The XX Factor

In Defense of Katie Roiphe

This is a guest post from Alison Gopnik, author of The Philosophical Baby .

Many DoubleX readers seem incensed by Katie Roiphe’s story, “My Newborn is Like a Narcotic.” But Roiphe is absolutely right that the intense love between mothers and newborns is a very neglected subject in both literature and philosophy and yes, also feminist writing. (Compare it to the enormous literature on the profundity of sexual and erotic love.) So it might be helpful to see what the science has to say about Katie’s experience, and to think about what the science means.

I write about this at length in my new book , The Philosophical Baby . In short, the scientific literature shows that the mechanisms behind our love of babies is remarkably similar to the mechanisms involved in sexual love. There are clear hormonal and chemical changes that come with pregnancy, labor, and birth, which affect the way we feel, just as there are with sex. In natural labor and the period following, the body produces large amounts of both oxytocin and endorphins (in fact, they use oxytocin to induce labor). It’s too simple to call oxytocin the “bonding” chemical, but there is a lot of evidence that it plays a role in close attachment, trust, and love. If you give people a whiff of oxytocin they’re more likely to cooperate in a game. Endorphins are the natural chemicals that are mimicked by drugs like opium and morphine. (I remember thinking as I held my own first newborn and the flood of warmth and happiness overcame me, “Gee, if this is what opium is like, I’m sure glad I never tried it.”)

But it’s important to say, also, that the relationship between the chemicals and experience is always a two-way street. The chemicals can induce the experience, but just having the experiences that go along with love-close attachment, trust, caregiving, kissing, touch- can themselves make the chemicals appear. It’s as true to say that love leads to oxytocin as to say that oxytocin leads to love. So nonbiological caregivers, just by close contact and intimacy with babies, can end up with brain states that are very similar to those of pregnancy and birth.

Of course, all this is subject to tremendous individual variation, like every other human phenomenon. I have to say that when people respond to a description like Katie’s by saying, “Oh, I never felt that, so it must all be a big patriarchal conspiracy, or just modern parental narcissism,” it’s analogous to someone reading all the great sexual love poems and saying, “Gee, I had sex once, even a couple of times, and it wasn’t like that at all. Actually it was kind of icky, and I didn’t even really like the guy much. So all this stuff about erotic transport must be some big antifeminist propaganda campaign. And even if its true, they shouldn’t really talk about it because it’ll make people who’ve had unsatisfying sex feel bad.”

From an evolutionary perspective, all this makes sense. One of the absolutely crucial parts of the human evolutionary program is the exceptionally long dependence and extended helplessness of human babies. Our babies depend on us for much longer than those of any other species and they require a particularly large investment of adult care. Arguably, this long immaturity is crucial for many other distinctively human capacities-our capacity for technology and culture for instance.

In fact, it’s likely that human sexual love itself is related to-is even an evolutionary consequence of-our love for infants. Humans go in for what biologists call “social monogamy”-strong bonds and ties between sexual partners-much more than our closest primate relatives, the great apes. In some ways we’re more like penguins and swans, other species that require a great parental investment, than like chimps. (The bad news, or maybe not so bad, is that it turns out that social monogamy doesn’t mean sexual monogamy for any species, even for swans, though we don’t know if they feel guilty or bitter about it.) And it’s at least plausible that this is also the result of our exceptional parental investment.

In our current culture, there are lots of forces that play against it. For most of history, with big extended families and close communities, most people had lots of chances to both witness and practice caregiving emotions well before they had children themselves. We know that plays a big role in human experience-if you’d never dated, or made out, or closely watched other people who were obviously in love, you probably wouldn’t have the same experience of sexual love. The medicalization and isolation of much modern child-bearing plays a role too.

An important point, from a feminist perspective, is that the emotions of closeness and attachment and caregiving aren’t restricted at all to biological mothers, but are shared by fathers and everyone else-siblings, grandmothers, babysitters, and neighbors who help take on the big task of human caregiving. Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy has done exceptional serious work on this that’s summarized in her new book Mothers and Others .

But here’s the crucial point: Does all this science mean that the intense feelings that Katie describes so well, and that I and many other mothers and caregivers have shared, are just an illusion? A narcotic, as Katie says? A way for evolution to get us to do what it wants? And the answer, as in the very parallel case of sexual love, is not at all. Everything about us is the result of the activity in our brains that is shaped by evolution. My experience of the table in front of me is as much a result of the chemicals in my brain and the forces of evolution as my experience of intense maternal or sexual love. But that doesn’t mean that the table itself is an illusion. Most of the time evolution really does design us so our experience tracks important and real parts of our condition. Poets and thinkers have long recognized that the particular chemical, biological, and evolutionary phenomenon of human sexual love, with all its absurdities, can put us in touch with something genuinely transcendent and significant. My favorite example is WH. Auden’s beautiful poem ” Lullaby :”

Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

Since, as Katie points out, so few of history’s famous thinkers and poets have been mothers, the intense ordinary swoon we feel about our babies has been neglected. But I think that we sing Auden’s lullaby quite as much to our children as to our lovers.

Photograph of a mother and baby by Photodisc/Getty Images.