Motherhood Mondays: On Being Your Child’s Touchstone

Did you read this amazing discovery in the New York Times…

When infants are embraced by their parents, their heart rates drop almost immediately, according to a recent study.

As a parent, it’s strange and amazing to think that you are a little person’s safe haven. When I’m putting Toby to sleep, and he’s cuddled in my arms, I sometimes think, But I’m just a random person! What do I know? But to this little person, you are the definition of all things safe and true, a touchstone and true north.

This idea reminds me of a touching passage in Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott’s memoir about her son’s first year:

“I have a friend named Anne, this woman I’ve known my entire life, who took her two-year-old up to Tahoe during the summer. They were staying in a rented condominium by the lake. And of course, it’s such a hotbed of gambling that all the rooms are equipped with these curtains and shades that block out every speck of light so you can stay up all night in the casinos and then sleep all morning. One afternoon she put the baby to bed in his playpen in one of these rooms, in the pitch-dark, and went to do some work. A few minutes later, she heard her baby knocking on the door from inside the room, and she got up, knowing he’d crawled out of his playpen. She went to put him down again, but when she got to the door, she found he’d locked it. He had somehow managed to push in the little button on the doorknob. So he was calling to her, “Mommy, Mommy,” and she was saying to him, “Jiggle the doorknob, darling,” and of course he didn’t speak much English—mostly he seemed to speak Urdu. After a moment, it became clear to him that his mother couldn’t open the door, and the panic set in. He began sobbing. So my friend ran around like crazy trying everything possible, like trying to get the front door key to work, calling the rental agency where she left a message on the machine, calling the manager of the condominium where she left another message, and running back to check in with her son every minute or so. And there he was in the dark, this terrified little child. Finally she did the only thing she could, which was to slide her fingers underneath the door, where there was a one-inch space. She kept telling him over and over to bend down and find her fingers. Finally somehow he did. So they stayed like that for a really long time, on the floor, him holding onto her fingers in the dark. He stopped crying. She kept wanting to go call the fire department or something, but she felt that contact was the most important thing. She started saying, “Why don’t you lie down, darling, and take a little nap on the floor?” and he was obviously like, “Yeah, right, Mom, that’s a great idea, I’m feeling so nice and relaxed.” So she kept saying, “Open the door now,” and every so often he’d jiggle the knob, and eventually, after maybe half an hour, it popped open.”
Doesn’t that make you want to weep? That a mother’s fingers could be enough to make a child feel safe and protected. It’s so heartbreaking and beautiful.

(Top photo of Toby by our friend Anna Wolf. Excerpt from Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott)

  1. Sarah says...

    This is beautiful!

  2. Jenny says...

    I know this is an old post (my baby is napping and I was reading your post on best parenting books and ended up here), but, my gosh, this is so moving. Sometimes when my baby is fighting a nap, I go over to her crib and hold her hand- sometimes even just touch her fingers- and she (usually) calms down instantly. It fills me with such deep emotion that I, as a mother, can have this effect on my little person. What a bond! It’s amazing and, like you said, heartbreaking- they’re so vulnerable! Ahh, all the feelings.

  3. I don’t have children yet, but I love to read about people’s experiences and bits of wisdom as I think about my future. This was such a touching post;it reminds me vividly of how much just holding my own mom’s hand, while I fell asleep at night, would be the most comforting and calming thing in the world. I think the mother/child connection is breathtaking and amazing.

  4. So beautiful indeed. I would have lost my mind in that situation.

  5. This was so adorable. Now that I’ve got a son of my own and I know exactly what this feels like. It pains me to my core to hear him crying.

    I never thought I’d love the way I love him.

    Maria xx

  6. that is my favorite passage ever. but you forgot the best part. “it isn’t enough, but it is.”

  7. That is the most beautiful thing I have heard all day. Oh the comfort a mother gives.

  8. Sometimes I’m terrified of having kids, because I feel so inadequate; stories like this remind me that all I need to do it be there for them, and God will take care of the rest. Thank you for the encouragement!

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  10. This story really resonated with me. My mum was never very nurturing and physically recoiled from touch with me and as she was a single parent I always longed for contact. I grew up with quite a lot of issues that I have since dealt with but I don’t doubt that withholding something so natural as hugging and comforting is damaging to a child. I now have a very strong relationship with my Father, engaged to a wonderful man and am 31 weeks pregnant with my first child – I am all at once terrified at being responsible for this tiny wee thing but excited at being the best mother I can be and knowing I will never be my mother – the thought of holding my baby and protecting her keeps me going through the difficult points in my pregnancy.

    Lovely post Joanna – thank you for sharing.

  11. For some reason my son (2.5 years old) finds comfort in touching my belly! When he is really sad or even mad at me he touches my belly and cools down. I’ve told him that he shouldn’t do it when we’re outside or if we have guests because it’s embarrassing but sometimes it seems he really needs it so he tells me mommy’s belly is pretty, it’s not embarrassing!

  12. This rings true to me in two ways, as a childless 26 year old: 1. That as a grown up, hugging my mother or hearing her voice will always calm me down, and I still like having her come hug me before one of us goes to sleep. 2. My dog prefers to sleep touching one of our family members. She’s currently leaning against my leg and as I move away from her when I get hot, she slides over to touch me again! Weird that I can be an animal’s touchstone.

  13. This truly tugs at the heart strings. Just beautiful.

  14. Wow. So beautiful and moving.

    It’s such an awesome and incredible feeling, being completely responsible for another human being. 8-months into my journey of parenthood and I am loving every moment. Reading stories like these only make me more excited for the future!

    xoxo Paris Bee Kids Blog

  15. My close friend just found out she’s pregnant. I’m going to show her this article and I bet, we’ll both be smiling by the end. What a wonderful journey it’s going to be.

  16. Wow! I had exactly the same experience with my son being locked up and me holding his fingers, but my Dad finally managed to get a master key to open the door! I can still remember the crying and howling and then the quiet from him falling asleep.

  17. I don’t know that I’d call it an “amazing discovery”. I think its been known for a long time that babies NEED and respond to physical touch from their mothers (or primary caretaker, whomever that may be). But, it is an important and powerful reminder of the importance of physical closeness, touch, comfort, and emotional support for developing children (and really for all people). Read Dr. Sears’ book about cosleeping and he says a very similar message about the importance of closeness for health and wellness, both physical and emotional.

  18. Wow this is so beautiful. I remember (and miss) that feeling of being near my mom and just *knowing* that nothing bad could happen. If only that followed us into adulthood. :-)

  19. I don’t quite identify with this post, but I do know that there is NOTHING like a hug from my mother. She definitely has a calming presence when I need her to. Like the above commenter, I am also 24! :)

  20. This is so beautiful, thank you Joanna! My friends have started having babies and it is incredible to see the way that their little ones look at them. I remember one in particular, who as a tiny baby wouldn’t take his eyes of my best friend (his mother). As she sat talking to me, he was so enchanted by her and smiled at her every word. It made me want to cry, she was – and is – his favourite person in the whole world.

  21. love love love anne lamott. life is brutiful.

  22. My little one year old nephew had to have emergency surgery recently. In the hospital, my sister-in-law would sleep in the bed with him as soon as they let her and his heart rate, which was troubling high during the day would go down to normal as they slept together. When he was released, my mom slept in the room with him and he wouldn’t sleep well unless he could see or touch her. One night they slept with just the tips of their index fingers touching :)

  23. What an amazing thing. I can’t believe I’ll be someone’s “touchstone” in 2 short weeks! How beautiful – definitely makes some of the anxiety go away. Thanks Joanna :-)

  24. When I was pregnant with my first baby, the woman who taught our birthing class told us not to be intimidated about being new parents: “No matter how skilled the ob/gyn, midwife, or nurses, your baby knows, trusts, and wants YOU… your touch, your smell, your voice.” It is so true and was so reassuring to a nervous mother-to-be!

  25. My daughter Lily became ill suddenly at 3 weeks and was ventilated.I could only hold her once a day but her heart rate would drop from 180 to approx 140 immediately. she was so sick and having seizures but I knew she was aware who I was and that someone she loved was there. She died 21 weeks ago but that memory helps me

    • I am so sorry for your loss. I don’t know what else to say…your post took my breath away.

  26. I have got to read that book. Thanks for sharing!

  27. A mothers skin on her chest can change temperatures to accommodate her infant. With twins. …. each side of the chest will become a different temperature depending on what each baby needs. Is that not amazing? ?

  28. My word, that brought me to tears. I do not have any children yet, but totally feel that connection with my mom. I guess it never goes away. I was very sick a few years back, and had a yearning for her to be with me. Moms just make everything okay.

    Joanna, thanks for continuing to me my favorite blogger :)

  29. It’s so true! My 2 year old will only go to sleep holding my hand. And if she comes in to our bed, she sleeps with both her feet tucked tight against me. Contact the whole way. Love it xo

  30. As I get further along in my second pregnancy and my 99-percentile 2yo doesn’t stop growing, it’s becoming more uncomfortable to hold him even while sitting if he can’t sleep (like last night when he was up with an earache). So I learned that it’s best for both of us if I put him in his crib, lay down on the floor next to him and just touch his hand through the slats. He knows I’m still right there but when he does finally fall asleep, I don’t have to risk waking him putting him in the crib. In a funny aside though, the past two times we’ve done this, he’s thrown two of his favorite stuffed animals over the side, seemingly thinking I’m the one who needs comforting (though I do use them as pillows)!

    Definitely adding Anne’s book to my to-read list – thanks for sharing!

  31. What an amazing passage, and that book itself is just the best. I love how honest and raw Anne Lammot is in her writing. I laugh out loud at the parts where she could just kill her kid too!

  32. This makes me very teary and I believe it to my core. I believe this doesn’t stop in infancy. My son is five. He still wants my husband or me to snuggle with him at night as he falls asleep. I believe it brings him immense comfort just to be beside one or the other of us after a long day. I was worrying about if we were babying him to someone I know and she said the most beautiful thing to me. She said: You know, he won’t need that forever. And by the time he stops needing it, the fact that you gave him what he needed will live in his heart and he will carry it forward with him for the rest of his life.

    I haven’t looked back since she said those wise words. When I snuggle up with him before bed each night I think, this is my gift to him as his mother-this physical contact that he is craving. And I think of her kind words and pray that my being there for him now will comfort him the rest of his life.

    • that is so sweet, emily, thanks for sharing. i’ll remember these words too!

  33. I recall my young son coming in from playing outside every 45 minutes or so with some excuse just to grab some “mom juice.” Gradually the length of time goes longer and longer but does a child ever lose need “mom juice?” I don’t think so.

    Maybe that is why it is so painful when a parent dies.

  34. Oh my gosh–this made me bawl! (Perhaps because I am four days away from my due date with #2 and juuuuust a little hormonal!), but wow. Awesome.


  35. Oh, I love this. I also thought of that scene from Dumbo (which made me cry again – how will I ever watch these movies with my kiddo?). Can’t wait to hold our little guy soon. I think I’ll add Anne’s book to my queue for maternity leave.

  36. C says...


  37. Beautiful! I just have to say that love your blog. I look forward to reading it every day!!


  38. what an amazing story! it breaks my heart what this little guy had to go through and it brightens it when I think how much comfort he got from touching only his mother’s fingers…
    thank you for sharing it!

  39. Oh my gosh….. beyond sweet. What a comforting and good mama!!!!!

  40. There were a couple of times my arm went numb from reaching back to hold my son’s hand as he rode in his car seat. He was not a fan of the car seat until he was 6 months old or so, and we would sometimes have the rear passenger seat next to him all filled up with stuff from vacation or whatever, so I couldn’t climb back there to be with him. So he would cry, and I would hold his hand from the front seat and he stopped crying. He’d start right up again as soon as the hand went away, though, so hence the numb arm from an hour in the car all twisted around like that.

    My two little ones are everything to me, and it makes me sad and happy at the same time realizing how important that I am to them. When my dad almost died this past summer, all I could think about is that someday my kids would have to experience that too. Ah life.

  41. So true and magical. Thanks for the reminder this morning.

  42. As a child my mom would sit on my bed and rub my back. Soothe me to sleep. As a mother I did the same for my daughter. It’s that unbreakable bond a mother has with her child/children. LOVE!

  43. Certainly made me cry! Thank you for reminding me the power of touch for my child.

  44. Crap, I’m crying in the middle of the office. Thanks a bunch.
    PS. That was beautiful.

    • Me too. I almost just tripped and fell getting a tissue because I was blinded with tears. ha ha!

  45. I am currently reading Instant Mom by Nia Vardalos in which she chronicles the process by which she chose to adopt. I HIGHLY recommend it. Anyhow, during the course of her struggle to become a mother and bond with her new daughter she talks about having to earn this right to be a touchstone. While I read, my own daughter woke up in a coughing fit. I rocked her far longer than was necessary and I realized that she is my touchstone too.

  46. Reminds me of that very sad scene in the dumbo movie where caged mom cradles dumbo through the cage bars with her trunk.
    So sad!!

  47. One of my most cherished childhood memories is falling asleep in the car on a long evening car ride home and being carried into the house and put to bed. The first time I was able to do that for my son, my heart soared. Motherhood (Parenthood!) is a divine gift.

  48. I love this story. Can’t wait to go home to my little angel and cuddle her tight. : )

  49. I love Anne Lamott. I haven’t read this book, but I read her other book about her son’s son. It’s so sweet.

  50. just ordered that book last week on amazon, so excited for it’s arrival!

  51. I get such joy when my son runs to grab my legs if something has startled him. In those moments, he doesn’t cry, just makes sure that everything is going to be ok before going back to whatever it was he was doing. I will cherish moments like these forever even when he denies he ever did that.

  52. Oh, this tugs at my heartstrings. Today is our son’s first day with a nanny. Ever. Can’t wait to get home tonight and scoop him up!

  53. oh my gosh, yes that does make me want to weep! i need to step back and remind myself this often of my three little ones.

  54. There’s nothing stronger or more beautiful than a child’s connection with their mom.

    I’m 24 and every time my mom hugs me, everything automatically feels better again.

    Brunette Letters Blog