Nearly two decades ago, I took my twin infants and preschooler with me to a dentist appointment and managed to lock my purse, along with my keys, in the front seat of a car that was designed to make it nearly impossible to lock your keys inside. The dentist himself came out to the parking lot and unlocked the door with a coat hanger. I chalked the incident up to “mommy brain,” that fog of distraction and forgetfulness attributed by popular culture to sleep deprivation, the hormonal stew of new motherhood and lack of adult conversation.
When Maine-based author (and former Portland Press Herald features editor) Chelsea Conaboy was working on her book “Mother Brain: How Neuroscience is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood,” moms of her acquaintance assumed she was writing about this mommy brain phenomenon. While the book touches on studies that have found some small and temporary effects on memory during pregnancy and the postpartum period, the real story she tells is far more interesting. Through a deep dive into medical, psychological and anthropological research, Conaboy demonstrates that parenthood fundamentally changes the structure and organization of the brain in ways that are long-lasting, if not permanent, and that these changes do not only occur in gestational parents.
“We are,” she writes, “in a very real sense, remade by parenthood.”
Conaboy deftly summarizes the results of animal and human studies, noting their limitations, distilling their implications and gathering the threads that connect them to weave a compelling tapestry. These studies show that during pregnancy and the early months of parenthood, the brain’s “architecture” changes, with some areas of gray matter gaining volume, others trimming down, and connectivity strengthening along particular channels as the parent adapts and learns in response to an infant’s continually shifting needs.
This means, she writes, that adults learn to care for an infant through the act of caring for the infant, and the brain adjusts as the baby’s needs change. This growth-through-caregiving is available to any adult who takes care of an infant, not just gestational parents. Conaboy argues that the science proves that the notion of the maternal instinct is a fallacy and that parenting doesn’t come naturally to mothers, or anyone else. Rather, as one researcher put it, “Parenting is a skill,” and any adult engaged in the close care of an infant can develop that skill, regardless of gender or biological relationship to the child.
Further, Conaboy writes, “Having a baby seems to restructure the parts of the brain involved in processing social interactions and our sense of ourselves within a social context.” While it’s not clear what this means for parents in terms of relationships outside of parenthood, the possibilities are exciting.
Conaboy acknowledges that we still have a long way to go before we have a complete picture of how parenthood changes humans’ brains and what effects those changes have over the long term. Medical research focused on women in general, and the pregnancy and postpartum stages in particular, has been limited. Studies into the way the brain is affected by parenthood have focused mainly on birth mothers, and those that look at nongestational parents have been mainly restricted to cisgendered biological fathers in heterosexual relationships. Conaboy argues that we need more big, longitudinal studies; more small, focused studies; and more studies that look at the brain development of nongestational and nonbiological parents and caregivers.
But even without knowing the full extent of how parenthood changes our brains, Conaboy argues that we know enough to develop policies that can support parents during pregnancy and the postpartum period, including robust paid family leave programs, prenatal and postpartum care, screening and monitoring for postpartum depression, and quality childcare. Conaboy points out that the United States is one of the only countries in the world, and the only rich country, that doesn’t have a national family leave policy, and that in Maine, a program that sent public health nurses into the homes of new parents “was decimated by Republican governor Paul LePage.”
Interspersed among the scientific studies, Conaboy shares personal stories, her own as well as those of other women who struggled with the transition to motherhood, including a few of the researchers whose work informs the book. These stories lighten a book otherwise dense with data and give an entrée to readers not versed in neuroscience. But more importantly, they personalize the science.
Parents are not brain scans or statistics but individuals with our own unique experiences, challenges and joys. “Mother Brain” reaffirms what many of us already sensed – that parenthood changes us in profound and irreversible ways.
Andrea Lani is a senior editor at Literary Mama, a Maine Master Naturalist and the author of “Uphill Both Ways: Hiking toward Happiness on the Colorado Trail.”