Róisín Ingle: My daughter hugged my mother then apologised. It's how we live now

My eyes stung as I watched the transgressive moment between grandmother and granddaughter

‘She sprinted to her nanny, flinging small arms around her waist.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘She sprinted to her nanny, flinging small arms around her waist.’ Photograph: Getty Images

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We met my mother in Blessington Street Basin shortly after she deemed it safe to leave her cocoon. We cycled up to that secret inner-city Dublin gem, a spot that is not so secret anymore. The walled garden with a duck pond at its centre, originally built as a reservoir in the early 1800s, has been a watery refuge for even more northsiders since lockdown.

There’s a brand new fluffy family swanning about on the pond and watercolour-painting-worthy wildflowers all over the place. The other day I saw Paschal Donohoe tweeting about it, so the secret is definitely out. “Sssh,” I replied to Paschal. But I think it’s too late.

So, get up to the Blessington Basin, people. Everyone should experience it.

Anyway, I only mention the basin because of something that happened as we met my mother there in real life for the first time in ages. I was with one of my daughters. We were waiting on a seat just inside the beautiful door that is one of several gorgeous surprises in this place.

It’s made of cast iron, set into the thick stone wall and designed to look like the door of a Georgian bedroom. When my mother strolled in, my daughter momentarily lost all sense of lockdown discipline. She sprinted over to her nanny, burying her head in the warmth of my mother’s body, flinging small arms around her waist.

My eyes stung as I watched the transgressive hug. It only lasted a few seconds, because realising her mistake my daughter quickly checked herself, moved two metres away and apologised.

“So sorry, nanny,” she said.

This is how we live now. Apologising for accidental hugs or more commonly, because most of us have been disciplined and doing what we’re told, apologising for the absence of hugging.

I know it’s for important health and safety reasons but we might need to talk about what’s been taken from us, in tactile terms, in this pandemic era when that phrase “I could hug you to death” has taken on real, sinister meaning. How strange to be living in a time when cuddles can kill.

Leo Varadkar has said that at some point during the summer, children will be able to hug their grandparents. I’m delighted for the children and the grandparents; at least there’s an end in sight to their hugging drought.

But what about the rest of us? Does anybody know when we can hug our friends again? Is there a Phase for that? When are Leo and Tony introducing Phase Cuddle? We need to be told.

I didn’t hug my mother that day, though I wanted nothing more. I kept my arms to myself. We’ve all been keeping our arms and our hands to ourselves. But at least those of us with partners or children get to hug each other, sit on laps, rub feet – if that’s your thing – administer and receive the occasional shoulder massage.

‘Get up to the Blessington Basin, people. Everyone should experience it.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times
‘Get up to the Blessington Basin, people. Everyone should experience it.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw / The Irish Times

When I am sprawled on the sofa in a four-way cuddle watching TV, safe in my pandemic unit, I’ve been thinking of my friends who live alone who haven’t had a hug in months. The people in nursing homes or other institutions with hands that have not been held. All those people completely deprived of human touch.

On a scale from one to ten, if Hug Hater is one and Hugaholic is 10, I probably come in around five or six. But I know a lot of huggers on the higher end of the scale who are really finding the lack of physical affection tough.

And there’s an actual medical term for it: “Touch starvation.” It can damage people in different ways, including anxiety, feelings of depression, difficulty sleeping and stress. It can result in overwhelming feelings of loneliness or emptiness, a sense of being starved of affection. One pre-pandemic article I read on the subject suggests countering “touch starvation” by doing things that simulate touch “such as taking long, hot baths or showers, wrapping up in blankets, and even holding on to a pet”.

“Touch starvation” is real, and yet the absence of hugs and of physical affection is not something I’ve seen analysed very much. We are not talking about what it has done to us or what it will do to us if it goes on for much longer.

I am also curious about how, when we have people in our homes, we are going to resist going in for the hug. An article in this newspaper advised how we should greet each other from today when we have people over to the house, indoors or outdoors, at a social distance.

“You can smile, nod your head, wave, mime a hug from a distance, knock elbows or kick heels. Some people might also like to use more formal gestures include placing your right hand on your heart or putting your hands together in the prayer position and bowing slightly.”

Could you even be bothered? A smile or a nod is fine, but I’ve done that knocking elbows thing a few times, and it’s a comedy of errors. Miming a hug is just embarrassing. Kicking heels sounds slightly dangerous. And I’m not sure the heart or bowing thing is likely to catch on.

We need to find safe ways to hug in a pandemic because hugs are going to happen, as sure as there will be a physically-distant stampede when Penneys opens.

I was talking about all of this in my friend’s garden the other night. Her mother died during the pandemic. We were talking about all the hugs my friend has not been given at a time when she needs them more than she ever has in her life.

She felt even worse, in the days after her mother’s death, about the hugs people were not able to give than the hugs she didn’t get.

“It would not just have been healing for me but for them, I could see it in their eyes,” she said. We talked about finding a designated “cuddle buddy” for hugging purposes, wondering whether that might be something the government will one day recommend. Maybe not – even in the Netherlands authorities have backtracked on their initial “sex buddy/cuddle buddy” advice.

The irony in all of this is that hugging has been proven to help our bodies fight off infections according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. In the study, 406 participants had their hug frequency over the course of 14 evenings recorded. Afterwards, researchers intentionally exposed the participants to the cold virus to test their immune functions. They found that “those who receive more hugs are somewhat protected from infection and illness-related symptoms”.

Hugging is good for your health. Not being able to hug or hold hands or offer a shoulder to cry on is a torture for many.

It would be helpful to tell people when this torture might end.

roisin@irishtimes.com