Years ago when I was backpacking in Australia, straight after graduating, after a couple of months making my way through tropical Queensland and its barrier reef and rainforest and sandy beaches, I ended up, like all backpackers in Australia do, in a town in northern New South Wales called Byron Bay. It's where cool kids hang out, surf and party. And I took a day long massage course run by a lady called Amanda that I had been hearing about in every youth hostel along the way. Backpackers paid what was about a week's budget for me but was probably not very much, and we learnt to give each other massages and, as we all practised on each other, to receive them too. And I remember at one point Amanda saying that she thought the hardest thing about backpacking, if you were not doing so in a couple, was the lack of touch in your life, and how people often cried on her course as their bodies, and minds, remembered what it is like to feel a human touch.
She was right. Casual sexual encounters aside, backpacking is characterised by a lack of touching. If you travel the world alone there are no pats on the back from mates, no hugs when you meet old friends, no arm squeezes from siblings and no strokes of the cheeks from your mum or other relatives. You can very easily not touch, or be touched, for months. Amanda's philosophy was that we all have 'touch needs', not of a sexual nature but as part of what it is to be human and part of society, and that without it we get stressed and emotionally cut off.
I'm reminded of this having a baby. How wonderful it is to have all this touch, every day, whenever I want it. How amazing that I can swoop in to my baby's cot and pick her up and cuddle her and smother her with kisses and stroke her soft skin and put my nose to hers in an 'eskimo kiss'. And I can pat her bottom when it has just been cleaned and squeeze her lovely thighs and rub her tummy and sniff her newly washed hair and give her what the midwives call skin-to-skin, where I cuddle her my naked skin against her naked skin. And I think Amanda might be right - for however stressful parenting is, however exhausting, however anxiety ridden, there's a different type of calm you have too, a kind of humanising and knowing your place in the world, and I think it might come from all this touching. Soon my baby will be able to wriggle away from me, and these touches will be hers to allow or not. But for now I am making the most of it, and it really is quite wonderful.