I’ve always had a strange relationship with the sense of touch.
My earliest memories are of gripping my mom in an attempt to shield her from my dad’s hands. I can still feel the tension in her muscles and our shared sense of fear. It was a palpable static. I was 3.
Next, the stinging bite of a belt on my skin; punishment for talking to boys at preschool. I was 5.
My dad’s touch was the most painful of them all. Like a snake in grass, he would slither into my bed at night, under the guise of tucking me in. While I longed for the embrace of my parents, I recoiled from his caresses, repulsed as he pressed his musky adult body against my small frame. I can still feel his scratchy body hair. I was 9.
As I grew into a woman, carrying the physical and emotional scars of my childhood, I peeked wearily into the realm of sensuality. Looking back I see that, because of my trauma, I normalized aggressive sensual interactions. I loved hard; not only with my sexual partners (enjoying chasing and conquering my prospects), but also with my friends, who I embraced each time as if it were for the last time. On the other hand, I rejected the touch of strangers. I remember being disgusted by the slightest brush of a classmate sitting near me in a lecture hall. It was as if cotton fibers were tiny pins on my skin.
I will never forget the morning I woke up and said “I want to have a baby,” almost defiantly, to my husband as he wiped sleep from his eyes. Though a part of me secretly always wanted to be a mother, my feelings of inadequacy wore a public mask of indifference. The truth is, I didn’t want to hurt my child the way I’d been hurt by my parents, and my medical mind feared my trauma and adverse coping skills would be woven into the DNA of my future beloved. That morning, to bear a child as soon as possible, bellowed from deep within my soul and echoed loudly in the walls of my brain. It was an undeniable and all-consuming force. As the months passed and my womb lay vacant, my soul withered in agony.
I rejoiced at the news of my pregnancy in March of 2017. As my child grew in my womb, my conceptualization of what “touch” meant changed. No one can articulate how fascinating it is to feel a fetus moving inside of you. While my traumatized brain recoiled at the idea of my body being invaded by another being, my heart rejoiced at the miracle of space and science happening within me. I bonded with my fetus-baby-person. By the 36th week though, I couldn’t wait to deliver him. I was physically uncomfortable and emotionally more anxious by the day. On December 1st at 10:48 pm, Theory made his grand entry. I was relieved to have my little “intruder” out but I longed to touch and feel my baby. Things didn’t go as planned after the delivery. As quickly as he was laid on my chest, ashen and quiet, he was rushed away to be intubated and taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. My heart sank as I feared the worst would happen and I would lose my baby boy. In the end, he was fine. No one could and ever did figure out why he was delayed in taking his first breath…but I wasn’t the same after that. The trauma of his birth sent my mind into a primitive mode. I became a shell of myself; a wounded new mother clinging to her baby.
Postpartum care in my culture is called “omugwo”. The matriarchs of the family and/or close female friends come to care for the tired mother and new baby. This care includes feeding the mother spicy pepper soup, tidying the home, tending to the baby while the new mother gets some much-needed rest, and massaging mother and baby to help them both recover from the delivery itself. My mom and sister were able to come the morning after Theory was born and I was grateful to have the women most important to me there for this pivotal moment in my life.
My relationship with my mom has been wrought with painful memories and words that can’t be unspoken. After a year’s silence, for my own mental health, I decided to resume communication with her when I found out I was pregnant. I wanted her to be in Theory’s life because I didn’t want him to feel disconnected from any of his roots. I’ve always longed to know more about my paternal family but have been distanced from them because of my dad’s actions and his family’s primarily monetarily-motivated interests. My knowledge of my maternal family is sparse beyond knowing the names of her siblings and my first cousins. While other people discussed family trees and hyperbolic stories of those past, I would sit and smile with a crushing sense of emptiness in my heart because I didn’t have those connections. I didn’t want that for my son.
Prior to arriving, my mom made her own salve of coconut oil, shea butter, and other (secret) ingredients. Immediately after we got home from the hospital, after the excited words and hugs, my mom took the baby and prepared him for his first bath and massage. I was nervous for these moments whenever I contemplated it during my pregnancy but, because of what we’d been through during our hospitalization, I was in shock. It was therapeutic watching my mom carefully and lovingly handle her grandson. I watched as she bathed Theory while my sister and brother cooed over his every gesture. The sense of family and belonging was euphoric. I was entranced by the sight of her gently but firmly pressing the oils onto his skin from his limbs to his core. My turn came a couple of days later after delays and excuses on my part. That massage was the longest time my mom had ever touched me in a positive way, and I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it. It was awkward, to say the least. I sat in a lounge chair and breastfed the baby while she strategically lotioned and massaged me as she had done days prior to the baby. I avoided eye contact and made small talk about my swollen feet, healing uterus, and engorged breasts. While my muscles relaxed, my mind tensed more and more. If I’m honest with myself, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. That’s what I remember most about that massage: that I couldn’t wait for it to be over… and that fact pains me to think about.
It got better from there. With every touch, caress, and breastfeeding session with Theory, we established our relationship and wove a tight bond. His interactions with me are pure. There isn’t an ulterior motive; he simply loves and wants to be physically close to his mommy. I still occasionally flinch with unexpected pokes and grabs from him, but they are all welcomed.
As I sip from the honeyed tea of motherhood, my feelings toward my own mother have changed. “How could she say those things to a person who is a piece of her?” I wondered, while watching my darling laugh and play. “How could she sleep at night knowing the welts on my skin came from her hand?” Over time, the trepidatious yearning I had for a closer relationship with my mom has turned into a deeply seeded hatred for her; a woman who spitefully raised her first-born daughter only to chide pridefully later of her daughter’s hard-earned material success.
I kept the container my mom brought with her during her visit; using it for my own concoction of oils and butters for Theory. It’s sentimental in that it represents my family expanding, bonding, and a shared excitement for new beginnings. I keep it now, though, as a reminder to myself of the power of touch to heal and destroy. I open the lid every time with intention and a silent prayer that my son will never experience the physical pains I have… and that he will always cherish his mother’s touch.
Dr. Nora Ekeanya is a board-certified adult psychiatrist, storyteller, poet, wife, and mother. Born of Nigerian immigrant parents in Tallahassee, FL, she was raised in the United States and Nigeria, though calling Jacksonville, FL, her hometown. She is a practicing physician in Kansas, where she currently resides, and writes under the alias Nora Nneka.