This morning I was hiking hills like I wanted to kick them. I’d just gotten off the phone with my guy and we’d been talking about his fear that I wasn’t being completely honest about my feelings regarding our relationship, and that maybe I didn’t even want to get on a plane the next day to see him.
I was impatient and angry. I wanted to throw the phone into the river and walk super fast away from my feelings. I had just gone out of my way to be as gut-scrapingly honest as I could—I did want to get on the plane, but I was trying really hard to be mindful and not to just say, Oh, don’t worry everything will be okay, when I didn’t know because all of this—relationships and honesty—were new to me, and what I was hearing was that my efforts weren’t enough.
I didn’t throw the phone, but I did say I needed to walk off my anger and that I’d be back to normal in a few hills. I imagined him at his home, waiting for my text to arrive saying “I can’t do this.” In the past, I would have sent this text. I would have sent it a year ago, and then every two weeks until it finally stuck (okay, I had sent it a couple of times), but I wasn’t going to send it this time. I had faith in our ability to communicate. It was a new skill for both of us, but we were surprisingly good at it. Usually.
After the first hill I realized one reason I was so angry: my whole life I have had the sense someone has been waiting for me to leave, and it started with my mother. Well, it started with my second mother. My first mother left me, and then, ten weeks later, when my mother (and father) got me at the agency, my mother started quietly fearing some day someone would come and take me away: some day I would leave her, as if she’d never been my mother at all.
I held onto her fear, and when I tried to leave for summer camp, colleges, marriages, I came back to her. I knew two things: 1. I was supposed to be independent and leave and 2. I was supposed to stay. And then, when I was in my late forties, my mother died and I was afraid I was going to lose my mind. I had no idea who I was without her. It took about four years, but I started to find myself, started to feel I could make it in the world as me, me without a mom. I had left myself so completely in my effort not to leave my mother that my relationship with myself was one I had to build seemingly from scratch.
As I was going up hills, I was listening to an episode of Radiolab called Funky Hand Jive and it was about one man’s curiousity regarding the lasting effects of a handshake. The men started talking about the fact that what makes the bacterial makeup of our hands different has to do with our mothers.
The subject turned to your bacterial baptism: your birth. The doctor said, “As a fetus, you’re exposed to what’s in the amniotic fluid, but it’s a pretty clean set-up in utero, but then you go through the vagina, and the vagina’s just a host of bacteria and yeast and amniotic fluid.” The doctors take the baby, make sure everything is okay and then it’s “right up onto mom to promote the bonding, the skin to skin.”
The producers asked the doctor what she remembered about giving birth to her son and she said, “What I remember is just grabbing for him like, you’re mine, and I’ve been waiting nine months to meet you and now here you are here, and just kind of embracing him and looking in his eyes, so there’s a kind of boding there I will never forget.”
It turns out the baby is also getting bacterial bonding here, too, as the bacteria leaps from the mom’s skin to the baby’s.
The producers of the show said, “The strains of bacteria we get in those first few hours, and then to a lesser degree the bacteria we encounter the first year of our life, those strains of bacteria stick with us forever.” Even if you try to get rid of your bacterial inheritance—extreme bathing, antibiotics—the bacteria you got from your mother will come back.
In biology this is called “The founder effect”, where the first organisms to get to a new being alter the trajectory of the ecosystem and changes how it develops. That means you have a lifelong partnership with the bacteria you first encountered.
So what happens if you are taken away from your mother as soon as you come into the world? Do you miss bonding 101? Is your bacteria somehow compromised? Do you have health issues for the rest of your life that doctors would never in a million years stop to link back to relinquishment?
And if you missed this bonding, can you get on a plane and hug someone like you mean it, like you want to stay. Like you can stay?
What do you think?