused by “nothing, specifically,” even though we can now admit that it’s “a thing.” Some of this content is meant to be destigmatizing. “Being touched out is a sign that the birthing parent needs time for restoration,” Dr. Lucy Hutner, a NYC-based reproductive psychiatrist, said. “And needing some time away from your infant is normal, natural and human.”
Touch, Hutner told me when we corresponded by email, is an undeniably essential component of care work. As the first sense to develop, it shapes our understanding of the world. “Holding, feeding, putting them to sleep, comforting, playing, communicating,” Hutner said. “Touch is the day-by-day process of how you get to know your baby’s cues and to deepen attachment relationships. Touch has also been shown to be an important part of an infant’s neurobiological development.” One study cataloged nine forms of maternal touch, from loving to playful, though there are likely many more—and it has been well documented that children who don’t receive nurturing touch in infancy may become less attuned to the social value of touch later in life.
“Feeling ‘touched out’ is so common that I tell patients in my practice to expect it’s going to happen,” Hutner said. And yet, although plenty of research exists on the importance of touch in caregiving, research devoted to parental touch aversion is minimal. Hutner noted that most of what’s known about the topic comes from research on what happens when mothers suffer from depression. “Maternal depression has been shown to be associated with less responsiveness and engagement with … infants, with less communication and playful touch, especially in face-to-face interactions,” Hutner said. Studies have found that mothers with chronic anxiety and depression were more disengaged in early parent-child interactions. Depressed mothers also tend toward less interactive touch with their children and are more irritable.
“And yet these findings need to be taken in context,” Hutner said. “Signs and symptoms of postpartum depression—which was already the most common complication of childbirth in the United States to begin with—increased severalfold during the pandemic, a direct indictment of the scarcity of social support and its impact on the mental health of mothers and all birthing parents.”
Dr. Aurélie Athan, a clinical psychologist specializing in reproductive identity and matrescence, told me in our correspondence that research on the subject of feeling “touched out” also tends to focus on impacts on the child rather than on the caregiver. “The research would change considerably if we were curious about a mother’s own subjective experience of being touched,” she said.
“The fact of the matter is that not many mothers are prepared for the developmental—both the physical and psychological—changes during the transition to motherhood. The touched body, the degree and frequency it is touched—how much and how often—is not even imagined as a potential stressor until it happens or reaches a crisis,” Athan said. “Nor is the physical labor of bending and lifting, the wear and tear on the body. We have some education around core strength (e.g., diastasis recti, post-cesarean recovery, etc.), but that is not enough.”
My reactions to touch were physical and personal, but also political. I felt most touched out when everything else in my life seemed beyond my control, as when I was pushed out of the workforce in new motherhood. My aversion to touch flared again during the pandemic. And the feeling peaked when American culture sent clear messages about women’s bodies: after the 2016 election, at the height of #MeToo, and when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Not everyone has a visceral reaction to these sorts of news cycles, but many do. Political, economic, and social realities affect our bodies and, in turn, our ability to care for others with intention and presence. “Bottom line: You have to feel safe to want to be touched,” Hutner said. “In our society there are many millions of people who have been made to feel fundamentally unsafe. You just have to open the news once a day—if you can bring yourself to do it—to see yet another example of the violent threat all around us. Avoidance then becomes a form of self-protection.”
Where clinical research comes up short, social media content created for mothers has in recent years offered more detailed explorations of mothers’ resistance to touch. Some of these content creators—many but not all of whom are licensed therapists or psychiatrists—have begun to discuss how systemic political, cultural, and socioeconomic factors contribute to an overtaxation of parents’ bodies. A lot of the content created online about feeling “touched out” circles around how objectifying and violating motherhood in America can feel—and how this shifts women’s relationships with desire and intimacy.
Others have speculated that feeling “touched out” can come from sensory overload and parental overstimulation, especially for parents with ADHD or sensory processing disorders. One TikTok argues that consumerism contributes to overstimulation, citing toys that make noise and mess in the home as potential triggers.
More anecdotal touched-out accounts posted by mothers on social media further link the feeling to husbands’ sexual demands. The stories follow a similar pattern: After describing the hurried, knockabout nature of caring for children in isolation in an unmanageable domestic space, the narratives pivot to the male partner returning from work, shocked to find his wife pushing him away. And yet what of this need for space is really all that surprising?
During the pandemic, a Wall Street Journal article nevertheless suggested that people who feel “too schlubby” to have sex should just force themselves to start touching their partners. The article accepted the basic premise that “fear, worry, loneliness and boredom” are “buzzkills” but ultimately proposed more touching to “get out of your head and let your body take over.” Women who feel touched out often receive similar advice.
But, as Hutner noted, “feeling like you need to have sex when you don’t want to is the opposite of intimacy.” And the notion that women should sacrifice their bodies at the altar of parenting, and marriage, only extends and upholds the assumption that women’s bodies are made for the taking.
Athan suggested, however, that feeling touched out could open doors for parents to forge a new relationship with their bodies. “Whether it’s a distorted body image or an actual, genuine embodied response, a woman can use this very basic, foundational feeling of needing space, to reclaim her boundaries and even her body,” she said. “When touch is finally desired and reintroduced, it could, maybe even for the first time, be on her terms.”
Athan believes this could be an opportunity for “deep and important learning” for caregivers, partners, and their children. “At some point the issue of touch—if, when, and how—to approach it with more intentionality is waiting in the wings,” she said. “One could argue it is at the heart of learning what is truly meant by consent.”
Though most parents of my generation grew up in a culture that had little to no language for consent, many are now seeking out that language to reclaim their own bodies and to pass that language on to their children. As I’ve become more attuned to the way my body speaks while I’m mothering, I’ve been able to invite and savor the sensual pleasures of motherhood: whiffs of hair, wet kisses, warm hugs. I’ve also become better able to articulate for my children the importance of securing autonomy for themselves and for others. My generation may be a “touched out” one, but my children will grow up knowing that care necessitates consent, and that is a lesson that could have profound effects on the world in which they will come of age.
© 2022 by Amanda Montei.