East Bay Massage: Working with Teen Mothers with Touch Health, or How a Fortune Cookie Saved My Butt

I read the tiny white banner from the fortune cookie: A delay is better than a disaster.

I had felt that whatever was going to be inside this cookie was going to be a message just for me from the universe. I had taken the paper, stuck it in my pocket, and walked to the bathroom. I stood in the powder room with the fan on– in case I started to cry, I didn’t want anyone to hear. After I had read it, I stuck the paper between my teeth as I checked to see. Voila. My period had started. Finally.

I was 16 and in a world of trouble. But my world had just been restored, regaining its balance from an orbit that had threatened to spin out of control. The universe had thrown me a bone– a second chance! What I had once imagined as the potential shackles of premature motherhood faded away like a ghost in a graveyard. I was left stunned by my good fortune.

There but for fortune go you or I– that’s what I kept thinking as I looked at the class of teen mothers. Some of the mothers in this class were barely teenagers. Some affected the cool disinterest characteristic of any teenager. At the risk of sounding condescending, these mothers were really still children in a lot of ways, themselves. Everyday, they brought their newborns, infants, or toddlers (some with more than one child) to the center where they could leave their babies in the hands of an on-site day care provider while they worked towards their GED. Many of these families were rooted in a culture where it is not unusual to spank or hit children, and where violence was not uncommon on the street or in the home.

Studies have shown that children who grow up in families that use touch for discipline (ranging from spanking to physical abuse) are more likely to grow up to be violent adults. Children who grow up in families that express appropriate physical affection are far less likely to grow in to violent offenders. This may seem like a logical extrapolation, but the implications are far-reaching. Especially when we consider that ‘getting a whooping,’ while perhaps more unusual for this generation, is not such a far-removed consequence for ‘unacceptable’ behavior even just one generation before us. And, sadly, there are those of us who have experienced physical abuse at the hands of our loved ones– the very ones who should be our protectors.

Working with teen mothers seemed like a great way to help to break the cycle of violence. And for me to serve a community that I very nearly belonged, to, myself. By giving these young women a skill– the ability to use touch in a way that soothes, comforts, and fosters the bond between parent and child– there exists the potential for a new way of being and maybe a new way to approach the enormous danger that violence presents in our communities. A way of approaching the problem before it actually starts, through the hands of a mother.

One Friday afternoon, I was providing chair massage to the moms before teaching them how to use vigorous massage to help their sleepy toddlers wake up in the morning. One mom came in to my chair for her massage, and I remember her very clearly. I felt a lot of hope when I worked with her because she looked me in the eye, and at least gave me the satisfaction of pretending she was listening to what I was saying. We had a brief conversation about how toddlers can be so challenging and how she sometimes felt tempted to smack her child (don’t judge too harshly– if you are a parent, you know what she was talking about). I encouraged her to find other ways of engaging with touch with her child– ways that would foster calm, peace, and comfort. And then I tried to show her what I meant by giving her a massage.

The next day, this mom was killed in a side show in Oakland.

It’s hard to express the feeling I had– this person was literally in my hands the day before. And now, she was gone, and her son, motherless. I felt that a great potential had left the world– I felt that this mom, still so very young at 16, had fallen into the gears of a culture of violence that I have only begun to imagine. I fear that in trying to educate her about how she might be with her son, I somehow failed in expressing how she might be with her self.

Working with teen moms was a terrific experience for me– I am grateful for the time I spent with these exceptional young women and their precious children. Maybe we can’t save everyone or fix everything, but if we start at the beginning, at the most basic level, touch, we will begin to see the change we want in the world. Or at least touch the change, if even only briefly.

If you are interested in helping teen moms in the East Bay, consider volunteering your massage services with Touch Health or donating to this very worthy cause. If we begin to consider how touch effects us from the time even before we are born, we might come to a new understanding of how touch can help heal our communities.

Thank you for visiting East Bay Massage! Arms are for hugging!

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