It pretty well remarked upon in parenting circles that there’s something magical about that new baby smell (when it’s not emanating from the nappy area). There is even a growing body of scientific literature about how this may, in fact, work together with the hormonal changes a new mother’s brain undergoes to help strengthen the bond between baby and mother.
This is definitely something I could identify with after Hawkeye was born. Other babies didn’t do it for me, but my own… maaaaaan, it was like a sweet, sweet high to hold him close and smell him. It’s even referenced in a Scrubs episode where JD prescribes medication to a patient who goes on to suffer permanent anosmia. The patient angrily blames this on the medication prescribed to him and harangues JD to vent his anger:
“I told you I didn’t want these antibiotics. Tell you what: When your first grand-kid is born, you pick him up and you smell his head, why don’t you give me a call and tell me how great it is?”
~ Scrubs “My White Coat” S2:E5
I have actually experienced anosmia myself and it’s truly not a laughing matter. A little over a year after Hawkeye was born, I had a bad sinus infection and I completely lost my sense of smell for about a week. I don’t mean my nose was so stuffy that I couldn’t smell anything through the congestion, I mean that I walked into Lush and asked the first sales assistant I saw to give me their most fragrant product in the shop but I couldn’t detect even the faintest whiff of a scent while it was right under my nose. When I discovered what it felt like to experience a complete absence of smell, I had an immediate flashback to that Scrubs episode, understanding not just intellectually, but viscerally, the sense of loss behind the patient’s anger.
Thankfully, my sense of smell came back. And you know what? No one really talks about it when your baby is no longer small enough to be cradled with one hand, but toddlers still smell almost as sweet (again, as long as they haven’t just dropped a stink bomb in their nappy). Every once in a while, whenever I lie next to Hawkeye in his cot as he’s falling asleep, I would marvel at how he always seems to smell sweet to me, even if it’s been several days since his last bath. Occasionally I wondered if this was still a hormonal trick being played by the maternal brain; another inexplicable rewiring women permanently undergo when they transition to being a mother. Maybe he really does smell sweaty to most people but to me, his mother, it’s like the olfactory equivalent of a giant blind spot?
These thoughts were swirling through my mind earlier this week when, in one of those life coincidences, I came across a 2005 article from The Guardian about hormones. Only instead of being about maternal hormones, it was about the hormonal changes that kids undergo as they approach, and then cross over, into adolescence.
“The first hormone event which will lead to puberty is largely hidden from us. Between the ages of six and eight, the adrenal glands on top of each kidney start to step up secretion of androgens such as DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which the body uses as construction material for the manufacture of other steroids. These androgens prime hair follicles for pubic hair growth and make the skin greasier. Body odour is also a key feature. Parents first notice this change at their children’s parties, when 20 rampaging seven-year-olds are noticeably whiffy in a way that they were not when younger.”
~ Vivienne Parry, “It’s not just the hormones…” The Guardian, 3 March 2005
This paragraph struck terror in me. I mean, it’s not exactly something that’s looming just around the corner for us. Hawkeye isn’t even three yet. And actual adolescence is a decade away. However, the article revealed that, while I wasn’t going crazy imagining that my wee beastie still smelled like a sweet angel, there is only finite window for me to enjoy this pleasure.
Today, I picked up Hawkeye from creche, and he insisted that I hug his giraffe blankie toy. I dutifully did as instructed, and then I impulsively hugged him as well. He was in an exuberantly cheerful mood, returning the hug and letting me enjoy the moment instead of tearing himself away immediately. My first thought was, yet again, marveling at the softness of his cheek against mine. My second thought was: wow, he smells so sweet today! Like some kind of a delicate flower whose name I just can’t put my finger on. My third thought was: oh my god I don’t want him to grow up and become a big, sweaty, smelly boy!
I will freely admit, I stopped the stroller numerous times this evening on the way home whenever Hawkeye wanted to say something to me. And every time, I would bend down and give him a kiss on his cheek or his brow, inhale deeply, and revel in the feel and smell of my son, and the joy they brought me.
Parenting is a really freakishly hard job that will, some days, beat you down and wring you dry and leave you flattened on the floor like some road kill the cat dragged in. Some days, however, it also fills you with immense, irrational, unquantifiable, overwhelming joy by way of compensation.