We knew that becoming parents would change us. We expected and embraced it. Yet we were not prepared for how quickly and fundamentally the transformation would be or how strange it would be to feel it happening. Responding to Natalie’s cries and coos of affection in those first days of life with her I could almost feel neural pathways squirming into new configurations like a tangle of galvanic snakes. I’d expected it to be something apparent only in retrospect, the way you look back and say, “Yeah, going to college changed me into someone new,” Instead it was more like Bruce Banner changing into the Incredible Hulk.
It was not unpleasant or unwelcome having my brain rewired, but it was suprising to feel it at such a biological, almost cellular level. When she cried it triggered an animalistic fight or flight reaction. Something in my limbic system demanded that I pummel and destroy whatever was causing her discomfort. Her cries would jolt my autonomic nervous system and my pulse would race, I would sweat and become flushed and heated until I had changed or fed her and her cries subsided. I would get so overheated that I started wearing loafers so that when she squalled I could quickly kick off my shoes. Her cries were a cue to tear off my hat or sweater or I would become overheated. Since we brought her home in frigid December, after changing her I would often look down at a now quiescent baby and wonder why it had suddenly gotten so cold.
And when she was happy and cooing, we felt a need to keep her warm and safe as immediate and real as the dry feeling in the back of your throat when you are thirsty. It felt like we could erect a force field around her by hovering over her protectively. She had irrevocably and changed us into an entirely new species, the PARENT, homo sapiens overprotectivus.
If there were a speeding truck heading towards her, we would not even hesitate to throw ourselves in front of it. If there were a hungry leopard in our living room (don’t ask me why, we’ll just assume someone made some very poor decorating choices) and Natalie were crying, both Julie and I would INSTANTLY leap up and make noise to attract its attention so that it would come and eat us instead of her. No thought, no hesitation. Before she came into our lives we might have made the same decision hesitantly, after carefully weighing and analyzing the options. By which time she would have been leopard elevenses. But after meeting her, our Parent Brains were rewired to respond to any threat to her as instantly and automatically as jerking a hand back from a hot surface.
The newly rewired Parent Brain is so attuned to the least hint of complaint from its progeny that it creates hallucinations. I would hear Natalie’s cries in white noise, even when I knew full well that she was not in the same building. I was worried until I spoke to other parents and realized that such auditory hallucinations were universal. I never did bring up the olfactory hallucinations, though.
The changes extended from the brain to the muscles and nervous symptoms. I’d learned to quiet Natalie by bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet. I would be out in public and hear a strange baby fuss, then realize I was bouncing up and down reflexively like Terry Francona trying to manage the Red Sox through another Tim Wakefield pitching performance. A friend of my sister brought over her newborn for a visit. When her baby began to fuss, my arm snaked out of its own accord, grabbed her bucket by the handle and began swinging it back and forth. No volition, no conscious thought more than reaching out to break a fall.
Having a Parent Brain also makes you incapable of contemplating any danger, no matter how hypothetical or fictional, not only your child but ANY child.
Natalie was perhaps only a couple days old when I tried to tell Julie the plot of “On the Beach.” This is an influential book about nuclear war, and one of the first to depict graphically the horrors of the aftermath. I told her about the American submarine captain trapped in Australia looking for a pogo stick to give to his son on his birthday, because he would be ‘going home to see him soon.’ Meaning that his son was already dead, and soon the radiation creeping down from the Northern Hemisphere would kill everyone who had survived the conflagration. Though I’d read it several times and seen two movie adaptations, now I couldn’t relate the story without choking midsentence. “JEEEZUS,” I sobbed, breaking into tears. “What the hell is happening to me?”
It was my first warning that my newly rewired Parent Brain would be unable to tolerate depictions of children in danger. I tried reading the revised anniversary edition of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. No go. That’s about a young girl tormented horribly and her mother’s frustration at being unable to help her or stop the torment. I got about a chapter into it.
Before, when our friends with children would post DIRE warnings on Facebook about car seats, bottled water, or free radicals, accompanied by VERY EARNEST pleas to pay attention to this IF YOU LOVE YOUR CHILDREN, I would snicker contemptuously. Now I understood. The mere suggestion of menace to any child is enough to send you into screaming histrionics. I remember having friends over for dinner who told us that if the government ever tried to take their child away, they would fight back with lethal force. ‘OK, sure, that’s understandable,” I guess.
“NO,” they said. “You don’t understand. THEY WOULD BE DEAD. I would KILL them. A LOT!” They obviously felt that they were not conveying adequately the seriousness of their convictions. At the time I nodded earnestly and when they weren’t looking moved the sharp knives out of their reach.
Now I understand. The rewired parent brain is utterly incapable of nuance when it comes to threats to your children. It responds to a fictional leopard or even the thought of a leopard as if there were a real one in the room, snarling hungrily.
These changes are not all defensive, though. Our capacity for joy and love has been infinitely expanded as well. I thought nothing could equal the tidal wave of joy that crashed over me when I stepped through the door to pick Natalie up from day care and she saw me and eagerly came crawling over, chuffing happily. Then one day I stepped through the door and she was standing up. “DA da,” she said delightedly, and came running over, her gait a controlled forward topple.
My heart, which I thought had grown large enough to encompass all the joy in the world, swelled even further as Natalie changed me once again. As she does every single day.