At Mass on Sunday I found my eye drawn towards a father and his small child, aware of the gentleness and tenderness of the father towards his son. That involved keeping the little adventurer in his seat but in a way that encouraged the boy to keep close to his daddy. The father was a source of snuggles, loving touch and tenderness.
I have similar memories of going to Mass when I was small. An aunt of mine sometimes came with us and she would run her fingers up and down my arm, reducing me to a state of quiet relaxation and good behaviour.
It is no wonder that we respond so positively to gentleness. Scientists have found that when we have positive encounters with each other the hormone oxytocin is released in our brains. So that gentle, tender touch releases oxytocin, helping us to feel connected and loved. Indeed, oxytocin is known as the love hormone because it is so important in building human relationships.
Naturally released oxytocin is vital to help a pregnant woman go into labour. When she is in labour the presence of someone she loves helps to keep her oxytocin levels up and her contractions strong.
Ideally, when the baby is born he should be put on his mother’s chest – skin to skin contact allowing oxytocin to be released in the mother and in the baby. It is now recognised that this love hormone plays an important part in attachment and bonding – that vital building of relationship between a mother and her child.
We have opportunities each day to experience the benefits of oxytocin and encourage that in others. Every positive encounter – laughter, touch, gentleness, encouragement – all release oxytocin. It boosts our mood, makes us feel connected, more positive and safer.
The opposite is the effect of cortisol, the stress hormone. Too much of that and we can feel anxious, isolated, unsafe. Cortisol is known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormone – so either we become aggressive or run away. It is not surprising that the choices we make can be influenced by the levels of oxytocin or cortisol in our system.
This all came up in a conversation I had last week with two friends – one a doctor, one a midwife and birthing specialist – about how we can offer women better options than abortion.
From their shared experience it was clear that context is so important when a woman finds out she is pregnant. If that context is screaming ‘crisis’ at her – be that emotional, financial, social, or whatever – then the cortisol response may mean she is more likely to choose abortion. Somehow, we need to offer women a positive, safe place in which to consider her future.
Part of that may be about encouraging positive conversations about pregnancy and birth. So many women are afraid of how their bodies will change, afraid of childbirth, afraid of losing control of their own futures by becoming mothers. There is another narrative there which needs to be heard, about the amazing power and strength of women, the wonderful transformation of life through parenthood.
We also need to back that narrative up with practical support. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis encourages us to demand family friendly policies from those in government. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness – these all militate against family life and need to be challenged by every person that sees themselves as pro-life.
We also need to equip our young adults so that if a friend confides a pregnancy they can reach out with love and support creating a safe place, an oxytocin-rich environment in which decisions can be made.
I came away from the conversation with my friends buzzing with a sense of life and possibility. I find myself returning to Jesus’ words: “I came that you might have life, life to the full.” We are called to be sources of life in every sense. We can start with a smile, a hug, a shared laugh – we can be agents of oxytocin!