For many moms, Mother’s Day is a welcome chance to indulge in a lavish brunch, receive a special gift or spend meaningful time with their families.
But many new moms are discovering a much different impulse once their newborn arrives: the desire to be left alone.
The phenomenon is casually known as being “touched out,” and birthing and nursing experts say it’s a widespread experience that should be more widely discussed.
Doula and psychotherapist Sondra Marcon describes it as a form of sensory overload amid a multitude of new demands from the baby and family life, with the strong sensorial aspect coming from the constant physical demands of nursing and soothing an infant while still recovering from the bodily trauma of pregnancy and childbirth.
As a result, many moms literally do not want physical contact with anyone aside from their baby, and can even find form-fitted clothes too stifling.
This is not a recognized medical condition, however, and without codified language to express what’s going on, Marcon acknowledges it can be difficult for some women to put that struggle into words – and for others to understand.
The terms “touched out” and “overloaded” come close to capturing the phenomenon, she allows.
“Part of this is educating partners and saying: This is a real thing. This sensory overload is a real thing,” says Marcon, who notes she sees it routinely when counselling new moms.
“You go from having bodily autonomy, this ability to control your own body, to all of a sudden having something and someone who needs you 24 hours a day.”
Cindy-Lee Dennis knows that feeling well. Her children are now ages 13 and 15 but she remembers the difficulties in breastfeeding two infants close in age, essentially back-to-back with little break in between.
“You just get overwhelmed because there’s life, as well, and you’ve got a house and you’ve got a job and there’s just so much going on,” says Dennis, a nursing and medicine professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
“Sometimes you’re just like: I just need a break — I need everybody to get off me, to stop touching me, stop demanding things of me. I just need a break.”
Dennis, also Women’s Health Research Chair at the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital, points to research out of Australia that found breaks can have a preventative effect for postpartum depression.
“Women who don’t have breaks are more likely to develop postpartum depression than women who do have breaks,” says Dennis.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a day at a spa, she adds. But it does mean breaking from household responsibilities and child care for several consecutive hours, a couple of times a week: “A time where it’s soothing, it’s something that you enjoy,” she says.
Of course, that’s easier said than done for many parents without the same support networks that existed before the pandemic. Dennis says a more enduring solution is to enlist ongoing help, noting the bulk of household labour still typically falls on women.
“We should be really supporting co-parenting strategies where parents work together as a team, instead of like, moms have their defined roles and dads have their defined roles or partners have their defined roles, and everybody does their own little thing,” she says.
“For example, breastfeeding. We think that that’s a woman’s role. Well, the partner can be very involved and supportive if the mother’s goal is exclusively breastfeeding to six months.”
Marcon agrees, and says she’d like to see a greater understanding of the concept of “touched out” by physicians, therapists and partners “to look at it as more than just one thing, because it’s 1,000 things.”
Eliminating other sensory inputs may help, she adds, suggesting overwhelmed moms break from social media or turn off the TV in the space they’re in.
Angela Grant Buechner, a registered nurse, newborn care specialist and lactation consultant who hosts a mom’s group online, says she hears exhausted new moms use the term “touched out” when trying to explain why they may not want to have sex or be intimate with their partner.
“(If I asked) who has identified with this term at some point in their lives? I will say probably 100 per cent will agree,” says Buechner, in the field for 20 years.
“It’s a way of explaining exhaustion. Because literally, you’re holding a child all day.”
Grant Buechner, owner of Nutmeg Consulting in Toronto, says this phenomenon typically unfolds during the newborn phase and is most intense with those clingy years that could extend into toddlerhood.
“I don’t even think new moms necessarily know that this is a thing until it happens,” she says.
“But it’s almost more important for partners to know this is a thing that happens. Don’t be offended by it. This is your partner giving everything to this new baby and you need to be understanding of it. How can you support them better?”
Marcon says most moms with young kids can best be recognized Mother’s Day through efforts to make their day easier: prepare a meal, offer to walk the dog or do the laundry.
“It isn’t about flowers and candy and an hour to yourself,” she says.
“It’s about long-term sustainable solutions, so that mothers and babies thrive.”
—Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press