I fall backward onto the floor, overdramatizing my movements as I shout, “You got me!” Suddenly, there is a small hand in my hair, a finger in my nose, and a long string of slobber about to drop onto my face. “The monster got me again!” I say, and I am rewarded with baby giggles.
I am the mother of a 4-year-old and an 11-month-old (the ‘monster’ in this scenario), which means I am neck-deep in one of the most physically demanding seasons of motherhood. All day long, I meet physical needs with my own body: I nurse the baby, wipe butts, kiss boo-boos, slice strawberries, snuggle away nightmares, and brush hair away from foreheads for one final kiss goodnight. I rock and pat and shush and hoist and dance and carry. My back aches and so do my hands—a chronic source of pain. Sleep comes for me the instant I lay my head on the pillow, so quickly that I often don’t remember closing my eyes. For a highly sensitive introvert, this physicality is almost more than I can bear.
But with every tackle, every kiss, and every time my son’s foot digs into my ribs in his attempt to literally scale my body, I remember: this is how children experience love.
THE PHYSICAL IS EMOTIONAL
For babies, in particular, emotional needs are tied directly to the physical. When we feed, comfort, or roughhouse, we build our babies’ brains. We influence their neural pathways, create a sense of security and love, and lay the foundation for empathy and emotional regulation.
In the first few years of life, children’s nervous systems develop rapidly and they rely on our bodies to help them regulate their emotions (this is why a firm, loving hug sometimes stops a toddler tantrum in its tracks). From our wombs to our blood, our breasts to our breath, God designed mothers’ bodies to sustain their children’s lives—not just building what is physically needed for them to exist, but equipping our children to thrive.
As children get older, emotional and physical needs seem to diverge. And now, as an adult, I almost don’t equate the two at all. I need mental rest, emotional comfort, and spiritual support. I want physical healing and wholeness too, of course, but I’m not convinced any physical measures would heal my emotional burdens. What I need is for someone to metaphorically lift the proverbial weight of the world from my figurative shoulders.
But every time my daughter climbs into my lap, crying over her scraped knee, or my son grabs my hair and pulls my face toward his for a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss, I am reminded of the physical love of God manifested in the person of Jesus.
SPIRITUAL VS. PHYSICAL NEEDS
I grew up with an understanding that my emotional and spiritual needs were completely disconnected from my physical body. The Jesus of my childhood provided spiritual salvation, healing, and guidance. I was taught the root of all my problems was spiritual, and Jesus was the Divine solution. I incorrectly assumed that the physical realm didn’t matter, because it wouldn’t last. Though my body would pass away, my spirit would live on eternally. Therefore, I paid very little attention to the ways the physical could inform my faith and provide emotional comfort.
But when I became a parent, God invited me to reconnect with my body, and in doing so, I discovered the physicality of God. I reread the Gospels and new details leapt off the page. Jesus had skin. Jesus touched other people’s skin. Jesus healed pain and chronic conditions—the physical ailments of real human bodies. Jesus walked and ate and wept and hugged. I don’t doubt that Jesus even rocked a baby or two for exhausted mothers in His crowds.
As I read my Bible through the fresh lens of motherhood, I saw for the first time that Jesus didn’t simply tell people everything would be okay someday, in a heavenly reality far from here. Jesus met their physical needs right there in the moment. This was His first sign of love, an invitation to trust, rooted in the human body.
My daughter comes bounding down the stairs as I finish up the first draft of this essay. She’s supposed to be having quiet time while her baby brother naps, but she often struggles to stay in her room. I’ve learned the difference between the moments when she’s trying to test my boundaries—leaving her room just to see if she can—and when she truly needs some connection.
I look up and see her sweet, shy face. In her tiny voice, she says, “Mommy, I need a hug. Do you have one ready for me?”
I recently told her I always have a hug ready, and it has become a game of sorts: she imagines the hugs ready to burst out of my body, launches herself into my arms, and grabs the hugs from me. She squeezes all her big feelings and all her fears into my body, and I squeeze all my good and happy thoughts into hers.
“Of course I have a hug ready!” I say. I set my computer aside as she clamors onto my lap, and I hold her tightly, rocking her back and forth, running my fingers through her wispy hair, a lingering remnant of her babyhood.
I am captivated by her in this moment, and though I really do have the weight of the world on my shoulders, I find that her hug releases something in me, something that was previously tight and painful. I relax into her presence, breathe in the scent of her skin, and thank God for this reminder that I, too, am the recipient of a healing, embodied love.
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