And Then I Fainted

Why do grandmothers love their grandchildren?

Posted Dec 10, 2019

Courtesy of Bethany Berger
Grandmother (me) and Caleb, a few minutes old, after I got up off the floor.
Source: Courtesy of Bethany Berger

I held a bent right leg in place with all my strength, fighting against strong muscles to move it. A nurse strained as she held the left. The midwife commanded “push…push… push.” My daughter’s arm muscles bulged as she pulled a sheet tied to a mental stanchion above her. A circle of fetal skull visible, then larger, then crowning. She pushed once more. 

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” the midwife shouted. A head emerged, quickly followed by all 4139 grams of my grandson. His Apgar score was a stellar 9, and every other number was good. Bethany, smiling, began to nurse. Four professionals looked on, relaxed now.

This is grandmother bliss. Decades of praying, studying, teaching, and mothering led me to a miracle at 6:11 a.m., my firstborn with her firstborn. Celestial music rang in my ears. Then the ringing grew louder, a buzzing, roaring crescendo. Bethany shimmered, overhead lights became stars, flashing bright and then dark: I was flat on the floor, looking up at four faces staring down. I had fainted. 

Stop staring, I wanted to say. Look at Bethany, look at Caleb. They need you.

“I am fine,” I mumbled, scrambling onto the pallet where I would spend the night.   

“You need to go to triage.” 

I was confused, angry, searching for magic words. Please? Pretty please? I wanted to stay, I wanted everyone to forget about me and attend to Bethany. 

A younger nurse said, “You can refuse treatment.”

A saving grace, I remember now; God bless you. I rose quickly, the sooner to return. 

They stopped me: “Hospital policy, you need a wheelchair.”   

Wheeled down the hall, waited for an elevator, waited at Admitting, explained that I was with my laboring daughter all night with no food, drink, nor sleep. 

“I refuse treatment.” 

The triage nurse scanned my face, took my blood pressure, and checked with her supervisor.  

“You can go back," she said.  

I stood up.

Stopped again: “Someone must wheel you back.”

My priority was Bethany and Caleb; I obeyed. Back in time to witness the delivery of the placenta. All was well with mother and babe, with doctors and nurses. But not with me.  

I know about birth, personally and professionally. I interpret numbers and jargon; I analyze monitors and body language; I judge doctors and nurses; I evaluate hospitals, notice stray paper on floors, hear sharp voices in corridors, see faded pictures on the walls. Nothing here was amiss; this hospital was excellent.  

I also know Bethany: strong, healthy, drug-free. All through the night, indeed all through the nine months, I followed this pregnancy. I expected Caleb to be well-formed and Bethany okay. I was relieved and happy — not surprised — when my almost perfect daughter began nursing my quite perfect grandson. 

Then why did I faint when all the drama was over? Indeed, why faint at all? I told the triage nurse that I had neither sleep nor food all night. She accepted that; I do not. I have often been tired and hungry; I have never fainted. Something snapped, cracked, flooded my brain, threw me down. Grandmotherhood?

Primordial bonds must have been tightening all night long. At Caleb’s arrival, they snapped, a seismic release from an underground fault. Earthquake. Tsunami. Shimmering. Darkness. Unconscious. On the floor. 

Many other grandmothers are taken aback.

Anne Lamont wrote: "This is the one fly in the grandmother ointment — the total love addiction — the highest highs, and then withdrawal, craving, scheming to get another fix…But it’s not my fault — we’re wired to be delighted, obsessed, we’re engineered that way."

Wired for grandchildren? Sounds like nonsense. Until the current turns on. 

Something powerful and mysterious attacks. What? As a scientist, I seek answers. I have found some hypotheses — selfish genes, cultural norms, evolutionary pressures among them. I am partial to a fourth hypothesis, that the hormone oxytocin compels grandmothering.

It is known that oxytocin increases with physical touch: having sex, holding a baby, experiencing a massage, hugging a stranger, even petting a dog, as long as the particular circumstances do not provoke anxiety. I am not the only scientist who now readily hugs friends and acquaintances, nor the only dog-owner stopped by strangers on the street, asking, “Can I pet your dog?” I was holding my daughter’s leg when I fainted.

Chronological age and personal experience affect oxytocin. Infants produce it, which enhances their attachment to their caregivers in complex ways. Women experience a surge at birth; that is the biological explanation for maternal instincts. Might that experience prime women for another surge later on, when they see their grandchild? Maybe men, too: Higher testosterone correlates with lower oxytocin, and testosterone decreases when men care for infants and when they age. Maybe grandfathers also have rising oxytocin? 

Many of the psychosocial changes of aging, collectively called the positivity effect (more optimistic, more trusting, less worried) are the same changes that oxytocin produces in people, as hundreds of experiments have found.  

In practical terms, when a new grandchild nuzzles in a grandmother’s arms, or a young grandchild grabs her hand, or an older grandchild whispers a secret into her ear, oxytocin rises. Repeatedly touching babies – diapering, bathing, carrying, feeding – increases brain responses. Once triggered, oxytocin-producing events continue lifelong: Mothers comfort sad or frightened children by rocking, cradling and so on; parents hug their adult children, lovers hold hands, rub backs, kiss. This suggests another explanation for the finding that grandmothers everywhere do far more grandchild care than grandfathers do: The rigid gender division in caregiving 50 years ago, when mothers held infants hour after hour and fathers rarely did, may have primed oxytocin. 

All this is plausible, but most scientists, including me, need more research before we are convinced. Still, something biological, not logical, made me faint.