NOTE: I wrote a blog post years ago about my discomfort with hugging and kissing. In the wake of the pandemic, I am revisiting the topic. Some of the essay that follows is from the original post, but I have reframed it, added some memories and raised new questions. I also have new readers! I welcome everyone’s thoughts on the topic, so please comment!
It has been a long time since I hugged anyone other than Gary (my husband) or Roger and Raffa (my cats). In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, I am lucky that I have a partner and pets. Many are not so fortunate. It is hard to imagine how lonely that must feel.
It may surprise long-time readers of the blog to hear that I am wistful for hugs. I have written previously about my awkwardness around, some may say reluctance to engage in, hugging. Having spent a solid two months without them, I am reconsidering my position.
The list of people I have been comfortable hugging and kissing is short: my husband, my two children, my mother and my two cats. I don’t understand my unease, but I can testify that it dates back to my earliest memories.
When I was young my family used to joke about “Jewish good-byes,” referring to the fact that we needed to begin the process of saying farewell an hour before we wanted to leave. I remember my father nudging my mother to begin. There were hugs and kisses for each aunt, uncle and cousin, and, in the midst of that, new conversations would start. The process could take quite a while.
I was never comfortable with that ceremony. Somehow, I was uneasy with the hugging and kissing. I loved my family, including the extended members, valued our conversations and connections, and I wanted to express warmth – but did it have to include a kiss? Did we have to touch? Couldn’t we nod and smile at a comfortable distance?
As a young child, the resisting of kisses became a thing. When family came to visit I either begrudgingly gave them my cheek, or I avoided them. It became a running joke with one of Nana’s (my maternal grandmother) cousins. He would cajole me; practically chasing me around the living room. I tried not to give in. It was a strange combination of funny and upsetting.
Many years ago, I remember seeing an old home movie of my brother, Mark, trying to give me a kiss on my cheek. I was about two years old in the film, which would have made him five. I was trying to climb out of the backseat of the car and Mark was trying to give me a kiss before I escaped. The film had no audio, so I don’t know what was being said. I was squirming and pushing him away. I was not surprised seeing the images on the grainy film. I knew this about myself, but it also it made me sad.
I felt sad for Mark. I don’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was expressing affection for his little sister, but I wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I was entitled to define my boundaries. I certainly felt, and still believe, that a person should have control of their body and their space. On the other hand, what was it about kisses and hugs that made me squirm?
I also have memories of my Dad negotiating with me for a hug. Dad was bald and he told us his hair fell off his head and grew on the rest of his body – he had a hairy chest, arms and legs. I believed his explanation far longer than I should have. I remember agreeing to the hug if he put on a shirt that covered the hair.
I was probably about 10 when Uncle Terry had a minor surgical procedure. He was recuperating in his bedroom, which was above mine in our house in Canarsie. I made a card for him and went up to visit. Knowing my discomfort with getting kissed, he told me he had a secret and when I bent down to listen, he planted one on my cheek. I blushed deeply. “Uncle Terry!” I yelped. I have always been gullible (see the paragraph above!) so falling for the ruse is no surprise. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” he asked. I had to admit it wasn’t.
In junior high school, I had a great social studies teacher. It was toward the end of the year and the class knew his birthday was coming up. Since my grandfather worked at a bakery, I volunteered to bring in a cake. I presented the cake at the end of class, someone else brought paper plates and forks. The class sang ‘happy birthday.’ Mr. Stern was clearly touched. After the little celebration, he gave me a peck on the cheek. I could feel my face turn bright red. I hoped no one noticed.
When I was in college and I saw how some of my friends interacted with their siblings, it was a revelation. They would greet each other with hugs and kisses. They might sit close together on a couch or put an arm around a shoulder while chatting. That was not how I interacted with my brothers. I’m not sure when the last time I hugged Mark or Steven. I don’t, however, doubt our affection for each other. We visit often; we keep in touch. I know they would be there to help, protect or support me, as I would be for them.
But it does strike me as a bit odd. Saying our good-byes at a recent family gathering (before coronavirus), I felt some of my usual uneasiness. I certainly gave my mom a kiss and hug. My children have no choice – I am giving them a squeeze! I can’t resist my granddaughter’s cheeks; they must be kissed (though I try to attend to her body language so that I don’t overdo it). With some relatives, the expectations are clear – we will hug, or we will give each other a peck on the cheek. Aunt Clair is quite explicit: “Give me a kiss, Sunshine,” she will say as she presents her cheek to me. It is equally clear with my brothers; we will just wish each other well as we smile and nod. After that, it is all iffy. There is a bit of a dance. Perhaps we should develop signals so people will know what we’re comfortable with.
When I first entered the workforce in the late 1970s, it was not uncommon for men and women to kiss in greeting or at the conclusion of a meeting. Women weren’t often in positions of authority back then, more likely we were the secretary, an administrative assistant or low-level staffer. It is hard to imagine, in that setting of a business meeting, but I clearly recall the practice. By the end of my career that was no longer the case, unless the individuals were personal friends. If there was any physical contact, it was a handshake. Maybe that gesture will fade away, too, in the wake of coronavirus. Will anything be lost if it does?
As with many aspects of human behavior, I am endlessly curious about it. Why are some naturally physically affectionate? Why do others shy away? Why am I conflicted?
And, now, I wonder: will this period of enforced separation change how we feel about it? Will some be more reticent, fearing germs? Will others be starved for contact?
How will I feel the next time I gather with family and friends – when social distancing eases? I can imagine wanting to connect with a hug, to show my appreciation for the fact that we are together again. I may even have to consider the possibility of hugging my brothers! What a revolutionary thought! Would they be ready for that?