Shortly before my daughter was born, I read some articles about oxytocin, a hormone that floods the mammalian brain and changes how neurons operate over large sections of the central nervous system. In other words, it’s a drug your body makes and uses on itself to change who you are.
Maybe saying “change who you are” is an overreach, but honestly if a chemical can change how you think and how you feel and influence what you do, I don’t know how to avoid concluding “change who you are.” Anyway, oxytocin and neuromodulators like it are getting research attention these days because they’re “the trust and love drugs.” That’s right, chemicals seem to be what’s behind our ability and inclination to trust people, and to also love them, and to change the direction of our lives to become devoted to them.
What about the soul, you protest? You thought love comes from the soul? Maybe it does, I don’t know. What I read, however, is that creatures with oxytocin love, and creatures without it don’t. Creatures with more oxytocin love more, creatures with less oxytocin love less.
Astonishingly, we seem able to make one another’s bodies produce this love drug. That’s mysterious enough for me without looking for a non-material soul to further complicate the works, which, if it does exist, undoubtedly complicates the works.
It turns out that babies are the types of people who have the greatest ability to generate brain chemicals in another person. They’re like little brain-changing machines, especially to their parents. Which is why I was reading about parents’ brains shortly before our due date.
Women get most of the oxytocin. Their brains are ready to squirt it out and circulate it through their blood in response to all kinds of situations. Hugging. Delicious smells. Breastfeeding. And having babies. Whoah, having babies unleashes a river of oxytocin in a mom.
A man, which is something I am, also can make, and be made by, this hormone. If I believe the scientific literature on the subject (and I’ve no reason to doubt it) when I was 21 and jumped in the pool with that woman I’d recently met who I thought was the bees knees and brushed her actual knees with mine when we went for the same inflatable giraffe, my brain gulped a serious whallop of oxytocin. Some time later, when I stepped to the front of the church and saw that same woman coming down the aisle walking straight into forever, I also got a jolt. Later that night (ooh la la!) I was nearly deep fat fried in the stuff. Heck, science also tells me I get a hit of brain chemicals when people compliment my shirt, give me money, and hand me a baby that I helped make.
Sure, I question and doubt what happened to me a couple hours after my daughter started breathing air. I mean, I have a clear memory of the experience, and how it felt, but maybe I was primed for it somehow. Maybe all the reading about chemicals that form bonds between parents and children, even for fathers, somehow made it all happen. I don’t know.
All I know is this: I felt something physical, and I saw a vision.
My daughter had been cleaned of birth goo and wrapped in a felt blankie with a little cotton tuque. I decided I better get a good look at this kid, so I picked her up and turned her toward me, bubble headed and jowly, puffy eyed, with pursed, disapproving lips. I decided to go for the eyes, thinking that this is as forthright an access point to comprehending another human being as I’m likely to find. I said her name in a tone indistinguishable from if I’d been speaking to a puppy, and looked into her eyes.
My first taste of alcohol was my first time at a Catholic mass, with a friend. Forgetting that Catholics use real wine, I took a big gulp, early in the morning, on an empty stomach. The hot rush of jangling nerves and swimming wooziness made me certain that the Holy Spirit was descending from the clouds and zapping me.
That’s the closest analog from past experience to what occurred after about 5 seconds of staring into the dilated pupils of my foot-and-a-half-long daughter. A hot prickling sensation spread from my scalp to the small of my back. I stopped taking in breaths. My palms sweat. The hair stood up like a brush on the back of my neck. I felt like I might faint. It came on suddenly, and unbidden, like a rush of some warm liquid I’d ingested.
Yes, yes, I know. Physically detecting the rush of oxytocin through one’s brain is highly unlikely, and there are more plausible explanations. Sleep deprivation. No food since lunch. Dehydration. Emotionally overwrought. Frightened by strangeness. Reading too many neuroscience research papers about hormones. I get it.
But what am I to make of the vision? No, I didn’t see anything in the room, no pink lights or the sky rolling back like a scroll. It was in my imagination, I imagined it. But it was a powerful and vivid imagining, and honestly felt more like I was watching it rather than putting it together myself. It was a vision of her, my daughter.
There she was, in front of me, being a real person. She was walking around and banging her bubble head into walls and furniture. She was flinging yogurt from her high chair. She was running out the front door and falling down in the yard. She was on a trike, pedaling awkwardly. She was taking swimming lessons. Piano lessons. Horse riding lessons. She was talking on a cell phone. She was getting into a car and backing out of the driveway. She was being sworn in as President of the United States. She was sitting in a restaurant with graying hair and teenagers and someone who knew her better than I ever would. She was middle aged, walking a dog. She was an old, old lady. Bent and hobbled by more than a hundred years of living, hair fluffy and white as cotton batting. My daughter was old and frail, and walking with her cane so slowly across the front yard of my house, where the seedling maple I’d just planted was spreading branches across the roof of the garage and into the street. She was all alone in the world, on a sunny day, ancient and wise, and she thought of me. She remembered me the way I was in that hospital, young and stupid and ill equipped with my neck hair standing up. I was long, long dead and gone, but she still remembered me, a 30-something father to this old, old woman of valor who drew love out of me as surely and completely as any planet’s orbit around its star.
Yes, I wept hard. This was it. Who I was is now gone. I could feel my life surrendering to hers. This infant changed me into something I didn’t know was possible to be. We would be connected forever, even after I was dead and she was so old. I was devoted, bonded. I’d never be free.
How did she do it? Did she make that change come out of my soul? Did she make a chemical come out of my brain?
I don’t know. I don’t know. But I’m so grateful.