Most of my family roots are in Italy and Sicily. I belong to the same church that my great-grandparents did, and every summer we celebrate the feasts of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Santissimo Salvatore, and Madonna del Soccorso di Sciacca in the streets. We believe in big, hearty meals served around a large table, family-style. All of our gatherings include the entire extended family, and the friends who have become family, and we are an affectionate, energetic bunch. Hugs, kisses, and claps on the back are required at each hello and goodbye, and are a sign of respect.
In 2006/2007, Baby #1 was a toddler. For each visit to a relative, I was tense the first few minutes. She would flatten her face against my leg and do her best to disappear. She was not—and is still not—a physically affectionate kid. She’s not a hugger or cuddler, and a person is lucky to receive a handshake in greeting from her.
Over time and with a great deal of patience from me and my husband, she learned to make eye contact and say hello to her relatives upon arriving at their homes. But a hug or a kiss? No way. She became an expert at avoiding outstretched arms. This annoyed me, and I feared I was raising a disrespectful child.
At a particular party, as I was cajoling her over to where my great-aunts were sitting, my grandmother shook her head.
“Why do you put her in uncomfortable situations like that?”
My grandmother’s voice was soft, nonjudgmental, but patiently awaiting an answer.
“She has to greet her family, and giving hugs is how we do it,” I responded.
My grandmother’s lips pursed ever so slightly, which I knew meant I would be reprimanded.
“It’s her body. She decides who and when she hugs someone. You should never make her go against her instincts when it comes to her own body.”
My grandmother was like that, dropping the bits of common sense on me I hadn’t detected on my own.
And I should have known better. For years I was involved with the Dignity Memorial Escape School program. In it, trained presenters empower children by explaining how to trust instincts about people and/or situations. Kids are taught how to get away immediately from any person or situation that makes them nervous and could be dangerous. While I knew my relatives might be vociferous and puzzling at times, I had many years of personal experience with each of them to know they were safe. My daughter, not even three, was not given the time to form opinions on her own. I was forcing my child to put her body in close proximity to adults, when doing that made her uncomfortable. What was the message I was sending, that she needed to do what was expected of her, even if it distressed her?
When Baby #2 was in preschool, he was extremely ticklish. One day, he and I were reading books together and giggling. I tickled him, and he told me to stop. His laughter was infectious, the kind of deep belly chortling that keeps the joke going. I didn’t let up, not until his face was pained instead of gleeful. I pulled my hands away from him. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I told you to stop, and you didn’t.”
Here was another lesson in consent that I almost missed, an opportunity to teach my boy that when someone says no, he/she means it. I apologized and told him I had been wrong. It was his body. He had every right to expect me to quit as soon as he said the word stop.
After my bilateral mastectomy, the revelation that I can no longer experience hugging as I used to was devastating. Before surgery, I had tried to prepare myself for the loss of my breasts, but I was dumbfounded when the realization sunk in…I would never again feel a hug completely. A connection to others, to those I loved—to my culture as an Italian American—was lost. A hug is all arms and shoulders now, not the full-torso squeeze that connects us heart to heart.
I’m still alive, and I’m in control of my body, even with as broken and as damaged as it is. The cancer hasn’t only infected my left breast but also my attitude and perceptions. Some days, just like my daughter, I don’t want to be hugged or touched, either. Maybe for different reasons—because I know a touch will make me have an emotional release of tears, or because I am in pain, or because I am irritated and in need of privacy—but these are valid reasons regardless. Don’t I have the right to excuse myself from contact?
Because of these eye-opening experiences, we have a rule in our house. “If you are touching someone and they tell you to stop, that must be respected. If you want to touch someone and they say no, that must be respected, too.” That goes for tickling, wrestling, hugging, any form of physical contact. We stress the point that no one can touch someone else if they don’t want to be touched, even during play. As adults, my husband and I make a big show of stopping a hug when asked to. We say “You have every right to stop a hug if you don’t want one.”
For the majority of our days, we hold hands with our kids, snuggle under blankets to share books, and push each other on the swings. We show affection appropriately and with gusto. When one of them sets boundaries, though, we acknowledge them.
How can we influence our children, and our boys especially, to grow into adults who aren’t entitled and arrogant when it comes to physical contact? We can do it, if we model the same respect for them that we want them to show to others. We can do it, if we validate the feelings and opinions of others. We can do it, if we demonstrate empathy in every aspect of our lives, and validate the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to you.”