Mostly, parenting a 7-week-old daughter has been just what everyone always says: exhausting and exhilarating, awesome and exasperating. But the territory is always different from the map, and parenting has been no exception. It’s one thing to hear about how much you’re going to fall in love with your kid (or not), and another thing to actually do it.
For me, that experience has been almost shockingly embodied. I can feel the surge of hormones from just holding my daughter—oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine—course through my body. Because I’m a longtime meditator, it’s easy to notice how quickly the brain-made drugs take effect. And thanks to the excellent adventures of my wild and youthful days (Burning Man! Raves in the ’90s!), I can easily recognize this as, well, trippy. Holding the baby is MDMA on steroids.
I remember my mother telling me, as many parents do, “When you’re a parent, you’ll understand.” What she didn’t say at the time was that you’ll understand not because you’ll now be persuaded of certain facts, but because you’ll see what it’s like to be tripping like this yourself. You’ll see how irrational you become.
More than once, I’ve wondered about younger parents and parents without excellent psychedelic adventures like mine in their past. Do they realize how hard they’re tripping right now? Or are, I don’t know, 8 million Americans (give or take, since 4 million babies were born in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) right now tripping on some of the strongest drugs I’ve experienced—without even being aware of it?
This wouldn’t fly in responsible psychedelic and entheogenic communities. Before giving anyone a powerful medicine, responsible guides let them know what’s likely to happen, how long the trip lasts, what you’re going to experience. When I was an undergrad at Columbia, I remember hearing the cardinal rule for tripping in New York City: Cars are real.
At the very least, everyone ought to know what they’re putting in their body.
But here we are, millions of people experiencing these profound changes in mood, mind, and body—and it’s just happening all the time.
It’s not just the good stuff either.
As the trial of the serial-molester Dr. Larry Nassar came to a conclusion this week, I experienced a new kind of rage. Of course, the extent of Nassar’s crimes ought to enrage everyone: sexually assaulting at least 160 girls (many more—those were just the ones who testified) while they were placed in his care as a physician. No punishment fits his crime; one can only marvel at the boldness and strength of the women who spoke out against him, and demand that the systems that enabled this predator to harm so many young women for so long will be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch.
But I’m talking a different kind of rage: a visceral, embodied rage. Less serotonin this time, more cortisol and testosterone. I want to kill that guy. I might have felt maternal love holding the baby, but this felt like a toxic-masculinity action movie starring Liam Neeson.
I have to believe that’s connected to my newly hormonally constituted personality as father of a newborn girl. There have been stories like Nassar’s before, after all, and other kinds of horrifying stories as well in this #MeToo moment. But this one… I’m grinding my teeth even as I think about it.
And then there are the rare times where my cellphone will be off, in a movie theater for example, and I’ll fantasize about the texts I’m not receiving from my partner. “I’m taking her to the emergency room.” “Where are you?” “Help!”
Obviously, none of those texts have been typed. But out of nowhere, like a lightning bolt in the middle of an otherwise innocuous movie, my parent-drug-addled mind panics and wants to check my phone.
All this got me thinking about how the loves and fears of parents across the country are manipulated all the time—by politicians, by advertisers, by mommy-bloggers, by friends and relatives.
Once again, it’s nothing new to observe that politicians—especially conservative ones, but some liberals too—exploit parents’ concerns about their kids to score political points. Protect the Children has been a rallying cry for prohibitionists, anti-communists, drug warriors, religious moralizers, sexists, homophobes, hawks who want to get “tough on crime,” racists who associate criminality with blackness and brownness—you name it.
And that’s just the political figures. Let’s not forget all the advertising (and “dad-vertising”) from food companies, baby merchandise companies, car companies, security alarm companies, firearm companies, organic skin care companies, and three hundred other kinds of companies who exploit parents’ love and fear for their kids to make a whole lot of money.
None of this is new, but now that I can feel the biological basis of that love and fear… it pisses me off. Basically, these politicians and capitalists are taking advantage of the fact that millions of Americans are on drugs. They—we—are barely compos mentis. We’re hormonally insane. And then we are exposed to conservative political fear-mongering.
I can tell you from experience, it’s hell being on the wrong end of that. Most of the stares I get as a gay parent today are affectionate, and 90 percent are directed at my daughter, not at me. But we’ve gotten some shade now and then; I know what it’s like to be judged. I was a professional LGBT activist for 10 years. I’ve listened to people share their fears about their own child being gay, or being exposed to homosexuality, or even having a gay teacher.
And while it often seemed ridiculous at the time—really, your kid’s gym coach is going to turn her into a lesbian?—now it seems downright evil. Because I can feel what it’s like to feel irrational things about my child. I can feel, in my body, how easy it would be to take advantage of those feelings. I can feel how powerful these acts of persuasion—don’t call them arguments; they aren’t that rational—can be, for whatever end. Whether it’s to build a wall on the Mexican border, or criminalize marijuana, or make sex offenders register for life, or let people buy lots of guns, or whatever. It’s hard to see what policy couldn’t be justified by a cry to protect our kids.
And, let’s face it, it’s conservatives who do this far more than liberals do. Protect the Children, in our society, means conservative social policies, conservative values, conservative morality—none of which have been particularly good for marginalized people like me.
If the last two years of American political life have taught us anything, it’s that the primal drives and fears of human beings haven’t gone away, and can still be easily exploited with terrifying results. I feel some of those drives today the way I didn’t feel them three months ago.
And I’m scared of what they can do.