In the summer of 1981 when I was 30, a strange and embarrassing thing happened to me. In a group room at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, where I had just started my residency in psychiatry, as one person said her ritual goodbyes to the circle of over 25 patients and clinicians, most of them strangers to me, I cried. The cry washed through me, quiet but strong enough to bend my head, soak my cheeks, and run my nose—I did my best to stuff it and later to dismiss it.
My lapse only took on meaning when it happened again in other group meetings, and then at graduations and then watching corny commercials. What was this–my initiation into professional empathy? None of my classmates were losing it this way. All too soon I went from being a guy to being a guy who cries over good-byes and commercials. And I had no clue about why.
Last night, 32 years later and still the easy weeper, I got a new clue. Thinking about all the forces that separate us from those we love—geographic distance, poor communication, fear, poverty, prejudice, illness, fatigue, bad weather—it’s amazing most of us stay attached in some way. It’s amazing how driven we are to stay attached, sometimes even to those who mistreat us. Staying attached trumps comfort and sometimes safety. We’re made to connect and, with a few select people, to stay intimately connected.
Call it attachment, call it love. Last night I learned about a new contributor to this tethering force, affectionately referred to by the Northwestern anthropologist Lee Gettler as “T” for testosterone. Gettler and colleagues recently did what no one before them had done: they collected testosterone levels on a sample of 624 men age 21 and again 5 years later, along with information at both times about courtship, partnership, fatherhood, and childcare habits.
“High T,” it turns out, favors our chances at that age of catching a partner, possibly by turning up the love juice. Guys like hearing that kind of news. We like to think more is better. But the big news of the study may be harder to take: having babies drops our T by half. And spending at least three hours a day changing diapers and playing peek-a-boo drops our T even more.
Here’s behavior reprogramming our biology. The same effect is true for birds and other beasts too. But why? High T gives us the edge in the chase for a mate, but high T also drives males to risky behaviors, such as more roaming and finding more mates, more fights, more drugs and alcohol. It’s no accident that combat soldiers do their riskiest work in their early twenties, far from mates and babies.
When the birth of a baby drops the father’s testosterone, it’s easier for the father to stay closer to home. And fathers with lower testosterone tend to be more moved by the cry of a baby, less moved by the movements of a tight skirt.
I’ve never had my testosterone level checked, but I find it enlightening to know that mine probably peaked in my 20’s and had been dropping for a couple of years when the easy weeping started. Falling in love in 1977, marrying in 1978, having a son in 1979, and starting my residency in psychiatry in 1980 with daily challenges from my supervisors to “put one foot in the world” of my patients meant those years threw me into depths of intimacy I’d never imagined, demanding new kinds of love juice. For guys, high T makes for a good chase, but lower T allows for loyalty, for tending to the toddler, for weeping with the griefs and joys of others.