How Motherhood Changes Your Brain
The data is officially in: Motherhood changes your brain.
OK, so maybe that's not as much of a revelation as it sounds like, huh? Moms everywhere know that motherhood is a big change and well, drain on our brains. It starts with pregnancy, where downright exhaustion, stress, and the hormones coursing through our bodies create a permanent fog that seems to lodge itself directly into our gray matter. And things certainly don't improve once the baby is born, either.
After delivery, life quite literally, turns upside down and alongside the fact that you have a tiny human to take care of, the combination of sleepless nights, stress of making decisions to, you know, keep another person alive, and deal with all of the rest of the world's “helpful” suggestions about taking care of your baby, all leads to an even more permanent fog — also known as “baby brain.”
The science world has long been divided on whether or not “baby brain” is a real, actual phenomenon, with some studies saying it couldn't actually happen and other studies saying, of course, having a baby changes your brain, duh. How could it not?
But aside from the stereotypical, cliched baby brain that people often chuckle amusingly about when a mom might wear her shirt inside out to school pick-up (ahem) or forget her purse at the store, there is a movement now to talk about the drastic ways that having a baby can affect a woman's brain in a fundamental way — and how that plays out for our mental health.
In an article for The Boston Globe, author Chelsea Conaboy detailed her experience with motherhood and how, literally overnight, she was transformed into someone she didn't recognize. She was staying up all night, worrying about everything, watching her child to make sure he was still alive, and wondering why on earth no one had prepared her for any of these fundamental changes in her life. Her prenatal care, she realized, had prepared her for so many things physically, but nothing for the emotional and mental changes she would experience. And those changes, she pointed out in her piece, are a direct result of the physical changes on a new mother's brain.
Not only does pregnancy itself change a woman's brain, but the hormones and experiences after her baby is born affect her brain mapping and development, too. How her baby eats, how she bonds, what kind of temperament she has, what kind of support system the mother has, all affect the mother's brain. Specifically, a newer study found that the gray matter in the brain responsible for feeling empathy and recognizing social processes and needs of others–classic mom stuff, right?–actually expands in women who are mothers. A lot of the immediate changes, such as the anxiety of watching your baby sleep, tend to settle down after the immediate postpartum phase, but the rest of the changes stick around.
But as Conaboy discussed in her article, the drastic changes that women can experience with motherhood can also be very unsettling for women if they aren't prepared for it. They may wonder if something is wrong with them or if they are in danger of developing postpartum depression. They may start to feel very alone and further isolate themselves, compounding any underlying issues. They may mistakenly believe that their worrying and crying and general anxiety mean that they simply aren't strong enough to handle the rigors of motherhood and then hide their feelings from other peers and even their doctors. But the truth is, motherhood just changes your brain and that's totally normal.
And instead of beating mothers down by letting them think that they are failing just as they are getting started, the key, some doctors believe, lies in preparing mothers more about how pregnancy changes their brain and what emotional, personality, and even thought processing effects that can have. For far too long, these kinds of issues have been ignored because the science world discounted them as just women being “hysterical” or “just women's problems.” Historically, women have just kind of ceased to exist once they became mothers and as a result, science ignored them too. And even worse, women, still to this day, are afraid of speaking up about how they are feeling out of fear of being judged by doctors or others.
Talking about the changes–things like how you worry approximately ten million times more as a mom but that doesn't make you crazy–can help. So if you're a new mom wondering if you're losing your grip on reality because you worry about every little thing now, don't worry; you are normal and your brain is just doing what it is designed to do:
Be the best mom you can be.
Do you worry more now that you're a mom?