COVID-19,  Family

A world without hugs…

Marie McCoy explores the sadness of a world deprived of the sense of touch.

My four-year-old accidentally hugged a stranger in the park last week. One minute she was standing next to her little sister, stirring a muddy puddle with a stick, the next she had silently stepped away from us and flung her arms around the waist of an unknown lady in a long, black coat. 

Afterwards, upon realising her mistake, she was too embarrassed to offer any explanation for her actions and I can only assume that she somehow mistook this stranger for either me or my mum who was also with us. 

Ultimately, however, the reason for this uncharacteristic boldness is of little consequence. What has instead stayed with me is the reaction of the lady in question who, after I had apologised for my daughter’s actions, assured me that this sudden and unexpected gesture had not upset her. 

Instead, perhaps because of so many months of enforced social distancing and limited physical contact with others, she told me that when she had felt my daughter’s little arms around her, her automatic reaction had been to squeeze her back. 

If I’m honest, I am not a natural ‘hugger’. Unless convention or good manners dictate otherwise, I have to know and like someone a lot before I feel comfortable to engage in anything more than a handshake.

With two children under five, I also receive more than my fair share of physical contact on a daily basis and rarely have any left over to offer to anyone else!

Aside from the regular kisses and cuddles, on the days when I’m at home with my girls I spend much of my time having my hair ‘held’, allowing pretend medicine to be squirted down my throat, and carrying my two year old on my hip. By the time my husband arrives home from work, I usually feel completely ‘touched out’ and he is lucky if I consent to a foot rub while watching ‘The Great British Bake-Off’, never mind a hug. 

Yet truthfully, the most treasured time of my day occurs at bedtime when, with my toddler perched on my lap and my pre-schooler snuggled against me, I read that night’s chosen books – ‘two long and one short’ – and enjoy the warm stillness of those two little bodies pressed against mine. Somehow in those moments none of the difficulties or challenges of the day matter any longer. Instead, I am left with only the deep love that I feel for both my children and the knowledge that, despite all my many mistakes as a parent, I am enough, just as I am. 

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The ’new normal’ of COVID 19 has forced us to place physical barriers between ourselves and others: the all-too-evident face masks, the invisible two metre social distancing circles and the one-way arrows even in the supermarket. 

Even for someone like me who does not easily engage in physical contact, the last nine months have brutally robbed me of several occasions when I have longed to hug someone I care about: a friend who had welcomed a new baby, another who had lost one, and, on my return to work, colleagues who were a huge support to me during lockdown and who have now become firm friends. 

As a teacher, I have also at times had to ask pupils to take a step away from me when they have slipped out to the front of my classroom to ask me a question they are too shy to share with the rest of the class. Whether my request has been met with confusion or apologetic realisation, it has always caused my heart to break a little, destroying as it does that revered trust between teacher and pupil. 

While we all know that this physical separation from friends, family and neighbours is necessary, that knowledge does not necessarily make it any easier. 

However, the need for us to remain distant from others most of the time has made the physical contact that we can and do have all the more precious. All of sudden there is great beauty in small gestures of physical intimacy that we would normally barely notice: one of my pupils quietly patting his crying friend on the shoulder, the delighted squeals of my daughters as they hug their cousins for the first time post-lockdown, a small child at the park gently slipping his tiny hand into his grandfather’s far larger, wrinkly one…

Small acts such as these have taken on a nuance and meaning that they never had before. In fact, they no longer seem small at all. 

As for the lady in the park, perhaps she was enjoying a quick break while working from home or grabbing a breath of fresh air while her children were at school. Maybe, like me, she has a family at home who provide her with all the cuddles she needs.

Or perhaps instead, prior to the gentle embrace of my daughter, she would have struggled to remember her last physical contact with another person. Did my quiet little girl somehow know that a stranger needed that small act of love? I will never know. But perhaps when the mist clears and the world starts to right itself again, I might find that I have become a hugger after all.  

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Marie McCoy is a teacher and married mother of two girls (four and two) from Glasgow. She is an English and RE specialist in secondary schools. She is currently studying for a Masters in Education at University of Glasgow.

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