“This is what we do every Saturday morning . . . we’re dancin’, we’re singin’, we’re cruisin’, we’re groovin’.”
– Sarah Merchant narrating a home video of her husband Vic and their kids dancing to U2’s “Magnificent.”
When I finally pulled up to the house, 30 minutes late from work, I heard the VeggieTales version of “Modern Major General” blasting out of the house. The laughter and hooting of my kids was even louder. I opened the screen door and walked into a room of chaos – couch cushions, pillows, blankets, and toys everywhere, my kids bouncing and dancing and singing around them. I gave my wife a kiss and she said, smiling, “It’s been a long day.”
In his hilarious memoir, Alternadad, Neal Pollack describes connecting with his infant son Elijah during that stressful, post-birth period when mommy’s sick of being touched and daddy’s having to figure out fatherhood for the first time:
One afternoon I cleaned his butt and put him into a clean duckie jumper. He seemed to be aware of me so I started bouncing my hands lightly on either side of him. He bopped up and down on the bed and I started humming “Lester Leaps In,” an old Count Basie standard I remembered from my brief mid-nineties jazz-dork period. I definitely caught him smiling during that, so I took it to the next level, and quoted from a different jazz standard:
“Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts!”
Elijah gurgled with glee, so I did it again.
“Salt Peanuts! Salt Peanuts!”
Again, singing and dancing, even if the material used raises a few eyebrows.
When I reach the End of Parental Energy, I’ve discovered I can get angry and resentful at my God-inflicted leeches, or I can crank up Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” and bounce around the room with my kids, shouting their favorite chorus of all time. This past week was filled with those moments. One night, the length of my patience was an Angry Inch and my wife had to talk me off the Ledge of Everlasting Bedtime. After a few hugs and a some minutes of the heartbreakingly beautiful “Alina” by Arvo Pärt, my energy came back, my feelings of love and well-being returned, and I found bedtime to be a few rings further from the center of Hell than it had been moments before. I began to wonder what sort of magic music possessed to engineer such a comeback.
“Listening to music,” neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains in This is Your Brain on Music, “activates . . . the mesolimbic system [which is] involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opioids and the production of dopamine.” In other words, music drugs you up with opium and dopamine in order to “improve [your] mood.” It also seems to work like everyday language, conveying emotions like words do. But, Levitin says, music “taps into primitive brain structures involved with motivation, reward, and emotion.” So its power is biological and instinctual – it drugs you up, gives you motivation to keep loving, and lays an emotional foundation for what you want to do next, which in most cases involving family or kids or girl’s you are wooing, is to love.
Of course, not every situation can be resolved as simply as all this sounds – not even Baby Einstein can cure compulsive stage diving off the balcony. But I’m learning that I am often an antagonist in the dramas that rapidly escalate in our house and I can use hefty doses of opioids and dopamine bathing my synapses.
So, apparently choice is also at play here. No matter the religious background, every parent finds himself muttering two things: something like the Jesus prayer and “Don’t shake the baby! Don’t shake the baby!” The baby, or the three-year old who won’t apologize for whacking her sister in the head. Or the six-year old who is suddenly paralyzed by a migraine whenever he’s told it’s time to practice reading. Or the wife when she’s “all done” being touched by all those little hands and can’t stand the thought of yours joining them.
Instead, pray for them. Play with them. Blow out the speakers with “Magnificent” and dance with them.