Touch, it is our earliest and our most communal sense. Whether we are a floating embryo, a tumbling toddler or a middle aged midwife, we all sense touch. Even if we are blind, or deaf, or deprived of the sense of smell or taste, we still know touch.
From Bali to Bahrain, touch is both sanctioned and regulated by religion and culture. Human greetings are made with handshakes, hugs, kisses on one or both cheeks, or with heads and shoulders bowed not touch each other at all.
Of course, humans are not the only creatures that give and receive touch. The examples are endless: chimpanzees wrestle, parakeets groom, dogs share a nose-to-neithers greeting, even plants have been shown to reach out and touch their neighbor. Touch is integral to the experience of sentient beings.
The ability to perceive touch begins early in prenatal development. By the time we were the size of a small lima bean, our nervous system was starting to relay information about touch. What is it like to be a pre-born and feel limbs bob away from your core, or your umbilical cord brush past your face? What is it like to feel someone (mother? sister?) pressing against your womb-room? Think about it; we all experienced touch before we were born.
Touch is experienced by infants, children, teens and yes, even adults. Shared touch can be healing, expansive, it can be sacred. Stephen Gaskin, husband of midwife Ina Mae Gaskin, described marriage as a relationship of touch partners. What wonderful images this phrase ‘touch partners’ evokes, images of couples curious and trusting, exploring touch for a lifetime together.
Touch Is not just about sensing another’s presence on our skin. Maybe more importantly, it is our experience within our own skin. Your most common experience of touch is with your own body moving in and through space. With movement, skin tugs skin, muscle pulls bone, joints rotate and flex, hands swipe sweat from cheeks. Sitting in bed now, my fingers tapping on the keyboard, hips pressing against the mattress, my hands brushing hair from my face, I am experiencing touch even as I write these words.On a very real level, we each are our own ‘touch partner’.
Of course, touch can be painful, intrusive, unwanted. Currently, the #MeToo movement is a daily reminder that all bodily attention, including touch, should be done with care, compassion and consent. (Imagine a world where touch is always and only done with care and compassion. What would that look like? Now imagine bathing and dressing yourself with care and compassion. How would that feel? )
We have experienced touch every day of our lives. Our experience of touch has been pleasant and painful, playful and terrible, cruel and tender. As a midwife, a mother, a wife, a human, I have experienced touch in all these variations. Both in relationship with others and myself, while I strive to soothe, sometimes my touch causes pain.
Borrowing the words of Charles Dickens, I wish for us all to “have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts."
May all babies be born into loving hands
This post was orginally published on Albany.com in 2012 and reworked for publishing here in 2018