Thank goodness the protective instinct is physically hardwired in new mothers. 

The Biology of Motherhood

These were vague horror stories before. Babies in Dumpsters, in toilets, in landfills. Shaken babies. Susan Smith.

Before, I shuddered as any human being does upon hearing of a brutal act against another, especially a helpless, defenseless human being. Especially a baby.

A Texas woman named Andrea Yates allegedly has admitted to drowning her five children, one by one, in the bathtub. Before, when I would hear a story like this it would most certainly affect me, even horrify me and bring me to tears. Now that I have a child of my own, these things haunt me. Now, against my own will I picture it happening, I picture the children, their struggling. It is even hard for me to get the images into words, through my fingers and into the keyboard. I can't go any further with the image. And yet it's there and I am beginning to understand why. I am learning about the biology of motherhood.

I have wondered why since my baby was born, I have had some disturbing visions of horrific unspeakable things happening to her. When one of these waking terrors flashes into my mind, I squeeze my eyes shut, I shake my head as if to catapult it from my mind. If my daughter is in my arms at the time, I hold her tighter as if to protect her from some invisible threat.

I wondered why this was happening to me until I spoke to all of my new-mother friends. It wasn't just me, it was all of us. Something was forcing us to confront the unspeakable. Something was testing us for the right reaction.

It was our own bodies, I believe. It's as if the software is running the Terror Program to make sure the hardware is functioning properly. It is protecting our babies and us too. Because the body knows about postpartum depression and sleep deprivation and the fact that even the most loving mothers get frustrated and resentful and hit the end of their ropes. I'm seeing that when it comes to mother love, at least, we are hardwired to protect, even to love, just in case the software goes a little screwy sometimes.

It's this idea that has surprised me most about motherhood — that everything I feel for my baby is physical.

It shows itself it little ways too. In the earlier months of breastfeeding, I noticed a euphoric feeling that would come over me a minute or two into the feeding. And I don't mean simply happy feelings, I mean something that felt chemical or drug-induced. And, of course, any nursing mother can tell you that when her baby cries or even when she just thinks of him, the milk comes flowing down, and sometimes the dam bursts.

A couple of months ago, a bee got into my daughter's room while she was napping. I, a person who normally captures bugs and sets them free, attacked that bee with surprising ferocity until it resembled something close to bee pulp. Afterward, I noticed my face was flushed, my heart was hammering.

Another time, the dog got a little too frisky with the baby and I pounced; again my reaction shocked even me. I let out a fierce growl I never knew lived inside me. He ran from me and kept his distance all day.

Time and again, things like this happen and every time I can feel some part of me - some very real physical part of me - spring into action. When I crawl around on the floor with my daughter, I catch myself looking and acting like a mama lion. I make a bridge with my body over hers, I paw at her to change her path, to keep her out of harm's way. Even when I am lying quietly with her at my breast or on my shoulder, I will feel a surge of warmth to my face that pushes puddles into my eyes, that tightens my arms around her.

I don't know why I am surprised by this physical love. So many other things we equate with emotion alone are largely physical - our sex drive, fear, grief. It is a wondrous system of God and nature that love and protectiveness should live in our very sinew, strong as our bones, complex as our central nervous systems, reliable as the beating of our hearts.

It is a backup system, I think, so that we are not left to the mercurial nature of our emotions. But it is not fail-safe. In some cases, our software circumvents our hardware. The system crashes. Andrea Yates' biology failed her, and more tragically, it failed her babies. But for the vast majority of us, our bodies seem instinctively to know how to keep our children safe, even from ourselves. Now, when these terrifying images flood my mind I thank God for them, shake them from my head, and clutch my daughter a little bit tighter.

Janet Giampietro is a Style Weekly contributing editor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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