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A Father's Journal > Columns > A Father's Journal Index

The Gift of Intimacy
by Forrest Seymour

"It's your turn."

"Whaa?" Bleary eyed I wake from a dream about something warm.

"The baby's crying."

"But..." My objection trails off as I grow conscious that indeed it is my turn.

"OK, great," I say, sliding from bed into the cool February of night, hoping the sarcasm in my voice was lost on my wife as she curls back to sleep in that warm, dream filled bed.

"Ba, ba, ba, baaaaaa!"

"OK, Jake, I'm coming."

Part I - The Intimacy

My son does not sleep as well as we might wish. As an infant he slept fitfully. He woke frequently with a gurgling cough that finally went away the night his nursing mother went off dairy. Still now, as a toddler, he wakes once, twice, three times per-night. We've learned to manage the more wakeful nights by trading him off, like relay racers do a baton. Some days I wander in a haze, aching from lack of sleep.

Yet I do not completely dislike my midnight child care duties. While Nancy can nurse Jacob to sleep, I sling him. My sling is a fitted fabric harness, in an attractive hunter green, that loops across my hip and over the other shoulder where it is cinched with a double-ring clasp. It is a very comfortable means of carrying a child, from infant to preschooler. Jake spends a lot of time tucked in there, and it is the main means I have of putting him to sleep.

The nocturnal struggle to comfort a disconsolate child is both startlingly painful, and tearfully beautiful. Often neither party is fully awake; memories of these moments tend to be vague, or even irretrievable. Yet, in the moment, a sort of emotional and physical dance takes shape, as parent weaves between drowsiness, frustration, aches and pains, and love and satisfaction; and the child slides from agony to bliss and back again. Sometimes these dances take mere moments, a graceful and brief pirouette, while at others the band just won't stop.

My son and I enact these rituals slung together, almost as one, chest-to-chest, his head against my shoulder. Here I feed him if necessary, stroke his cheek, kiss his hair, rest my cheek against his brow, walk, rock, and sing. He in turn coos, cries, writhes, or spits-up as the mood strikes. It feels just about as intimate as any two people can be, and for myself, as close as I've ever been with another male.

As with many experiences of parenthood, this one is bittersweet in the knowledge that it may be fleeting. My 6 year old even now grows frugal with her hugs. How long will my son let me hold him so close?

And it is a challenge to flow with these changing tides of intimacy, this long dance. Nowadays, I spend more awake time in physical contact with my children than I do with my wife. And though I know that this extended comfortable closeness with my children will pass, allowing Nancy and I (we tell ourselves) more intimate time together, I do worry about how well I'll make the physical intimacy transition, from wife to children and back again, over the space of say 10 years or so.

I suspect that many men, like myself, feel challenged by these changes. Men are rarely encouraged to value and learn the skills of intimacy, how to grow it, sustain it. For some of us this roller coaster of intimacy within our families can no doubt be overwhelming.

Part II - The Abuse

Exacerbating this situation is the high percentage of men who have survived physical and sexual abuse. Steven Botkin, Director of the Men's Resource Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, suggests that "as men learn to tell the truth about our full range of childhood experiences, we recognize how the vast and mostly silent majority of us are survivors of abuse." Men are trained early to quietly tolerate abuse, whether from bullies or parents, teachers, sergeants, partners, priests or employers.

"It is a rough world," we are told.

We are teased or worse when we acknowledge pain. Strangely, as an adult, I find it is most often women who perpetuate this message in my life. But as a youth it was boys who taught this ethic to each other, an ethic that is institutionalized by our government's expectation that boys and men be registered and ready to fight a war throughout their young adult years; A certain dissociative mind set is forced upon us wherein pain is not important.

And then there is sexual abuse. Various worrisome statistics are available, many noted by Mic Hunter in his "Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse," where in he cites a Canadian study that found that one-third of males had experienced some form of sexual abuse as a child. These figures all depend of course on how you define "sexual" and "abuse." None-the-less these are disturbing figures.

Survivors of abuse are naturally a bit overly cautious, or sometimes overly incautious, about intimacy. Given the space to heal this may not be the case. But as men are so often expected to have not suffered any real pain in the first place, what right have they to take the time to heal?

We end up, then, with generations of men untrained at intimacy, loaded with the unknown or unspoken baggage of abuse, and thrust unwittingly into the emotional roller coaster of parenthood. No wonder men die so much earlier of stress related illnesses!

Part III - The Gift

It is Spring now. We've survived the sleepless nights of winter. Nancy and I now trade off nights with Jake and he is sleeping better. As the the tall trees leaf and the mud dries in our New England playgrounds, he scampers up the play structures and down the slides, unheeding, it seems, of personal injury. This worries me.

When I changes his diaper I see the blue bruises on his shins.

"When did you get these, little buddy?" I wonder out loud. How could I have missed this? But I know how. Nancy and I both marvel at Jake's ability to fall and roll without apparent injury. We brag about it. He seems so indestructible. And I am shocked when I find myself believing these things. Socialization is so insidious; I struggle to be more than an unconscious tool.

I have begun to train myself to over-respond to Jake's bumps and bruises, over-respond based on the training I've had, that is. When he falls now, I coo at him, "did you get hurt?" I kiss his bump, regardless of whether the fall phased him. When his sister pushes him around I snap at her just as I would should someone twice her size harass her. This is my self-education of intimacy, my self-healing from abuse.

My son, and daughter before him, have given me the place and time to re-member, re-learn, my experiences of abuse, of love, of intimacy. In the sleepless nights, the bruised shins, the tearfully hurt feelings, I have chances to learn how to be bigger, to love better, to stick with intimacy when all I really want to do is bolt back to bed. It is a rare and priceless gift which these children unwittingly share. We parents have so much to learn.

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