Hug Like A Mother

Giving “Free Mom Hugs” At Pride Events Has Changed Me. It Can Change You, Too.

The world — and the group I volunteer with — needs more huggers.

Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock
Celebrate Pride

I'm a hugger. Always have been, always will be. I'm also a mom. So, I jumped at the chance to fully embrace (pun intended) the two as a pair in an official capacity. I joined a national organization called Free Mom Hugs, whose mission is to "empower the world to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community through visibility, education, and conversation." And honestly, it's hard to put into words what it means to have the privilege of volunteering with the group — especially taking part in the beautiful and crucial work of rallying around LGBTQIA+ youth.

Last year, I went to multiple Pride events with other members of my local Free Mom Hugs chapter in Charleston, South Carolina. Meeting with the regional leaders was genuinely inspiring, but meeting so many parents supporting their children truly moved me.

We started the week with a plain white banner emblazoned with two big hearts. By the end of the week, it was covered entirely with words of affirmation and positive statements. Every color of the Sharpie rainbow now covers the banner with phrases like "Love is beautiful," "You are enough," "Trans lives matter," and "You are amazing just by existing." Colorful doodles — including hearts and rainbows, unicorns, stick people, and happy faces — are scattered among the writing. It is a beautiful piece of art created by hundreds of people, all with the same goal: to provide affirmation to LGBTQIA+ kids.

In my last two years as a mom hugger, I've noticed that the mood of the crowd during different Pride Month events shifts a little to match. Poetry night is emotional. The flag-raising night is celebratory and loud. Bluegrass night is calm and soothing. But the common threads connecting them all are laughter, conversation, and, of course, hugs.

Here's the thing about hugs: According to science, they offer measurable benefits. Our bodies have an entire network of nerves designed to recognize the emotional meaning behind this simple physical act.

When you give (or receive) a hug, these nerves send a message that releases essential chemicals — one of which is oxytocin, or the "happy chemical," which can slow down the heart rate and reduce stress and anxiety levels. Serotonin and dopamine are also in the mix, bringing benefits to your immune system, sleep quality, and overall well-being.

While hugs are the crux of your gig as a Free Mom Hugs member, they work in tandem with something just as meaningful: listening.

An older gentleman attending his first Pride told me he is happy things are so different for this younger generation. He explained that things were harder for him after the excess of the '80s, and his family has excluded him since he came out.

A young man revealed that he was in an abusive relationship last year and was not allowed to attend Pride events. This year, his (non-toxic) new love inspired him to write and share beautiful poetry.

One young woman hugged us (we're hugged as much as we hug, you know), revealing that her mom is supportive, but others she knows aren't as lucky as she is. She really wanted to tell us that what we do is so very important to them.

Here's the thing: It is vital work, and we need more huggers — hell, the world needs more huggers. You don't have to be a mom, either. Although it started that way, Free Mom Hugs has evolved to include dad hugs, aunt hugs, brother, sister, and sibling hugs as well.

Maybe your kid just came out to you, and you're still trying to figure out how best to support them. That's OK, too. In fact, that's basically how Free Mom Hugs started. Founder Sara Cunningham initially struggled when her son came out to her as gay, and her journey to acceptance led her to start the organization.

Giving a hug to someone who has not been hugged by their family in years simply because of who they love is an honor. And when you hear "I really needed a hug today" or "I miss my mom" whispered in your ear, it will change you.