Just Hold Me
Do real men like to cuddle?
The first signs came early.
Most infants can't do much, and I was no exception, according to grown-ups who were present at the time. But there was one area in which I dominated at a very young age: I was a crackerjack cuddler. Given a supple shoulder or a warm lap, I showed all of the necessary skills—the burbles, the sighs, the tiny hand-grabs, the determination to get cozy for hours on end. I snuggled all comers. I drooled in their faces.
And I had a strong will to cuddle. When I got my first big-boy bed, I devised a successful strategy of running around the house at bedtime until I was furnished with a parental snuggle partner. Later, I enlisted my little brother: If there was He-Man to be watched, it was easy enough to convince him to serve as a pillow. (I still find him useful in this respect.)
By the time I started cuddling regularly with girlfriends, in college and thereafter, it was clear I possessed an outsize appetite for sedentary touch. While some of my partners found my cuddliness endearing, it caused problems too: Showers started later and appointments were blown. For some of my associates, morning productivity declined—or so they said—and the narcotic properties of my skin were blamed.
This was nonsense on its face; it takes two to snuggle up. Besides, I viewed cuddling as a productive activity in and of itself, like going to the gym or scrubbing the toilet bowl. A snuggle a day might keep the doctor away.
Yet even as I defended myself, I also harbored insecurities about my tactile needs—doubts that have never gone away. I will confess that a great canoodling session is not the apex of human achievement. No doubt the architects of the Roman Aqueduct were not snuggle-maniacs. If the building of civilization had been left in the hands of unreconstructed cuddlers, the project might have suffered delays.
More vexing than the laziness question, however, is a fractured feeling I sense deep in my cuddly heart. For me, the urge to cuddle is Janus-faced: At times I can play the snuggler-protector—the father figure who enfolds, defends and marches into the future; yet my default setting, if I am being honest, is the cuddle-receiver—an infantile and insecure sensory insufficiency from the distant past. The crux of the problem is this: I want to be held, and it is an awful, wussy feeling.
Oh, Lord! Why must I cuddle so?
Someone must be blamed. I want to blame someone for my cuddlesome predicament. Who can I blame?
My parents seem like the obvious choice: They cuddled me too much. They spared the rod; they spoiled the child. Spartan treatment has been the prescription for making men manly since antiquity. Didn't Rome fall because its men got soft? And anti-snugglism has a strong tradition in this country: A century ago, physicians were telling moms to keep their cuddle-hungry hands to themselves. Did my folks ignore this important history?
The era of snuggle antagonism—the War on Cuddling—had its origins in the 1894 publication of The Care and Feeding of Children, a book by the eminent pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt that was among the first "scientific" guides to mothering. Holt's baby book, which would be issued in 15 editions over the next 40 years, provided a strict roadmap to parenting in a new century rife with tuberculosis, swarms of suspicious immigrants, and invisible killers called germs. Scientific regimentation seemed to chart the safest path forward—both in the efficient factory and the economical home—and babies were expected to get with the program.
Holt was obsessed with hygiene, and eschewed promiscuous tactile techniques. On whether rocking was necessary, he wrote, "By no means. It is a habit easily acquired … and a very useless and sometimes injurious one." On playing with babies, he declared, "The less of it at any time the better." Holt helped the Labor Department craft a 1914 pamphlet on mothering—3 million copies were distributed—that emphasized discipline and warned that germ-laden smooches could kill. Yet not all touch was taboo: To ensure timely bowel movements, Holt suggested "introducing just inside the rectum a small cone of oiled paper or a piece of soap" while dangling the kid over a chamber pot.
Early reports on the War on Cuddling showed stunning results. A 1910 story published in the Washington Post described a "scientific baby" named Leonard who had been brought up without "all the manifestations of motherly affection, such as cuddling, kissing, exhibition, and fine garments." Yet Leonard was a bull. Average babies observed by Holt did not hold their heads up or laugh until the third or fourth month. Leonard held his noggin erect by the third week, according to the Post story, and was laughing his little nards off nine weeks later.
Some baby! Just think: If my parents hadn't indulged my pathetic yearnings, I might have been like Leonard.
The war escalated. By the 1920s, a new school of psychology called behaviorism suggested that cuddling wailing infants would "condition" them to become lifelong crybabies. The behaviorist John B. Watson argued that mollycoddled toddlers grew into weak and whiny adults. In a chapter entitled "Too Much Mother Love" in his 1928 book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, he explained what was good for infants: "Treat them as though they were young adults. … Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning."
David Merritt Johns is a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Photograph courtesy of the author.