Friday, June 24, 2005

Transmogrified by Babies and Hormones

I have a solution for women who are feeling tempted to get away from home, domestic duties, and childrearing to "find themselves" in a career: have a baby and nurse it as long as possible.

Ever since I got married nearly 25 years ago, the home has been the theater of operations for my life. Domestic engineering is just what I do in addition to teaching and raising children. Once the youngest child weans, however, my thoughts begin to turn outward from the daily tasks to the wider world beyond my door. I have never had a strong pull to leave the home, being convinced that children were meant to be raised by their own mothers, but there has been a yen for the mental stimulation of things beyond potty training, the multiplication table, and teaching the alphabet. For the most part this yen was fulfilled by reading books and studying, and in later years, by interaction with others on the internet and helping my husband build a home-based business as well as running a private alternative healthcare clinic from my home office.

In recent years, I have been paying a lot more attention to what is happening to myself on a daily/monthly/yearly basis. This is not narcissim, though it may look like that to others. Rather it is observation -- in order to understand others, I should learn to understand and take note of myself and in doing so, can identify with other women and what they are experiencing.

Here is what I am observing about myself after having a baby: it has stimulated my domestic instincts to no end. All of a sudden I am going to the library and taking out cookbooks so I can try new recipes and plan meals. I nearly always cook from scratch as it is, but scratch cooking takes on a more creative flair when I am postpartum and nursing. I am also impatient about getting my sewing machine, which has sat idle for a number of years, back from the repair shop so I can sew some decent and girlish dresses for myself and my girls. Crochet hooks, patterns, and yarn have also developed a new allure as well as embroidery projects. Cleaning my house and organizing it is transformed into an interesting challenge. I'M WEARING DENIM JUMPERS!

Regarding the last, a non-nursing me would be horrified at the thought of wearing a denim jumper and looking the part of a Prairie Muffin, but a nursing me doesn't give a hoot. It is practical, hides the postpartum bulges, and with the aide of a receiving blanket, allows me to wear a dress that is more flattering than a skirt and top would be right now and still be able to feed a baby without providing a spectacle for perverts.

I think it is the oxytocin doing all this. Studies have found, in couples who are newly in love and still spoony about each other, that they produce oxytocin in their bodies. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for boosting those lovely feelings and the desire to bond with the object of your affections. Oxytocin is also the hormone that causes the uterus to contract, as well as milk ducts, which allows the milk to flow to the nursing baby. Every time a mother puts her baby to breast and nurses him or her, she gets a lovely hormonal boost to love that child even more intensely. Mothers who have natural births un-augmented by synthetic oxytocin get not only a healthy dose of the bonding hormone, but they also benefit from all the pain-relieving endorphins that are produced in the brain, but which are not produced by the synthetic forms which can't cross the blood/brain barrier. This helps to explain the tigerish instincts of nursing mothers when it comes to protecting their babies not only from physical danger but even from the mere suggestion that their child is less than it should be.

Another side effect of these hormones is the increased sensitivity to others' sufferings. I can so easily grow hardened to the losses and tragedies of others when no longer tending a baby, largely out of self defense. But let me have a baby and the regular shots of oxytocin and other nursing hormones crumbles those defenses and changes this mama into an empathetic human who can cry over the obituaries of complete strangers. Birth, the beginning of life, has a strange way of reminding me of mortality and the end of life. I guess this is because babies can be so fragile and it is so easy to imagine the zillion ways in which their little lives can be cut off.

The transition from the strange, close, watery world of the womb to that of life outside it is a startling and drastic change through which all of us reading this have passed. The end of life is just as dramatic and more mysterious because none of us have gone there yet, though we likely know others who have. The change we went through as well as the anticipated change from life to death is one which points to how very dependent we are upon God for getting us through it. For me, at least, this dependence is both frightening, because of my lack of faith, and reassuring, because of the measure of faith I do have.

Natural birth (where intervention is NOT needed or planned for) and lactation are probably two of the biggest and best tools that God has given women for helping them be content in their covenantal and dominion-oriented tasks of raising a holy seed for God. It's really a shame when so many Christian women don't take advantage of them.