From woman into mother: the real meaning of baby brain

Now my little girl is approaching three, I’ve finally had the space, time and curiosity to look back and wonder just what has changed for me and what triggered those changes. I’d spotted some really big differences in myself and had never thought deeply about it – I mean who has time? I was busy thinking about my thin hair and wondering why my girl is only eating pear today.

And then a whole load of new writing and podcast content broke through into my media space and finally the penny dropped. The hormonal changes that took place in pregnancy and the first two years of motherhood, have done their intended job. My brain has been rebooted to ensure survival of the species.

Yes, we all know the jokes about baby brains, and if you’re mum, you’re probably aware that your brain doesn’t quite operate the way it used to – although any parent of young kids can testify that a good few years of sleep deprivation can leave you feeling wooly to say the least.

Although recently there has been renewed interest in the changes that motherhood brings in the cultural zeitgeist, mainly triggered by Alexandra Sacks MD when she gave her 2018 TED talk “A new way to think about the transition into motherhood” and brought the term matrescence back into modern awareness.

She describes that in her practice in the US, she would see mothers assuming that they were suffering from postpartum depression. They had such mixed emotions and reported feeling so unstable, so not like themselves, that there had to be a medical diagnosis that fit their condition. But no Sacks says, it was ‘just’ matrescence.

The term was first coined in the 1970s by medical anthropologist Dana Raphael (who also introduced the term ‘doula’ to the world) to describe the developmental transition that mothers go through and the similarity to adolescence is no accident – it’s just as whole body as puberty: hormonal, emotional, physical and your brain is permanently changed as a result. You lose control of how you look and how your body is behaving just at a time when your emotional state would make it really helpful for you to be able to appear in public without feeling a wreck.

The really interesting thing is that for adolescents, perhaps because all of us have to go through it, there’s still a lot of social empathy for that difficult time. We understand that your teenage years might not be the best of your life and many people report their 20s being better. We refer to it as a phase, society adjusts it’s expectations and there is good knowledge out there that means that although it’s tough, it’s supported and understood. A slightly cynical part of me wonders that if men had such an extensive second adolescence, we could be sure we would all know about it.

I’ve been reading a scientific paper, published early 2019, by a group of Spanish researchers who mapped the changes to the human brain in pregnancy and beyond. They found and could unequivocally show that pregnancy leads to significant and long lasting reductions in the amount of cerebral grey matter mothers have. They then compared these brain changes to those of girls undergoing adolescence and found them to be essentially the same. The hormones that drive the changes are different (oxytocin, oestrogen, progesterone and prolactin for mums; oestrogen and progesterone for girls) but they drive incredible neuroplasticity, a state under which our brain can undergo massive change driven by the needs of our daily environment. The huge amount of interaction women have with their babies during this state of plasticity sets lasting change in motion: we literally reshape our brain to become better adapted to caring for a little one.

Teenage girls experience the same neuroplasticity, causing the changes to behaviour and perhaps eventually personality, if this pruning and regrowing moves far enough away from the old brain structure.

Interestingly, the average time it took the teenage girls to pass through their adolescence was 24.2 months. For mothers, it was 15.5. This caught my eye. At first glance I thought that teenagers must have it harder, their transition period takes longer and they have this period for hormone driven instability for 8 months more. But then I thought about it a bit more. Maybe the correct way to look at it is that mothers have 8 months less to complete this monumental change. It’s compulsory too: we must complete it in order to come out of our post partum period.

Mothers battle this huge developmental shift, as momumental as changing from an teenager into an adult, not knowing it would happen, while society isn’t allowing for it, on nowhere near the amount of sleep teenagers have and all in 8 months less time than the average period of puberty.

It made me think about the mothers that Sacks described, battling this huge developmental shift, as momumental as changing from an teenager into an adult, all the while not expecting it themselves, while society isn’t allowing for it, on nowhere near the amount of sleep teenagers have and all in 8 months less time. Is it any wonder her mothers reported feeling like they did? That they wondered if they had tipped into depression?

I for one can tell you that I’ve changed. Hugely. The centre of my world has moved as I knew it would, as I knew it should, but other things, unrelated to our daughter have changed too.

I’ve become much more outspoken and I’ve become much more likely to defend my daughter or myself from what I see as injustices. Be it inconsiderate people on public transport (a fair few here in London) to the current politics (let’s not even get started on Brexit) or how women are still unfairly positioned in our society (hello capitalism and patriarchy), I’m quicker to jump in. Perhaps I’m much less tolerant now I have to consider the world she will inherit. Maybe I’m less patient. Maybe I care much less about what people think of me. Perhaps shades of the teenage me have returned.

But it’s other things too. Things I think my pre-pregnancy self might even have mocked.

I can’t cope with violence on TV or in movies, not even a little bit. My music tastes have done a u-turn with the french electro house I used to stay up to 5am to listen to, now firmly off rotation. Folk and indie now are on Spotify as we play.

Now I crave greenery, not the city. I’m much more about a cabin in the woods with a herb and vegetable garden, maybe even an orchard, than a small but cute top floor Camden flat. I dress differently too. A less glossy version of me has come out. Where previously I was all about slick grooming, straight hair and minimal outfits, I’m leaning now towards natural curls, full skirts and sheepskin lined birkenstocks. Honestly, I would have laughed at myself only five years ago.

It’s often felt to me that the force of change was so immense, so all encompassing, so unexpected, that so many aspects of my personality disappeared for a bit. So many of the things that I used to value (hobbies you might say) just ceased to be. I think it’s fair to say that it’s only been recently, perhaps not even after 15.5 months, maybe 28 months, that I’ve been starting to feel anything like myself again. How reassuring to know that I wasn’t gone forever.

I’m so interested in these changes, that I plan to keep following this type of work and thinking. How much more fascinating insight into this previously unstudied area is there still to uncover?

I’ve now started to wonder whether the variance in how women manage their matrescence and how they then adjust to their brain changes factors into the choice to have a second child, the if as well as the when. It feels as if you need to come back to a sense of self and find a new sense of normal before you can consider making another change, before you can consider another shift.

Now, looking back on it, it doesn’t surprise me that this concept, this phenomenon isn’t widely known. Like so much else that would help mothers, this information isn’t out there: it’s not taught and it’s not spoken about. This all too common feeling of disconnect, the feeling that it must only be you, the worry that it really is only you who is experiencing it, could be so easily avoided.

Like so much else that would help mothers, this information isn’t out there: it’s not taught and it’s not spoken about. This all too common feeling of disconnect, the feeling that it must only be you, the worry that it really is only you who is experiencing it, could be so easily avoided.

How crazy is it that we don’t give women the chance to understand how momentus this time of matrescence could be for them and how they could embrace this rebirth? I too felt like I was losing myself and losing the plot. If someone had told me the best parts of me would resurface and that it might be a two year period of change that would rival my teenage years, I might have been able to trust the process. I hope that I could have been less controlling, that I could have gone with the flow – although knowing the old me, I might still have tried to manage it.

One interesting question: who will I be if we go for two or three? :-)

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Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

Reference: Carmona, S., Martínez‐García, M., Paternina‐Die, M., Barba‐Müller, E., Wierenga, L., Alemán‐Gómez, Y., Pretus, C., Marcos‐Vidal, L., Beumala, L., Cortizo, R., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García‐García, D., Soliva, J., Tobeña, A., Peper, J., Crone, E., Ballesteros, A., Vilarroya, O., Desco, M. and Hoekzema, E. (2019). ‘Pregnancy and adolescence entail similar neuroanatomical adaptations: A comparative analysis of cerebral morphometric changes’. Human Brain Mapping, [online] 40(7), pp.2143-2152. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hbm.24513 [Accessed 7 Feb. 2019].