But that's not the only awesome physiological change I wanted to talk about here. I have actually read about stuff that happens to new dads on a molecular level, mostly courtesy of Jeremy Adam Smith and his excellent book, Daddy Shift, wherein he pulls a Malcolm Gladwell and makes science (social and otherwise) fun and interesting for people who can't bear the thought of reading a science journal.
In his 2009 article "The Daddy Brain," on the U.C. Berkeley website Greater Good, Smith explains that research shows "pregnancy, childbirth, and fatherhood trigger a range of little hormonal shifts in the male body—but only if the father is in contact with the baby and the baby’s mother. When a child is born [...] testosterone levels drop dramatically in men. Men also gain prolactin, the hormone associated with lactation, as well as cortisol, the stress hormone that spikes in mothers after childbirth and helps them pay attention to the baby’s needs."
I do feel that I have changed since the babies arrived.
In all the areas that testosterone figures prominently, however, I can't discern any difference in myself. I also read up on prolactin a little bit, and can't see how it relates to any of the changes I've experienced, except for maybe the curious stains on my t-shirts.
But the cortisol--that explains a lot. If you look it up, you'll probably be struck by the number of negative side effects associated with overproduction of this hormone, some of which come in handy for explaining the deterioration of my body without impugning my lifestyle: decreased cognitive ability, decreased muscle tone, increased abdominal fat, etc.
Essentially though, when it's not running you into the ground, cortisol, sometimes called the "fight or flight" hormone, gets you off your fat ass in a hurry when something needs to be done. And so far, I'm convinced that coritsol is both my friend and the protector of my children.
You see, I've never been known for my quickness. In terms of work, sports, intellectual pursuits, and even relationships, my strength has always been stamina. I'm kind of a tenacious plodder. This has worked out pretty well for me, and I've always believed that as long as I live to be 140 years old, I'll be able to accomplish every bit as much as many of my peers have, without dealing with the stress they've endured.
But the cortisol has changed me. I'm not a bundle of nerves or anything--it's just that my fight-or-flight instinct is probably on par with the average mom now, which is way high compared to what I'm used to. And although there have been moments of impatience and inexplicable crankiness, mostly cortisol has given me a sixth sense about impending danger and children's shenanigans. And lightning-fast reflexes.
In just the last week, there have been two incidents that illustrate my ninja-like reactions. The first one was at an afternoon cookout at the home of one of the guys from my stay-at-home dad group. No matter how I tried to distract the twins with toys and snacks, they wanted nothing more or less than to climb up and down the four steps from the back door to the patio. So I sat on the steps--of the truncated zigguarat style, where you can walk out the door and descend to the right, to the left, or straight ahead--drinking a beer, talking to the grownups, and recording every movement of the twin on either flank with my peripheral vision. When the inevitable happened and Butterbean plummeted headfirst toward the unforgiving slate corner of the bottom step, my right arm snapped out like a switchblade and blocked her fall before my brain even registered the danger.
And yesterday I was sitting on our bed playing guitar when Cobra climbed up onto the Ikea love seat-ish thing and started pumping her arms victoriously while balancing on the very edge of the seat. This is something she does regularly, and I think of it as a motor skills exercise. But as I hacked my way through "Gavotta-Choro," I must have sensed Cobra losing her balance, because my left hand floated off the fretboard just in time to gently catch her head--which had been on a collision course with the corner of the nightstand--and ease her onto the carpet so softly that she giggled.
When my sisters and I talk about our mom, we often joke about how she could see us with the "eyes in the back of her head" whenever we even thought about misbehaving. Or how you would suddenly feel her deathgrip on your forearm as you reached for the cookie jar, when you could have sworn she was two rooms away.
It's interesting, but not surprising really, that we remember her using her powers to thwart our fun, but not so much to keep us from harm. I guess kids just take it for granted that their parents have the ability to keep them from impaling, abrading, contusing or lacerating themselves, so it's not worth remarking on our survival of the perils of childhood.
I wasn't really sure that I would have the reflexes necessary to keep kids out of harm's way. I was kind of hoping that my kids would be slothful like their old man, so I could keep up with them easily. But instead, it seems like nature has given me a little kick in the pants, endowing me with the reflexes of, if not my mom, at least an aging action hero.