As a millennial in the midst of fatherhood, there’s a range of interesting observations and surprising lessons I’ve taken in along the way.
I somehow evaded having a child throughout most of my adult life. As it turns out, I was terrified at the thought of being a progenitor. But now that I’m in the process of fatherhood with my 17-month-old, I’m here to say—it’s not that bad. In fact, the first lesson I learned came when I realized that fathering is actually quite a bit more enjoyable and easygoing than I thought it would be.
The second is that while the breast-feeding, co-sleeping, and full-time co-parenting strategy has observationally been of great benefit to our child, I’m convinced that my baby already came into this world packaged with her sassy wit, charming curiosity, and giggle-box antics. Knowing that makes my job simple: Love her, keep all her limbs intact, and equip her to be the person she’s predestined to be.
Thirdly, it’s pretty f@#%ing weird when a complete stranger tells you they want to eat your child. It happens a lot.
You’re walking through the grocery store, an old lady passes by and starts to geek out on your kid (normal). But then you’ll hear a line like, “She’s so absolutely adorable I could just eat her!”
Truthfully, I’ve had the same thought thousands of times. Every day. I look at my daughter and I get this emotional reaction that I just can’t seem to process, so an urge comes about where I just want to dive into her sweet little rosy cheeks or nuzzle and gobble on the neck rolls. And because we relate to such statements, we just accept them as culturally permissible forms of endearment.
But if you think about it from another angle, it actually sounds like we’re sugar-coating the urge of cannibalism. Like, you really want to tear chunks of a child’s face off with your teeth?
No, of course you don’t. So how did our culture land on this odd expression?
Well it turns out there’s such a thing as “cute aggression.” It comes down to a fundamental biological feature of our humanity: Sometimes our brain can’t seem to process an overabundance of an emotional reaction, and so we balance ourselves out with a negative expression.
Have you ever responded to something insanely cute or arousing with a “grrr” sound? Had the urge to squeeze something? Tears of joy?
That’s all cute aggression. Yale graduates Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon came up with the term via their research. They observed hundreds of people and recorded their emotional responses upon looking at pictures of cute babies. What they found is that while folks would express a desire to care for and protect a child, they’d also mention that they’d like to eat them up as well. The more a person elicited this aforementioned type of aggression, the quicker they were able to come back to a normal state of emotion.
The researchers surmised that from an evolutionary standpoint, our body yearns for emotional homeostasis. If we expend too much energy on emotional highs and lows, it’s taking away from our ability to get other tasks accomplished (like staying alive).
Dyer and Aragon pointed to instances in other cultures of this type of expression, such as with the Phillippines’ Tagalog people, who use the word “gigil” to mean “gritting of teeth and the urge to pinch or squeeze.” Or for folks that use the Farsi language, it’s common to compliment a baby by saying that you want to “eat their liver.”
These are also called “dimorphous expressions,” which occur when two juxtaposed responses come from the same situation. This means that negative emotions also can be met with seemingly opposite reactions, such as laughter. We see this in our culture with nervous laughter, or hysterical laughter that comes with a particularly desperate moment of sadness.
There’s a bunch of research that talks about how our brain’s release of dopamine is cross-wired with our pleasure and aggression centers, but I’ll let you Google search all this if you wanna get in deeper.
The important and odd thing to note is that from how we experience food, sex, and celebratory moments, cute aggression or dimorphous expressions are incredibly revealing of how humans express ourselves in a wide range of circumstances.
With that in mind, when a stranger at the grocery store is having a pleasure/aggression brain meltdown at the sight of your child, just know that it’s not about cannibalism. They’re just working through something so that they can get back to picking out some celery sticks.
This column appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.