What Can a Newborn Infant Teach Us About Joy?
What is it about kissing and caring for babies that brings such happiness?
Posted November 18, 2013
My treasured daughter-in-law in California recently gave birth to a beautiful, dark-haired, new baby girl. Soon to be named Orly, the infant arrived on Friday. By Saturday morning I couldn’t stand any longer being half way across the continent. I hurried to the airport and boarded a plane to meet Orly, and to celebrate with the new parents their launch of a next generation. Enough of couples therapy and writing; I was off to welcome Orly into the world.
I quietly slipped into the hospital room. How special, to see my son and his wife, the new dad and mom, huddled over tiny Orly. Together they gently stroked her soft newborn skin compared with which even cotton balls, cashmere or silk would feel abrasive. Taking turns, they kissed her face, her hands, her little tummy. Giving kisses to a newborn expresses and augments parents' happiness.
Does love begin at first sight? Maybe. My hunch though is that my daughter-in-law’s joy in the arrival of Orly fully blossomed only when she began to nurse her.
“Skin-to-skin,” the nurses kept saying like a mantra as they removed the infant’s blanket and t--shirt and snuggled her into her mother's shirtless bosom. "Skin-to-skin stimulates the flow oxytocin, the chemical of emotional bonding.”
The oxytocin phenomenon no doubt is true, but it’s not the whole story
Equally and perhaps even more important, feeding an infant enables a new mother to give to her baby. It’s the giving, the nurturing, the taking care of, that stimulates the deepest feelings of joy in caring for another being.
I’m convinced that it is the taking care of by giving nourishment to new Orly that enabled the “love at first sight” to develop into the full joy of greeting this new family member in the world, our world.
A recent study on the emotional relationship between grown children and their grandparents offers hard data confirming the importance of giving in stimulating the love and the happiness that comes from family attachment bonds. Sara Moorman of Boston College’s department of sociology studied the impacts of giving and receiving between adult grandchildren and their aging grandparents. They kept twenty years of records of when and how either side gave and/or received help from each other, and how they felt afterwards. The help could be monetary, physical (helping someone out of bed), gifts, or actions.
What did any and all of these kinds of giving and taking care of do? Both stimulated joy and love. Yet it was only the giving, not the receiving, that correlated with prevention of depression! The joy of giving overrides depression about health, loss and more that elderly folks are at risk for sinking into.
Why does giving create feelings of joy?
Probably it's a chemical thing. Like the oxytocin from skin-to-skin, serotonin is the "happy chemical" that courses through our systems when we feel strong and effective. We feel depressed, by contrast, when our supplies of serotonin are depleted (the mechanism by which some antidepressant medications work is to slow the uptake of serotonin so what we have lasts longer in our bodies).
My guess is that being able to give prevents depression because it enhances a sense of personal empowerment. Depression and the serotonin depletion that accompanies depression signal a feeling of powerlessness. Feeling able to give, by contrast, dissipates depression because giving means that one is empowered. Even giving a warm smile may do the trick.
I felt great happiness when my daughter-in-law generously let me give to infant Orly
She let me diaper her tiny pink bottom and change her doll-like outfits. She let me burp Orly, after which I wore the milk on my sleeve as a badge of joy. She even let me soothe my new granddaughter by holding her tight and walking up and down the hallway when she cried, much as my own mother had helped me when my children, including my son the new father, was born. I loved every minute.
My son let me give to him as well. He and I took a long walk around the hospital neighborhood while he related, as post-trauma folks need to, the traumas he and his wife had experienced in the birth process. Sharing the details was my son's way of letting me give him my full empathic attention, a form of caring that I rarely get to do now that he has become an adult. Even though the story included shock and horror along with the triumphs of his wife's birthing experience and his role as birthing coach, sharing the story together, the opportunity to give him my mother/therapist's ear had me bursting with joy by the time we rode the hospital elevator back up to rejoin his wife, the new mom.
My son and daughter-in-law's gracious generosity in telling me repeatedly how helpful I had been and how glad they were that I'd flown out to join them in the hospital further ramped up my serotonin joy juices.
Babies, and especially newborns, cannot give overtly to their new parents and grandparents. They just can take from them, taking milk, taking time to diaper and dress them, taking cuddling to soothe them when they are stressed. But their taking, their acceptance of our help, is what brings us joy.
I'm certainly not the first to learn about the joy that is generated by giving.
Other blogposts on this website certainly talk about the connection between giving and happiness as well. For me personally though, Baby Orly made that connection especially palpable and clear.
I'm well aware that the joy of giving can dissipate when givers give too much, way more than they get, or when givers like parents feel too tired and overwhelmed to keep giving in good humor when their kids need, need and need. Too much of any good thing can have an opposite effect.
In just a few weeks Orly will begin giving to her parents, beginning with her first emerging smile. She will give all the more when the initial wan grin turns into a full eye-sparkling communication of delight at seeing her parents' faces. Yet it is a newborns’ initial ability only to recieve that highlighted for me how potent is the joy of giving.
The name Orly means "my light." Orly enlightened me about giving as a source of joy. For that gift I profoundly thank her.
Clinical psychologist and marriage therapist Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is the orignator, with three of her four adult children, of the online program that teaches the skills for marriage success, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.