I sat down to put on my shoes, trying my best to ignore her intrusions and keep my cool.
“Why you wearing those shoes?” she demanded. “Is it because you want to?”
The logic seemed unbelievably simple – why else would I wear those shoes? Except, of course, that I didn’t really want to wear those shoes; I wore them because I was going to work and had a dress code I was required to meet. This strangely simple yet profound inquiry exhausted me, and it wasn’t even seven o’clock.
“Yes, honey. Because I want to.”
I bent over to tie them and then I felt her arms snake their way around my shoulders and her wet, warm lips mushed against the back of my neck. She kissed me, softly and without too much noise, then whispered in my ear, “I love my Daddy.”
At least as many times a day that she finds her way underfoot, she surprises me with spontaneous kisses. She likes to snuggle, to hang around my neck and nuzzle her nose against my ear. She still likes me to carry her sometimes, or sit in my lap, or climb up my legs. She’s an affectionate kid.
The American psychologist Harry Harlow is known for a series of experiments in the 1950s in which he built two artificial “mothers” for infant Rhesus macaques: one mother was made of wire and wood but provided a bottle for feeding, while the other mother provided no food but was made of warm, soft cloth. The Rhesus monkeys preferred not the cold wire that fed them, but rather the warm cloth they could snuggle and sleep next to. This debunked the school of behaviorism at the time which argued that infants developed bonds with caregivers solely for the purposes of meeting physical needs. What became known as “attachment theory” through the work of Harlow and another researcher, John Bowlby, took seriously the ways that infants and children develop secure, healthy attachments to their caregivers through warmth, touch, and physical affection.
Let me interrupt this psychology lecture to announce that I am not, by and large, a touchy-feely person. I do not seek out physical affection and require very little of it from my friends and family. I’m not big on hugs or standing close to people. (My spouse, who is very much these things, will begrudgingly confirm.) However, despite my reticence for physical touch – or perhaps because of it – I am glad I have a child who is so physically affectionate.
Following the attachment theorists, I could describe how my child is expressing her secure attachment to me in her spontaneous displays of affection. In fact, I could make the case that she senses in those moments when she is irritating me underfoot how important it might be to keep her secure attachments, picking those very moments to kiss me and express her love.
But I’m not interested in talking about that. Instead, I’m curious how this behavior is good for my attachment. I don’t mean to suggest that I might decide to stop being my daughter’s parent if she didn’t hug me and express her love. As I said earlier, I don’t really need that. I love the people I love without needing to touch them all the time. I’m confident that my love for my child would endure regardless of how affectionate she would be towards me. However, I must admit that there is something grounding for me in being affectionate with my child. If there has ever been a human being that I truly want to kiss, hug, and snuggle, it is my daughter. My spouse is a close second, but there is something so affirming and disarming about the spontaneous affection of a child. It’s guileless and sincere; it’s as pure as a human’s behavior can be. Children don’t have the filters and preconceptions that adults have. Of course, as attachment theory shows, a child’s affectionate behavior serves her interests. But it isn’t calculating or even conscious; it’s literally unadulterated.
Some mornings she awakes in this magical time window where she is able to come to our bedroom but still sleepy enough to fall back asleep. She climbs into our bed and I am nearly always the parent she wants to sleep beside. I can feel her warm body curled next to my chest, smell her hair on my pillow, feel her feet as they push between my legs. I suppose she feels safe when she sleeps next to me. But the strange thing is that it makes me feel safe. I don’t understand that beyond what I’m starting to refer to as the “telescopic parenting effect” – that providing for my child the love, affection, affirmation, and safety that I received when I was a child causes me to receive those feelings all over again.
There are moments when I’m at work, away from my family, when I find myself wishing I could give my daughter a hug. It’s not the same as the longing I’ve had for my spouse as a lover. It’s a little like homesickness, but the pull doesn’t feel as sad and desperate. It’s fond and warm and helps me to remember who I am.
I can feel my attachment to my daughter when she is sweet and affectionate with me. I also feel my attachment to everyone else: my spouse, my parents, my friends, myself. The joy of experiencing that kind of genuine connection – through fingers, kisses, giggles – reassures me that attachment is in fact more than a behavioral requirement, but a deeply spiritual phenomenon. Maybe there’s a little bit of divinity in those spontaneous kisses. Maybe all we need to know of God is a sudden affectionate touch and a whisper that says we are loved.