I distinctly remember the moment when I realized I couldn’t stomach the thought of my baby touching me again. I had been a mother for three weeks, I was breastfeeding on demand, I was still sore from the trauma of labor and delivery, and I couldn’t recall the last time I slept. My 4-week-old was crying, no doubt a signal that he needed another meal, and as I went to retrieve him from his crib was caught off guard by my visceral reaction: I felt disgusted, and aggravated, and, I admit, resentful of my baby’s needs. Of course, this innate response was quickly followed by an overwhelm of guilt. What kind of mother am I? How could any loving mom not want to hold her baby? What is wrong with me? Of course, the very valid reason behind my reaction seems obvious to me now that I am almost six years and two kids deep into this whole parenting thing. But at the time I didn’t realize what was happening to me: I was touched out.
I willfully gave up a large portion of my bodily autonomy for the 39 weeks and 5 days that I had been pregnant, and I certainly didn’t get it back the moment my pregnancy ended and my son entered the world. From the near-constant breastfeeding to the diaper changes, the sleepless nights and his need for comfort, I was still unable to feel as if my body was 100% my own. My son still maintained some semblance of ownership of it, and continuing to share my body with another human being had taken a mental and emotional toll.
Given how romanticized the postpartum period is, I consider it more than understandable that I had no idea I was touched out… until I was. As people who can procreate, we’ve been fed ideas of what motherhood and the newborn phase looks like, or is supposed to look like, and rarely does it include harboring a passing animosity towards the tiny human you love. So if you, like me, are feeling like you could crawl out of your skin at any moment, or are simply feeling unlike yourself in a way that can’t be explained by unruly postpartum hormones or the transition into parenthood, here are a few signs you’re likely touched out and, more importantly, how you can set boundaries with your kids, regardless of their age.
1. You crave more alone time than usual
As you undoubtedly know, the amount of alone time one needs varies from person to person. And when you become a new mom, it’s normal (of course) to want to spend every moment with your sweet little human sack of potatoes. The smell of a newborn’s head alone is enough to rope you into a few hours of shameless snuggle time.
But if you notice that what was once enjoyable for you has now become a “chore,” and you want to be alone more than what would have otherwise satisfied your need to simply be, you’re likely touched out. Your body is trying to tell you that while those cuddle sessions are the tits (figuratively and, for your newborn, often literally), you need a break.
How to set a boundary: Hand that baby off to the nearest capable adult. As someone who has suffered from postpartum anxiety, I can completely understand if this suggestion is laughable at best. But even moms who’re not dealing with a mental health issue, letting go and allowing someone else to step in and feed, bathe, or simply hold our baby can be a challenge. But you’re not meant to be a 24/7 caregiver. No one is. So if you have a parenting partner, tap them in. If you don’t, call a trusted family member, friend, or neighbor. Let someone else enjoy those sweet newborn snuggles, so you can enjoy some much-needed alone time.
2. You’re disinterested in sex…
Pregnancy (if we carried our babies), labor, delivery (if we birthed our babies), breastfeeding (if we can and choose to), and the insomnia that comes with parenthood puts our bodies through it. So whether you’re not feeling like yourself, are simply too tired to even consider getting off, or are still in physical pain from childbirth, losing interest in sex is far from uncommon. And alone, it hardly warrants any concern, even if your libido didn’t take a hit during pregnancy and you were simply counting down the days until your OB-GYN or midwife gave you the go ahead to resume penetrative sex.
But if you were having postpartum sex, then suddenly found yourself wanting to do literally anything else, you could be touched out by your child and, as a result, extremely uninterested in having literally anyone else touch you.
How to set a boundary: Of course, you’re under no obligation to have sex with your partner, or anyone else for that matter. If you’re not feeling up to it, don’t do it! Consent is awesome! We love consent! But if you’re missing this aspect of your life, again, just hand that baby over (surprise, surprise, this is a common postpartum theme). With older children, you can stop allowing them in your bedroom and, perhaps more specifically, your bed. You can also plan (welcome to parenthood) a night of intimacy with your partner — or a booty call, because get yours, mom! — in advance and have a babysitter or other caregiver take over.
3. …or even the most basic forms of intimacy
Much like the first time I felt a physical disinterest in being touched by my baby, I vividly recall the first time I pushed away my 4-year-old because I was too touched out from holding, feeding, and caring for his infant brother. Holy hell, the guilt. It could have swallowed me whole.
I had felt some variation of this aversion towards my partner after my first baby. Not only was I disinterested in sex, I didn’t want him to hug me. Or kiss me. Or accidentally graze me as he put away the dishes. There was nothing he could do, of course: once again, my body was telling me that I needed a break and some distance between myself and my baby.
How to set a boundary: When it comes to unruly toddlers and kindergarteners, who have zero spatial awareness and definitely do not adhere to any established social rules, simplicity is key. Simply tell them you do not want to be touched. That mom is not a human playground. That you do not appreciate being crawled over or tugged at or squeezed. Not only are you establishing healthy boundaries that will aid your mental health, but you’re teaching your kid the very fundamental idea of consent: that you do not touch people who do not want to be touched.
4. Your stress level has increased exponentially
I don’t have to tell you that becoming a parent, or welcoming another child into the fold, is stressful. With the added responsibilities of caring for another human being, coupled with pre-existing obligations, work, romantic and platonic relationships, simply making it through the day can be taxing. Things are bound to be stressful, both in times of change and just in the run-of-the-mill daily comings and goings of #momlife.
But if your stress has become so overwhelming that it feels debilitating, there’s something else going on — something that requires your attention. While this can be a sign that you need to talk with a mental health professional (something we encourage! Seriously! Everyone should have affordable access to mental health care and take full advantage of it!), it can also be a clue that you’re touched out and in need of a little reprieve.
How to set a boundary: If your children are old enough, put them to work. Not in the “child labor” way, but in the “hey, here are some chores you are more than capable of accomplishing that will help mom out and teach you positive things, like responsibility and stuff” way. Make sure your spouse and/or parenting partner is pulling their fair share of child-rearing and household chores weight. If there are things that someone else can tend to, allow them to. You do not — and should not — have to do it all by yourself, stressing yourself out even further and stretching yourself so thin that what should be relaxing time with your baby (or yourself!) becomes another chore.
5. You feel angry
I admit, I am not my best mom self these days. Now that I’m months into sheltering-in-place, just now finishing up my 5-year-old’s at-home e-learning, and tending to a teething, unforgivingly needy 1-year-old, I am so far past touched out there needs to be another word for this feeling of unrest and disconnect. And I have caught myself, on far too many occasions, growing angry at my kids for simply being kids. I want space — they need their mom. I want time to focus on just one thing at a time — there’s two of them with a number of needs that, through no fault of their own, must be met in a timely manner. So I’m a pretty angry b*tch these days, and I know it’s because I’m in desperate need of time to myself; time so many of us parents haven’t been afforded during COVID-19.
How to set a boundary: Look, anger isn’t a bad thing. Moms are rarely encouraged to own or express their anger, and we know there’s plenty to be angry about. But if that anger is becoming unmanageable, look to manage what is setting you off. Obviously, there’s nothing we can do about COVID-19 and the (very necessary!) precautions we’re all taking to mitigate the spread and protect our neighbors. But you can manage your space, including your work space. Establish a working environment within your home, then insist on your family members (including your young children!) respecting it. Obviously, babies don’t give a f*ck, and toddlers are miniature dictators, but keeping work secluded to one area will lay the groundwork for your workspace to be respected later on.
6. You’re starting to feel detached from the present
At my most touched out, I started focusing more on the moments when I could get a break — my partner coming home, my mom coming to visit for a long weekend, a friend taking my kid for a few hours — that I started disassociating from the present. This “aloof” mindset was another way of my body saying that I needed a break; that everything I was doing for my children, my career, and my partner, had passed the point of overwhelm and was careening dangerously close to a more serious issue.
How to set a boundary: Detachment is a reaction to a wide variety of issues, both relatively mundane and more dire, so consulting a mental health expert is far from a bad idea. Perhaps all you do need is time alone. Or, perhaps this is a manifestation of something else, i.e. a traumatic birth, a difficult pregnancy, a relationship issue, or a childhood trauma bubbling to the surface. And when/if you do speak with a provider, designate this time as “you time”: no kids, no work, no partner, no friends, no far-too-long phone calls with mom or dad. You’ll be able to put physical distance between you and your family — even if the distance is just you being in another room — and you’ll be setting a precedent for your family to follow: that everyone needs some form of self-care, including mom.