Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Parental love on day 4,165 - the brain's anniversary gift

I am very interested in the intersections of science and parenting.  Most specifically, how the brain impacts our relationships.  In a recent NY Times Opinion piece by Diane Ackerman, "The Brain on Love" she notes that "all relationships change the brain, but more important are the intimate bonds that foster or fail us, altering the delicate circuits that shape memories, emotions and that ultimate souvenir, the self."

This got me thinking about neurobiology connections between mother and adopted child.  For far too many years, I always kept in the back of mind the thought, "does my son really see me as his mom?"  We adopted him when he was 2 years old and so many formative aspects of who he was were already developed.  While he knows I love him, in those deep and primal moments of crisis, does he instinctively attach to me as his mother and protector?  I wondered about this from day one, and it plagued me until just recently.

A gift was delivered, similar to his arrival.  Out of the blue, with a boat-load of baggage and pain, and what may be seen as a small moment throw away moment, you would have missed it.  As you know, the connection to my child did not happen in utero with our DNA printed on one another.  However, it has developed with him as we communicated with our eyes, face, and voice once he came into my life.

It never crosses my mind that I need to make up the time we were not in each others lives.  From conception to birth and then along the rocky road until he came into my arms.  For each of the 4,165 days that we have been together, we have worked on establishing new neural wiring.

As any parent of a child will tell you there are genetic influences, and then there is the rest of the stew.  Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Allan N. Schore Researchers at UCLA have made strong connections to tease out that it is not that care giving that changes genes and the subsequent impact on the child, it actually influences how genes express themselves as the child grows and develops.  At a recent conference at UCLA the researchers spoke about how "feeling felt" influences not only our choices for romantic partners, but that it  also impacts other areas of the child in studies that measure mental health, happiness, longevity, etc.  "Supportive relationships point to the most robust predictor of these positive attributes in our lives across the life span."  The key here is supportive.

So what was the gift you ask and how do I think that neurobiology has a role.  I was watching a movie with the boy, when a character said, "Your mother sacrificed everything for you to be safe." I secretly hoped that this line would not a point of interest in my boy, as I walk with the insecurity of our maternal-child bond more than I wish to admit.  Then, my boy turns to me and says, "Just like you, you do that for me."

What I would have given for a fMRI of that moment.  However, while I now know that this connection could be seen in his brain--it came from his heart.  All the more of a gift.

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