Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

My Hormones Made Me Do It!

The inside story on hormones and behavior

When I frantically cleaned my home a few weeks before my first baby was born, everyone said it was my hormones kicking in. I’m assuming it’s the feminine-housecleaning hormone that signals to women that it’s time to start focusing on household chores and other motherly duties. Would that be estrogen, the female hormone? Prolactin, the one that also makes breast milk? Oxytocin, the love hormone?

For the past month, in preparation for my baby, I mean son, to leave for college (the same one that entered life to a temporarily tidy home), I started the same thing all over again, with a 21st century sort of twist. I’m not mopping and dusting so much as organizing my iPhoto library—all gazillion mix-matched images—and rearranging bookshelves. I’m spending an inordinate chunk of time staring at toddler pictures of my eldest and shoving them at his younger siblings.

“OMG, look at Jack in nursery school!”

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When I’m not cleaning, I’m cooking—it provides me with a false sense of achievement. Since Jack flew the coop, I’ve made about five batches of blondies and brownies, tested a new grilled salmon recipe and baked bread from scratch. That was on day two. Tonight it's chicken, steak, and shrimp sate.

Hormones again? I mean, what else could explain my atypical behavior.

Dr. James E. King would have thought it was all about my hormones. At a meeting of obstetrics and gynecologists in 1952—where he was being inducted as president of the American Association of Obstetricians, Gynecologists, and Abdominal Surgeons (now the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists)—he said that women are “fickle creatures” under the control of our hormones. That’s why, he said, we need doctors to guide us from puberty to menopause.

He admitted that there was a concern that the new hormone remedies might encourage women to dominate men. But not to worry, he told his medical audience, “so long as she (meaning me and maybe you) is controlled by her reproductive glands, she will remain basically the same loveable, gracious homemaker.”

Hormones have been such a handy answer to practically every single health question. But really? I believe that our hormonal swings have a huge impact on our brain-body functioning. I believe in PMS—that somehow the ups and downs of my hormones make me an evil bitch the few days before my period. But I really don’t think every single thing I do is a knee-jerk response to a hormone.

In Brain Storm, The Flaws in the Science of Sex Hormone, Rebecca M. Jordan-Smith, an assistant professor at Barnard, demonstrates the flaws in nearly every study that tried to link prenatal hormones to sexuality. True, her book is about hormones before birth and my interest was hormones before college, but the general gist is sort of the same. Her point is that flimsy science often spurs false assumptions that when repeated enough in the press and popular books evolve into dogma. Jordan-Smith’s project adds fodder to a growing body of research, beginning with Beyond the Natural Body, a landmark book by Nelly Oudshoorn, a professor at the University of Twente in The Netherlands. Oudshoorn claims that early 20th century hormone scientists invented the whole male-female hormone divide with estrogen equalling girl and testosterone equalling boy. And that simple divide prompted a cascade of misconstrued science. We all know by middle school science class, that boys and girls have both estrogen and testosterone.

So armed with my newfound knowledge and fired up with skepticism, I went out for a walk ready to proselytize. My neighbor with her newborn in a snuggly was wandering by with her extended family. And during our sidewalk chitchat, I mentioned my son leaving, my recent cleaning frenzy and how I’m convinced it has nothing to do with hormones much the way she may have cleaned prior to the birth of her son.

They seemed completely uninterested and unenlightened. As her sister, a mother of five, responded: I cleaned my house before the birth of every one of my kids. I know it’s female hormones.

My Brownies (from Martha Stewart's Cookies, page 287)

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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