Before I became a dad, a few of people told me something along the lines of “being a dad changes your brain chemistry.” The new person in the world, the unique responsibility you have for that human, and the pure joy they bring to your life rewires your brain. There’s some science to the idea that parenting builds new pathways in your brain, that fathers and mothers both new and unique hormones during pregnancy and once the baby arrives. Not exactly rewiring but upgraded wiring?
This really makes a lot of sense. Becoming a new parent, you go overnight from getting a full night’s sleep any night you want one to wondering when you’ll get a full 90 minutes again. Add to that the stress of somehow remaining a productive employee at work on low sleep. Your brain has to push itself to the limit. You want to keep up with your kid’s development and you also have a mortgage or rent to pay. Eventually, you have to cook something. Eventually, you have to go for a bike ride. Eventually, you adapt. The bizarre state of parental leave and health care in our country means that most parents have this much worse.
One thing I don’t think happens is long term changes in your brain chemistry. You might have a temporary surge of different neurotransmitters which may make the depression less visible but in the end, your brain will adapt and the chemical imbalance will return.
About a month after László was born, my mom left my dad. It was a bombastic event that, while somewhat expected, didn’t have to happen when or how it did. A lot of responsibility was thrown on my brother and me that day that cumulatively lurched my depression back to life. The easiest coping mechanism available was all to familiar: Run. Disregard. Withdraw. Dwell.
Trevor Noah recently did a great interview for WNYC’s Death Sex and Money podcast where he talked about depression. He, too, belongs to the roughly 20% of Americans suffering from depression. One thing that resonated with me about how he talked about depression is how a lot of people think it’s about being sad. It’s not about being sad. As Noah put it, it’s more like “sometimes I do not see the purpose of getting out of my bed or living life.” Sometimes, I do not see the purpose of going to my job, or baking a pie, or exercising. Other times, I obsess over things that don’t require obsession: Big things beyond any one person’s power like the sorry state of bike and transit infrastructure in the US; small things that are 100% changeable like how I’m perpetually dissatisfied with how my clothes fit. If I don’t catch myself, I fall hard.
Depression is a terribly selfish thing to suffer because your default settings indulge yourself at the expense of everyone else. Becoming a father doesn’t change any of that. I hoped it would but it doesn’t.
What it does do is give tremendous new urgency to the work of maintaining my wellness. Suddenly, the custody over a new human means the basics of my life need to be covered. I need to work smarter and can no longer defer maintenance. This means making sure medication is in my bag the night before a trip so I don’t fall behind. It means keeping up with a counselor and following through on their advice. It means setting boundaries and actionable goals instead of obsessing and dwelling on problems.
Another thing that changes is the frequency of opportunities for breaking the cycle. It’s no longer an option to not get out of bed, and it’s easier to reset and see the purpose. That baby, that infant crying in the next room, your partner sleeping beside you: that’s your purpose. If nobody gets out of bed, that child doesn’t eat, doesn’t grow, doesn’t learn, doesn’t thrive.
Of course, it’s possible to ignore all that and blaze ahead on your selfish default settings. Plenty of men did that for centuries. Doing the work helps surface those opportunities, though, and create a virtuous cycle, insulating my depression and helping me, and my family, thrive.
So how has parenting changed me? I’ve been radicalized (again, the first time was in high school). I think a lot about how intractable the privileges our family enjoys are for too many people in our country. This was perhaps most visible in the NICU where we had the privilege to sleep in the hospital and spend every possible moment by László’s side. We were keenly aware of it seeing other parents who had to find time to come into the hospital between shifts, often in uniforms. We shouldn’t live in a society where that’s possible.
When I hear politicians talk about a public option for health care or medicare for all being too costly, too hard to coordinate, all I hear is a lack of will to bring more equity to our economy and political system. When people who paid a few thousand dollars a year to go to college dismiss plans to cancel student loan debt, I hear a lack of empathy for real problems facing millions of young people in our country. When people dismiss climate change I hear ignorance and negligence to act on the number one threat to our collective future.
When I hear the most powerful people in the world spit racist vomit all over the Internet, I feel this sense of mission to raise this kid right. He has an opportunity to be a man who stands up for justice and face down the inequities and inequalities in his future, and we have an opportunity to guide and nurture him to be that person.