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Politically Incorrect

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Politically Incorrect

Birth is a miracle - so why do we cry?

“I don’t know why I’m crying,” Amy said, and as I looked at her across the bed where Lauren lay, the new baby Keira crying on her stomach, I saw that Amy’s eyes were overflowing, as were those of just about everyone else in the room in that moment as Keira was born.

So why do we cry? Isn’t childbirth a time of joy?

As I write this, three weeks after Keira’s birth, I’ve barely gotten to see her. That’s because I contracted swine flu right after she was born; just the flu, they say, but I still do not have my energy back. Even worse, the daughter of one of my best friends just died from swine flu; my own youngest daughter has a sore throat and is far away in Lewiston at college, with no mama there to care for her; David’s daughter and two grandsons are also recipients of this year’s swine flu prize, though thankfully they seem to be on the mend.

On top of all that, my website crashed, through no fault of anyone except myself; the egg I cracked for breakfast this morning was bad, and the smell now permeating my house is indescribable.

Give life a little time, and it seems more than capable of giving us things to cry over. So why do we need the ability to cry at happy times?

“I’m not sure why we cry [at the birth of a baby],” Dr. Bruce Honsinger said when I asked him that question. “But we do. We seem to need to cry at times of strong emotion: birth, death, weddings.”

Crying, they say, is a uniquely human activity—at least, the part of crying that includes tears. While animals have tear ducts, they seem only to be used to bathe and heal the eyes (although there’s some evidence to suggest that both elephants and chimpanzees can cry emotional tears). But humans, in the grip of strong emotion, use those ducts and those tears for... something else. Something more.

Several scientists have studied tears, and each seems to have a different theory to explain why we cry. One of my favorites comes from Oren Hasson, an evolutionary biologist at Tel Aviv University, who believes the purpose of tears is to signal submission, issue a cry for help, or to serve as a “group display of cohesion.” There is a bonding that takes place, he believes, when we show through tears that we share the same emotions.

The tears we cry through emotion, as opposed to those instigated by eye irritation or the need for lubrication, have a different chemical makeup; they contain more protein-based hormones like manganese and prolactin. It’s believed that releasing these chemicals through tears helps us to relieve tension. Or as Dustin put it right after his daughter was born, “You know, throughout labor I tried not to cry, but once Keira was born, it was like I had 800 pounds of estrogen inside me.”

I’m not sure how helpful that is, but it made me smile.

“Tears are a bodily function,” Ernie tells me in a tone that suggests there’s nothing more to say. His advice: just do it. And read Tear Soup, one of his favorite books about tears and why we need them.

At this point in time, I couldn’t define the emotions surging through me when Keira was born. But I couldn’t do it then, either. What I remember is there were a lot of them, some contradicting others. There was happiness, awe, relief and disbelief, pride; there was sadness (given the world we’ve brought her into), fear (she’s so small and helpless), even grief—grief that mothering an infant is an ability now only in my past.

I suspect that some of those tears have simply to do with being unable to process so many different emotions in such a short amount of time.

Not that the birth went quickly. On Saturday, October 3, my birthday, we sat as a family group in Jalapenos for dinner; at the end, everyone (the entire restaurant, I think) sang happy birthday to me and, at my suggestion, to “baby” as well. By the last line, Lauren had gone into labor. Keira, however, was in no hurry to make our acquaintance; that labor lasted until Monday afternoon, and most of her family was in attendance for the occasion. Both grandmas, Dad, and two aunts were at Lauren’s side as she labored to bring Keira into the world. We all watched her first breath. We probably didn’t need to cry in order to bond by that point, but cry we did and the bonding was there too.

Lauren is probably the only one who will ever ‘forget’ the day that Keira came; nature’s little trick to ensure that mothers are willing to give birth more than once. The rest of us will likely always remember Lauren’s rather astounding grace throughout the process; that one time when she gave Dustin a look (had he bumped her tooth with the straw in the water he held for her to sip?) that had all of us laughing, and Dr. Bruce assuring Dustin that he was “doing a good job” and this was “just labor”; Lauren upset and asking worriedly “why isn’t she crying?” even though Keira was doing her best to protest this bright, noisy new world she had entered; the paparazzi image of dozens of flashes as we all took pictures of the new baby (my own came out as blurry as my eyes, but I think in her first minute of life, there were at least 100 pictures taken of Keira).

And probably we will all remember the lesson demonstrated in the tears rolling down every face; that sometimes, life shows us a miracle that will forever change who we are and what we know about how to live.

Welcome, Keira Elizabeth Gannon. You have entered a world full of love and tears of joy at your presence.

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Landon Otis

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grandchildren, children, Keira, birth, crying

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