It was a lazy Sunday afternoon and my boys and I were enjoying some television time. Due to the fact they’re basically little cavemen, my kids had stripped off their shirts. Naturally, they were cold. To fight that chill, they lodged themselves on either side of me, tucked into my armpits. I was happy to be near them but knew I couldn’t let this proceed. I had recently decided to experiment with physical distance (demanding it) and cuddling (non-participation) to better understand the experiences of other fathers.
My boys were not into that idea.
There are many dads in the world who keep themselves physically distant from their children, particularly if those children are boys. These are fathers who, for various cultural and personal reasons, don’t hold, cuddle, or hug their children very often. I am — and I’m really soft-selling this — not that kind of dad. More often than not, I have an arm or two wrapped around one of my boys. But I get that I’m not necessarily the new normal so I was interested in experiencing parenthood at a remove. I wanted to know what that felt like. There wasn’t really a way to find out without going cold turkey.
I put the kibosh on cuddling for a week. What I didn’t realize, and had not expected, was that a child, once cuddle, is very hard to uncuddle. Physical affection is much more, I learned, about the establishing and maintaining norms than it is about discreet acts of extreme proximity.
I learned quickly that the best way to avoid cuddling was to stay on my feet. Sitting anywhere appeared to act as a kind of Pavlovian cue for my children. Inevitably they would find me and curl up in my lap or wrap their arms around me. I also learned very quickly that physical distance is not for me. I’m a physical person, so much so that when I told my wife about the experiment she frowned. “Now you’re going to be all over me,” she said.
As much as her assertion stung, framing physicality as if it were an addiction isn’t necessarily off base. When humans cuddle, the brain releases oxytocin. This is the so-called love hormone that is crucial to engendering feelings of bonding and closeness. Given how physical we are as a family, I am constantly flooded with oxytocin. I muck around in the stuff so much I have to wear waders. I was not super pumped about the low tide coming from my brain.
When my kids grabbed me and I got the warm fuzzies, I had to remove myself. It felt like quitting smoking (if the smoker had packs thrown repeatedly at their midsections).
A couple of days in, my feet hurt from all the standing and my heart hurt from all the longing. I needed a hug in a bad way — so much so that I was trying to get one verbally. I kept telling my boys how much I love them (lots), making everyone a bit uneasy. I also worried that The Great Uncuddling might hurt them though there was no real evidence they’d noticed a change.
It was also clear that my wife was reluctantly overcompensating too. Finding no cuddle harbor with me, she was their destination for snuggling at a rate that far exceeded the usual amount. By the time we’d hit the fourth day, it was clear she was tired of having children on her. Occasionally she would emit a frustrated groan, push them to the floor, and shut herself in our bedroom for some respite.
The whole thing sucked for all of us really, and I had to cut the experiment short — not for my boys, but for myself. Because in having them close, but not having them in my arms, I could see a picture of a future I didn’t want to enter yet.
I know someday my boys are not going to want to snuggle while we watch TV. They’ll feel embarrassed and awkward. Hell, I might even feel embarrassed and awkward too. And the thought of not being able to hold my boys is incredibly sad to me.
When my boys are in my arms now, they are usually calm and quiet. It’s a moment of peace when my only responsibility is to love them. Any other time, I’m trying to contain, redirect or focus their kinetic energy. To do that I need to take the role of authority or disciplinarian and those roles, by necessity, create barriers between us. But when they hug me and I hug back we are just human creatures, sharing the rush of oxytocin.
I’m not ready to give that up.
As far as those fathers who are physically distant, I envy them in a way. They don’t have the bond that I will eventually lose. That physical loss is left to their wives who must bear the weight of the physical bonding. Still, I’m glad I share in the cuddling. It will amplify my sense of loss I feel as my sons grow, but, for now, it amplifies my sense of what I have, which is a lot.