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Mother Brain? Yes please!

I thought I would just gain a bit more knowledge on how my brain has changed a bit since becoming a mother, but I was in for a surprise… I learned SO much more about how incredible our brains are from this book! 

For those of you reading this who are mothers and parents, I imagine that the majority of you, just like me, had no idea how much you would change, how much your life would change and how unprepared you felt once you had had your baby/babies. Yet, here’s what I have found confusing since becoming a mother myself nearly nine years ago now: people have been becoming parents for millennia, so why does it all still come as such a surprise and why are we all so unprepared is many ways for this life transition which, in 1973, Dana Raphael referred to as ‘Matrescence’? 

Like me, and, if you’re reading this, probably like you too, the author Chelsea Conaboy wanted to understand what she was experiencing and here is some of what she found out…

In the preface it states that Peter Schmidt, who has carried out ‘research into the influence of hormones and reproductive state on a person’s mood and mental health since 1986, describes new motherhood as ‘a distinct developmental stage with long-lasting effects’, in which each of the body’s systems thought to regulate social behaviour, emotion, and immune responses - where “all of those things get drastically changed.”

Mothers often feel different to how they were before but can’t explain why because there hasn’t been enough information on why they feel so different, until now - and hopefully increasingly in the years to come…

In Chapter 1 - ‘At the Flip of a Switch’, the author explains that ‘our expectation of ourselves did not match reality’. This is something that I often talk to clients and mentees about in terms of expectation vs. reality and how society and social media don’t always help in this space either…

Parenthood creates a different kind of person’ (…) ‘Becoming a parent changes our brain, functionally and structurally, in ways that shape our physical and mental health over the remainder of our life span.’ (p.6) This resonated with me in as much as I too have felt different since becoming a mother, felt different again after having a second child and feel like I’m constantly changing, constantly growing as each year passes. I now know however, that this is normal and parenthood is an ongoing period of growth and as Chelsea puts it ‘We are in a very real sense, remade by parenthood.’ (p.6)

Another fascinating thing about our brains is that they can adapt and rewire as we experience new things and parenthood is one of those ‘things’ on a monumental scale! Chelsea states that ‘Motherhood in certain contexts has been found to enhance executive functioning, affecting a person’s ability to strategise and her capacity to shift attention between tasks. (…) a small number of studies suggest motherhood may even protect cognition later in life.’(p.9) 

In Chapter 2 - ‘The Making of a Mother’s Instinct’, there is lots of information to be found around the subject of ‘maternal instinct’ and how, over the years, over the decades, the thought process surrounding motherhood and maternal instinct has shifted - and continues to shift. ‘Darwin believed it was precisely a mother’s powerful maternal instinct that made women intellectually inferior to men’ (?!) (p.33) However, what Chelsea goes on to explain further in the chapter is that ‘Maternal instinct has long fuelled discrimination against those families that do not consist of one woman and one man (…) It sustains outdated ideas about masculinity that teach fathers that they are secondary - assistants, babysitters - and that encourages mothers to see it that way too.’ (p.39)

Becoming a parent is a huge shift, in everything we thought we knew about ourselves, about our relationship to people, to nature, to the world. We are ourselves but with an extension to ourselves that we are continually learning to grow with, adapt with and change with. 

In Chapter 3 - ‘Attention, Please’, more is explained around the impact this time in a person’s life has on their brain. ‘The make up of the brain, from the overall architecture to the size and function of each neurone, is shaped by a person’s experience.’ (…)  When we consider that we all have one brain with varying life experiences which impact that brain, we can fully appreciate how flexible and adaptable our brain needs to be! ‘Researchers have described pregnancy and delivery as a kind of storm for the brain. The hormonal surge, particularly in the weeks and days before labour, is incredible’. (p.52) 

As mothers and parents, we are forever growing and changing. However, so too do our babies and our children. It’s no surprise then that we need to have a brain that can adapt to these ongoing and continuous changes in order to respond to the ever-changing needs of our children.

In Chapter 4 - Our Babies, Our Selves, there are some interesting and insightful motherhood experiences shared, some of which I found myself nodding away to, again feeling like my journey wasn’t too dissimilar to another woman’s experience from somewhere else across the world.. The more we speak up and share our experiences of motherhood, of matrescence, the more we normalise it and in doing so, we enable those coming after us to feel like they’re not alone in their motherhood experience. 

As Chelsea states, ‘New parenthood is a time of disruption’ (p.91). It’s a time of disruption on a whole host of levels, which makes it so incredibly unique and often at times, so confusing. 

There’s talk in this chapter about oxytocin, about how taking care of a baby requires so much energy, about the plasticity of our brains and the impact this has on developing our bonds with our children. 

In Chapter 5 - The Ancient Family Tree, it’s lovely to read about how ‘All human adults have the capacity to develop as caregivers. All human adults, not only birth parents are fundamentally changed by the act of parenting.’ (p.117). 

Another point I enjoyed reading was something that relates to what I often talk with my expectant parents about during the postnatal planning sessions, which is being able to ask for and accept support while always remaining in the ‘driving seat’ as it were. Mothers can feel quite vulnerable in those early days and weeks and the support we provide needs to ensure it helps but doesn’t take away her feeling of being in control as this can negatively impact her overall experience. Chelsea refers to this aspect when she states: ‘The trajectory [Anthropologist Kristen] Hawkes describes, required not only a grandmother willing to help, but also a mother willing to let her.

In Chapter 6 - Inclined to Care, Chelsea talks about a study published in 2000 which found that, on average, men and women fit a similar hormonal pattern. Both groups show increases in prolactin and cortisol as childbirth approaches and decreases in estradiol or testosterone in the first weeks postpartum. (p.150) She goes on to explain that these hormonal shifts may in fact be there to ‘prime’ fathers and partners for parental care! ‘Men’s neural responses are changed by fatherhood, especially around motivation and empathy.’ (p.160).

What all of this means is that we grow into the role of parenting. I found this really interesting and reassuring for those for whom parenting doesn’t feel like a ‘natural’/‘instinctive’ role. We are all forever growing and bringing our own life experiences to every new experience we encounter and parenting is no different. There is sometimes a feeling that society thinks a gestational parent should just ‘know’ what to do but she too will have never done it before and as we all know.. there is no ‘rule book’ for parenting! 

In Chapter 7, Start where you are, Chelsea talks about having one brain which doesn’t have a ‘separate parenting brain network’ (p.173) and how ‘new parents’ brains possess an incredible capacity for change and adjustment.’ (p.177).

I absolutely agree that parents’ brains are incredible but that the impact of having the right support, or having no support, definitely impacts this ‘incredibleness’. We spend over £8.1 bn in the UK every year on perinatal mental health issues, a number of these issues could be avoided if mothers received more and better support in the days, weeks and months of early motherhood. Chelsea states that ‘There’s a growing acknowledgement that, to understand the parental brain, we need to know more about how stress affects it, from pregnancy to the postpartum period.’ (p.181) and that ‘New parenthood is immersion learning at its most intense’ (p.184). 

Something my maternity mentoring helps mentees with too is providing that safe space to open up and reflect on their journey and discuss the raw emotions they often don’t feel they can share with their partner, family, friends and colleagues. Sessions offer mothers the opportunity to speak with a trusted neutral person who won’t judge them but instead will offer a listening ear, a chance to use the mentor as a sounding board, a chance to offload thus improving their overall wellbeing and mental health.

Bruce McEwen wrote that a stressful experience may be labelled good, tolerate or toxic depending on how much support and control a person feels in coping with it.’ (p.209)

In Chapter 8, The One in the Mirror, ‘The parental brain, with these new skills and capacity to care, is the same one we use to navigate the rest of our lives. So it follows that we carry those strengths into other domains.’ (p.214) This is SO true! Society makes women think that they are less productive, less capable and less focused after having a baby but I beg to differ - as would every mother I work with! The skills we gain when becoming a parent are everlasting and have a positive impact on our working lives too, not solely our personal ones. 

Mothers I speak with talk of feeling more ambitious, more focused and more determined since having children. 

Why then is there such a discrepancy between what mothers feel, and what others perceive?

Another key topic in this chapter is sleep and how the lack of sleep or the constant interrupted nature of sleep in the early days, weeks and months of parenthood can have a pretty big impact. on a mother’s and parent’s wellbeing. “Newborn sleep deprivation is the worst kind you can possibly get. (…) There is sleep loss and then there is the unpredictability. (…) If you go to sleep anticipating you could be woken up any second during the night, you’re always physiologically preparing for the stressor of waking up.” - Robert Sapolsky

The disconnection we can feel to the world around us when we become mothers is also a topic that comes up in this chapter, ‘New parenthood is so much change at once that sometimes the experience can feel like wearing someone else’s clothes, this uniform of responsibility that doesn’t fit quite right.’ (p.227) ‘Before a person becomes a parent, they are responsible for managing their own basic needs. Afterward, they have their own AND their child’s to manage. Same hours in the day. Same brain.’ (p.231).

In Chapter 9, Between Us, considers some really insightful questions and facts, including: ‘If new parenthood is a stage of development, with lifelong effects on a person’s physical and mental health, then it should be a well-considered factor in the design of healthcare, research and the development of new treatments. This has not been the case.’ (p.241)

Here are a few of my own Why?’s… 

Why isn’t this life stage being more looked into?

Why are women left to get on with it without the information, tools and support they so desperately deserve?

Why, in 2024, are perinatal mental health issues on the rise?

Why isn’t an effective support structure in place? 

Why aren’t we worth it?

Motherhood is (…) a developmental stage like any other, one that requires major neural reorganisation and the slow acquisition of new skills.’ (p.259)

So, would I recommend you read the whole book? Absolutely. I read it with my own perspective, my own experience of motherhood and you will too. It wakes up a whole host of emotions at times, but ones that you need to sit with and then validate in order to move forward and keep growing on your motherhood/parenthood journey.

Be kind to yourself, there is SO much going on in motherhood! 

Thank you for reading and do let me know what you thought and if you go on to read the whole book.

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