Gosh, what a ride the last fourteen (count ’em!) months have been. A joyous, mostly-upward, sometimes stressful, occasionally terrifying ride. Perhaps inspired by my return to the hard-nosed world of work we’ve had a few cheerfully practical posts recently, so today I’m going to get a little mushy.
I believe I can say without fear of contradiction that pregnant ladies feel their emotions quite clearly. A heady combination of hormonal upset and straightforward fear of what the future is about to bring will do that to you. To say that new parents are emotional wrecks is also fairly uncontroversial; that’s yet more hormones surging through the maternal body, post-partum soreness, sleep deprivation for all parties and a generalised anxiety will have many parents in a heightened state of feelingness, however calm and content your newborn may or may not be.
So I suppose, on balance, I wasn’t altogether surprised to be an emotional near-wreck for the first few weeks of parenthood (I saw this recently referred to as the 100 Days of Darkness). It’s normal, it’s unsurprising, it’s uncontroversial. But…what about the heightened state of emotion I still find myself in now, nearly a year after those 100 days had rolled on by, that can no longer be explained by hormones or sore boobs or the very specific worry that your child might die in their sleep if you stop watching them for a second? Does childbirth cause some kind of central rewiring to the brain that makes us more emotional as parents – especially, a straw poll of friends suggests, as mums?
I’m very conflicted even thinking about this. On the one hand, the suggestion that mothers are more full of emotions smacks of the worst kind of gender essentialism, the kind I’ve been railing against all my life. It’s the sort of semi-truth that’s held up a series of glass ceilings for decades, and it’s the kind of nonsense that can also be used to neatly let men off the hook of their parenting responsibilities. If we imagine that emotional intelligence is solely the wheelhouse of the female parent, then that can prop up negative assumptions and bad behaviour in all directions, as I’ve written previously.
I can also still recall feeling thoroughly irritated by a kind of implicit assumption that non-parents don’t understand feels in the same way that parents do. How insulting, right? The idea that non-parents don’t get saddened by all the sad things in the world. The suggestion that, just because you haven’t squeezed a child into the world, you can’t feel empathy for the plight of the less fortunate.
Yup, so, non-parents look away now, because that’s exactly what happens. Of course, I like to think I wasn’t some kind of completely self-centred ass before Scarlett came into the world. I paid my dues; I did a lot of campaigning for environmental and human rights issues. I felt moved by news stories about war and famine, and I tried to do some little bit to help in the way that most people do. It’s just that, in the past, I would have read a story like this one (trigger warning: infant tragedy) and acknowledged the sadness and then moved on about my day. Now I read that story and sob large, salty tears for an hour, no exaggeration. It’s just so easy to identify with that situation, to mentally put oneself in that place in horrifying detail.
Many people found the underwater episode of BoJack Horseman intense and poignant; I howled through the whole thing and then kept crying intermittently for days. (I still can’t recommend the show highly enough if you haven’t seen it yet, but pack plenty of Kleenex if you’re any number of months or years post-partum). Earlier this year, I deliberately missed what by all accounts was an amazing theatrical experience: a show dealing with the tragic loss of a teenage daughter in a terrible accident. I read the description, howled, and knew I couldn’t deal with it.
I know it’s not just me; others in my peer group report similar feelings, way beyond the usual reactions to sad stuff we used to have in our stoic old days. Of course quite a lot of recent news is enough to make anyone cry, but we’re also all getting weird sobbing reactions to seemingly happy stories and lullabies on Spotify. I mentioned the subject matter of the above-mentioned show to a few of my friends and we all agreed it might take another couple of decades to gain the necessary emotional resilience to go and see it. But, when we work ourselves up to it, we hear it’s really exceptionally good.
There is an upside to all this emotional upheaval, I think. This year really has been a downer for a lot of us, whether from the increasingly hateful geopolitical situation or the loss of so many treasured performing artists. Like many of you I’m angry, and miserable, and dispirited and hurt. But much as we might want to hide under the duvet and never come out again, our little ray of sunshine really has cheered us both up; without her joyful smile in the mornings I think we’d both feel a lot less like getting up.
What can I conclude from here? That something does seem to have changed, on a level beyond the temporary and biochemical. The wiring has been re-routed; I do feel things, perhaps not more or better, but simply in a different way than before. I’m sure this all has evolutionary benefits for the human race or something. But for now, if you need me, you can find me weeping in a corner over an animated seahorse.
Does it ever get less so? Answers on the back of a soggy Kleenex, or in the comments below.