Lauren Marmaduke, who gave birth this past New Year’s Day, was sipping a beer and talking about how much her life—how much she herself—had changed during motherhood’s first months. Her parents had agreed to babysit adorable little Oliver for a couple of hours, and so, taking advantage of a rare opportunity for adult time, Marmaduke scooted into a picnic table at the West Alabama Ice House and squeezed a lime into a Dos Equis.
Among the adults at the table was Dr. Lane Strathearn, a developmental pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital and neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. This was a fascinating moment to be talking to Marmaduke, it seemed. No longer as sleep-deprived as she’d been during those first incredibly difficult days of motherhood, she was able to speak about them in detail and with some measure of coherence. Still, she hadn’t been a mother so long that a haze of forgetfulness—one of nature’s most powerful ways to ensure that parents retain their sanity—had set in.
“In all the planning that I did being pregnant—nine months of preparing—nothing could have prepared me for how hard it is,” said the 35-year-old mom (and, full disclosure, old friend of ours). “They tell you a baby will change your life, but you can’t even really fathom that until it happens…. When it was time to go home I was terrified, because I had this little, tiny baby—he was only six pounds—and I was like, I can’t believe they’re letting me leave with him. I kept reminding myself that if they thought I was incapable of being his mother, they wouldn’t have let me leave the hospital.”
Strathearn, who, by the way, has seven children of his own, nodded in recognition. “Like you say, your whole world just turns upside down,” he added. “We’re learning more about the process in which this transition occurs, biologically speaking.” It seems that amnesia isn’t the only weapon in nature’s arsenal. Another one is the feel-good hormone oxytocin, Strathearn explained, which helps mothers bond with their babies. It’s released during labor and childbirth, he told the table.
“That’s interesting,” said Marmaduke, intrigued. “I had to have an emergency C-section. Would that have affected my bonding with the baby?”
“The amazing thing is that there is always redundancy in the system,” Strathearn said. “There’s always room for variation in circumstances. You may not have had that surge of oxytocin if you didn’t go into labor—that may have affected things—but just being with your baby, just holding your baby, just touching your baby, skin-to-skin contact will also produce a release of oxytocin and help in that bonding process.”
Marmaduke said she remembered bonding with her son at the very moment she laid eyes on him, though just who deserved the lion’s share of the credit for that, Oliver or oxytocin, remained a mystery. “That was truly amazing,” she said. “I had never cried tears of joy before. It was such an emotional wave that I felt like tears were shooting out of my eyes.”
Strathearn nodded. He’d seen it all before. “I think those emotions that you felt are part of the oxytocin response that brings about these amazing feelings of connection with a new baby,” he said. “And also, when you think about how babies look—their actual features help elicit this response as well. They have big eyes; they have a rounded face; their actual features are biologically driven to elicit a caregiving, nurturing response. If babies weren’t so cute we’d probably—”
“Leave them at a fire station?” offered Marmaduke. The table erupted in laughter.
When she got home with Oliver and began rotating shifts with her boyfriend Chris, Marmaduke felt a kind of euphoria, but that lasted only a day and a half. Then: “I just think that if somebody would have told me that I would get home from the hospital after undergoing major surgery”—the C-section—“and then I would have this thing that needed to eat every two hours, and that that meant overnight too—I don’t know why I didn’t quite understand that—I think that I would’ve thought there’s no way in hell that’s possible.”
In her lowest moments, Marmaduke was sure she wasn’t cut out for this. One friend told her two weeks—things would start getting easier in two weeks. “And she was right on target,” said Marmaduke. That is, until about a week after that, when Oliver started showing symptoms of acid reflux and began wailing, a high-pitched sort of wailing that continued for two weeks, until her pediatrician prescribed an infant dose of Zantac.
Now, however, Marmaduke had gotten the hang of things. Her little family was happy, and when Oliver smiled at nine weeks—right on time—she was filled with joy, as was Chris.
So much had changed in so short a time. “A lot of things that used to be important just aren’t anymore,” Marmaduke explained. “I care less. If I have to take him somewhere and he screams—well, he’s a baby.” Other changes: Marmaduke had noticed unfamiliar coos and funny voices coming out of her mouth unbidden. She no longer cared about going out without makeup. She found it hard to come up with multisyllabic words, even words like “parentheses,” when she needed them. And Marmaduke would soon need such words, in just a few days, when she would return to her job as a marketing executive. She knew she’d be a wreck at first, but so what? “You just realize that you’ll deal with it,” she said with a shrug.
And not long afterward, just as with all parents, the waters of Lethe would wash over her, and much of the substance of our ice house conversation would disappear forever, perhaps even the conversation itself. “It is by design,” said Strathearn knowingly. “I think that may be partially related to the stress of that early experience, and stress hormones can have an effect on memory. That’s an adaptive thing, because sometimes it’s easier not to remember.”
With time, moms forget feeling like zombies, just as kids forget being babies. And we can’t help thinking there’s something just a little sad about that, even if, in the end, it’s all for the best. Then again, amidst all the forgetting, you learn a few things too, like just how much our mothers did for us. That’s something Marmaduke herself never fully understood in all her 35 years, she confessed—not until this moment.
“I can’t believe that my mother did this,” she said. “My mother breastfed me every two hours for nine months. I just can’t wrap my head around that.” Marmaduke remembered a nurse telling her that a lot of new mothers send their own moms a dozen roses on their birthdays. “I might actually do that this year,” she said.