Soon after Amelia was born I could sense that my baby didn’t like to be cuddled or held too close. She was content to be carried from point A to B, held for feeds or to perch on my knee. But if I overstepped some invisible marker known only to her, she would retreat from my overbearing hands.
There was a veil between us, barely perceptible and made of obscure materials, but I felt its presence keenly. I was so desperate to nuzzle, encircle and possess her – to bond – but she resisted my approaches decisively. It was hard to shake the cruel feeling of my own child’s rejection.
Then we learned that Amelia had been born with a significant hearing loss and I thought “Aha! THAT is why my darling child and I have not bonded fully, because without sound, without her hearing my voice and recognising in it the tone of tenderness, comfort and affection, she has kept me at arm’s length. I understand now”.
I came to learn that touch is essential to communicating with the deaf – from the day we were told about Amelia’s hearing loss, I never stopped putting my hands on her, reassuring her of my presence, alerting her to my responses and guiding her eyes to my face, my mouth, my expression.
This type of touch was no less intimate but it was coded with a greater function than mere affection. I could reach out to my daughter with this new physical ‘language’ and so our bonding started anew.
And yes, through sound, through crazy operatic songs belted out in the kitchen, and laughter in Amelia’s hair with my head bent there, we became mother and daughter properly and fully.
But though the veil had slipped, it did not disappear.
Even now, in the warmth of a shared bed if my hand strays to her leg or her belly, she will remove it in a prompt rebuttal of unwelcome contact (“Don’t touch it!”). If she is ill or falls over, bangs her head even, I am not allowed to react or offer to ease her pain. She would rather bleed than let me mother her like that.
But over the years we have worked hard to show Amelia what affection looks and feels like. We have never stopped modelling it and offering it, no matter how often it is refused in anger or with indifference. Hugs are on permanent parade as are kisses, snatched from her during unguarded moments. It’s intimacy by stealth, by degrees.
Lately we have discovered that our girl does not dislike being touched as much as we had thought, but the idea has to germinate in her brain and heart first. It’s her dance card and she’s not giving waltzes away for free. She’s worked her way up to it from some shy corner, emboldened by good feelings and ever-warm responses.
In quiet moments, when she thinks we’re half asleep, she might reach up to softly stroke a cheek or press a tentative kiss on our lips. We hold our breath lest we scare the horses with our need, our hearts racing inside us with fierce longing.
Two years ago, Amelia seemed not to notice that her Dad had gone away for over a week. There was no childish fanfare to greet his return; there was not much reaction at all. Now, when I hear him coming through the front gate I sign to her “Daddy’s home!” and she tumbles out the door in her haste to greet him and throw herself into his outstretched arms.
Most nights she will pull me close to her at bedtime in a long, passionate embrace (I never break first). We are firm couch companions, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, with her legs slung casually over mine. I rest my hands on her jiggling feet and she does not pull away. This contact, its nature and duration, remains at her bidding, but I feel such joy whenever it occurs.
Amelia doesn’t know that to us it’s like electricity, like magical lightning strikes on our skin, to feel her touch offered without restraint. That we turn our cheeks away from her eagle eyes so she won’t see the tears so often spilled there, because with each contact – no matter how small or incidental – we receive a strong signal of love.