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.

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 matrsensece 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 to 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].

Mamas, we need to reclaim self care

The current boom in wellness is one that suits me. I can now buy the foods I need to manage my allergies and people get it when I tell them I try to manage my health in non medical ways. I’m definitely perceived as less of an odd bird for doing so now than I was 5 years ago. What I do find difficult though is the hyper commercialisation of the wellness industry. Sure, I shouldn’t be critical of the trends that are making my life easier but to me, the materialism and new sense of pressure (on women especially) to feel well by increasing their consumption of wellness products is not quite in the original spirit of looking after yourself.

The instagrammers that have a blow dry before they arrange their perfect breakfast on the table to do 10 takes of a photo that will eventually be edited before being posted to me totally misses the point. It also brings the issues of affordability and exclusivity to the fore, based on how much spare money and time you have to follow their example. To compare your own health and life to this representation, to what the members of the wellness community put out there on behalf of brands especially is far from ideal – because let’s be clear: for many the aim is to raise their profile to make money.

For mamas, the message is obvious and rarely subtle. You need to make space for yourself to practice self care. Eat gluten free and have less sugar – you’ll feel better! Mediate in front of these crystals when your kids nap! Buy these amazing leggings for yoga – you deserve them! You should do all these things, it’s self care.

This all sits very uneasily with me, because for me, wellness is defined differently. Let me explain.

For me wellness is an intimate knowledge of yourself and what makes you well, totally unrelated to anything a company can advertise to you. It’s honouring your body and mind with the time and respect that allows you to know what works best for you. It’s having the confidence and knowledge to be clear about what your boundaries are and not pushing yourself too hard. It’s about understanding that you are the guardian of your own health.

One thing that strikes me, when I think about it like this, is that I’ve had this before. I haven’t always been able to pay this level of attention but someone else has: my own mama. I also think the parallel is spot on because caring in this way, with this level of depth is something that can only be learned by practice. Your own mother will have been the first person to set the example of how it should be done.

I’m the first to confess that I used to look after my children in a much more caring way than I looked after myself. I know that gingerbread before bed will mean she won’t sleep; I keep her gluten intake low as she gets a bloated tummy if I don’t; I brush her hair so it doesn’t get dreadlocks. I had this intimate knowledge of her that far surpassed what I used to know about myself and what I would allow myself time for. I would give more attention to her than I would to myself.

I know that many mothers would say this is appropriate, that it’s not only part of the job description, it also happens because of the direct to lack of time in a day. How can you spend what you don’t even have on yourself? I also hear the flip side – that it’s your duty to do it, because time for yourself will make you a better mother.

For me though, this quickly has become that commercial message we’re so used to hearing. Money spent on wellness products are worth it because they will make you healthier and happier. The subconscious implication is that you’re a better person if you can do those things.

I’ve had to learn to reject this in my own life and not feel bad about myself for meeting the community standards. Of course I don’t have time to spend on a yoga mat each day (in my new clothes). Of course I don’t have time for that matcha tea ritual that will give me loads more energy (with all my new tea accessories). I might have time for apply some essential oils to my wrists instead of relaxing in a bath (ok, so I might choose some of your essential oil products). I choose to reject the guidance and influence.

To me it was adding a whole load of pressure to the situation. Financial, because all these new purchases add up to a lot. Physical, because there is time pressure in your day forces you to choose what you do. You could do some yoga but that might then prevent you from doing other things that could also look after your wellbeing – like connecting to your present, cooking a healthy meal, sleeping, sitting down for a bit.

For me, the type of wellness that we need as mothers is something we can create for ourselves and is certainly something we should be passing on to our kids – especially our daughters, these future mothers.

I used to get up at 5.55am, head to the park to run 10k, shower with lovely calming products, get ready so my hair looked great, be at my desk by 8.30am ready to work and then choose the healthiest fast food I could find because I had no time to shop or prepare food for myself as I was busy fulfilling the standard I had set for myself. Wellness and work. I wanted to do it all.

Now, through my mother’s eyes, I can see this was too much for me. If someone had prescribed this regime for my daughter, I would try to stop her from doing it. I’d ask her why she felt she needed to push herself so hard. Sadly though, I had no alternative way of operating, no-one had outlined a different path for me. I couldn’t see that a gentler option might have better overall for my holistic health. I didn’t need to spend on running gear or top quality, trendy new health foods to be well – I could have done so much of this for myself.

Now I can look back and see that fundamental compassion for myself was lacking, somehow, and this attitude had been passed on, from someone. How was it, that I hadn’t learnt that self compassion was what was required? Why was I willing to put myself through all of that without one hint of worry that I was pushing myself too hard or potentially even causing more harm than good, even though I technically could be proud of my fitness and healthy eating.

For me it comes down to values that are passed from mother to child. Children are so impressionable, it’s easy to see how they will interpret how their mother cares for them and herself then draw a sense of worth from it. It’s obvious that this will affect their self esteem and then how this will have a knock on effect to how they then learn to look after themselves as a grown up.

How would you know how to look after yourself in an appropriate way if you were never told it was worth doing? Or if you never had anyone to lead by example?

 

During my twenties and early thirties, I spent some time in therapy. There were lots of reasons for it and I can see so many benefits to my having been there. I paid for it myself so we were able to continue until both my therapist and I felt I was ready to leave.

Our main goal: for me to be able to mother and care for myself appropriately, so I no longer needed my therapist’s emotional support to make it through the day to day. Our secondary goal: understand how I could best mother my daughter to help me from subconsciously setting up the less than useful patterns I had been following myself.

When I finally left, when we both agreed I was ready, she reminded me that now I could look after myself. We had in effect taught me how to be my own parents. I could mother myself in the way that I needed. I could be my own father when that type of role was required. Both my parents are still alive, close by and we’re in touch. What I hadn’t internalised ye though, was a crucial part of growing up in a healthy way – how I could know myself well enough to make the right decisions, to be respectful of myself and keep myself well in body and spirit.

To me, this knowledge, this intimate level of care, is the true definition of wellness. The best part is that we can all strive for it and, as parents, we can decide to pass this ability on. Instead of looking externally for ways to keep yourself well and then trying to shift our day around to accommodate these material things, focusing on yourself and what you need to do for your mind and body to feel well is something we can all achieve. It takes care, attention, self respect, awareness and love – things that all parents know a lot about.

We unequivocally give this to our children, but as they grow up and need us less, this special understanding, this way of staying well ebbs away. Instead of handing the baton over to them, leading by example and making sure they understand the importance of learning to do this for themselves, this idea of self care evaporates only to be replaced by external concepts that fill the gaps and pose a solution for what we crave: the intimate love and empathy of a mother. Anyone can learn how to mother themselves and this, for an overstretched, overtired mother is great news.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Motherhood – two years on

I’m not ashamed to say it – motherhood cracked me wide open and hit me in the face like nothing ever has before. I have a fiesty, confident, clever and beautiful little girl who I’m so in love with and immensely attached to, it physically hurts at times. I wouldn’t swap motherhood for anything in the world and know how lucky I am to be her mama.

But actually, it didn’t always feel this way. At times, I would have gladly given her back. I would have gladly put my hands up and admitted failure, perhaps incompetency, perhaps selfishness, anything really, if only to have some level of autonomy and peace back into my life. Of course, that was never an option so I carried on through.

Women wanted an opportunity to have an experience as life changing as becoming a mother. They wanted to test themselves, explore their boundaries and ultimately come back to work a richer, stronger person

In the UK from where I write this, there has been a rise in women taking what has become known (controversially) as #meternity – a paid break from work but without the baby. The name was clumsy, the backlash was large, but some of the more thoughtful people who chimed in spoke not of new mums having an easy way to take a year off work and get paid to slack off for a bit (me rolling eyes) but rather of wanting an opportunity to have an experience as life changing as becoming a mother. They wanted to test themselves, explore their boundaries and ultimately come back to work a richer, stronger person – something any mother can relate to.

I look back now and realise how woefully under prepared I was, we were, for the incredible power of the change that sweeps through your life once you become a parent. I had spent time thinking about what kind of parent I wanted to be, I’d planned for our birth, I’d figured out our finances so I could take the amount of time off work I wanted. Looking back, I can now see that this was all logistical, not emotional.

When you read articles about early years parenting as a parent-to-be you feel like you get it. It’s full of moments of joy as well as moments of despair – the first smiles, first cute noises, days out, connections to other mums balanced by the lack of sleep, the difficulty of breastfeeding, the way you can bicker with your partner over who’s turn it is to do the dishes or hold the baby. We’ve had our own share of jostles to come to terms with all of this but, to me, this has been the easy bit, the type of negotiating I have experience of and can make coping plans for.

What I didn’t find and what I couldn’t see was people like me sharing how they were doing, how they were navigating this massive change, how their family was coping, how they had reshaped their identity after becoming a mother.

I vividly remember taking our 2 week old daughter out to our local park and there was a end of summer carnival on. I looked around at all the other families, people who were so like me and cried. I didn’t feel ready to be part of this parenthood thing and these didn’t seem like my people. To any outsider, we would have looked just the same as them. It would have been easy to assume that we were all in the same tribe. I imply no criticism here, but to me then, when I was still getting my head round it all and I didn’t want to be part of this gang. It felt suffocating and terminal, like I’d made an irrevocable choice.

This feeling of suffocation and of feeling like I had no choice continued for a long time. I wanted to be a mother and thought I was ready for it but when the visits to see the new baby stopped and reality set in, I was left grappling with my choices and how they were shaping me.

So what happened? I think it’s fair to say things got a bit real for a while. I’m super lucky – I didn’t suffer from any problems that couldn’t be resolved by a shower, a hug and a walk around the block. I also don’t mean to trivialise or undermine the experience of any other mother. I think everyone has a story worth sharing. In fact, I was almost reticent to write this, because really, what did I have to complain about? Not much, by most standards.

But, but. Having a baby I could never put down to eat, shower, clean or sleep wore me down. All those long hours with no adult company made me feel isolated. My post baby body made me feel bad about myself. Most of all, not being able to achieve anything and get stuff done was a shock to the system. I don’t mean ambitious things like pursuing a degree or keeping up training for a marathon. I mean managing to get to the shops to buy food, cooking dinner at a time I was actually able to eat it, watching a whole TV programme or drinking a cup of tea whilst it was still hot.

Around the 4th week of little girl’s life, I began to seriously consider I might not be the great mother I had planned to be. She developed reflux and spent whole nights awake, either snuffling like a mini dinosaur or yelling herself purple. Only one thing helped her sleep. Me, feeding her until she passed out, then holding her upright against my chest to keep the milk down. I continued this upright ‘sleeping’ arrangement until I was near delirious from lack of sleep and it had pushed me into a world of anxiety. Was she in pain? Had I done all I could? When she finally did sleep, I checked on her like a maniac, unable to relax and assume she was ok. I also never knew that, actually, a super fast letdown or good flow of milk could be causing the reflux. I could have taken the worries about not having enough milk off my shoulders.

Maybe mamas are meant to have a 6th sense, maybe the extra awareness is intended to help ensure the survival of the species.

I’ve never really had to consider that I might not cope, that I might not be doing it right, that I could be doing a bad job – or when I did have those feelings, I would be able to find a way to resolve them. It was all me and I could control every aspect of life that I needed to. I’d never known anxiety of this kind, this hyper awareness that keeps you constantly alert. Maybe mamas are meant to have a 6th sense, maybe the extra awareness is intended to help ensure the survival of the species. For so any nights after she was finally in her own bed, I woke up with a start, groping for her and pulling at the sheets, asking where she was and if she was ok.

Eventually, life got easier and I came to terms with my new reality. I found ways to cope that weren’t perfect but got us through. I still don’t prioritise myself over little girl or our family but I wash my hair twice a week and usually wear clean clothes. I feel less self conscious over talking to other grown ups and now don’t obsess over my toddler’s eating habits. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint. It’s definitely not. I hope it can send a really simple message – all these big feelings are normal and it gets easier. Just like with everything else, sometimes, you just need to wait for time to move on. Sometimes, you have to accept your reality for what it is, find the good in it, go with the routine and hold your nerve. Life, just like the little babies we raise, changes constantly. The newborn stage is different to where we are now with our two year old and I’m sure the next year will change the game again.

As for us, I knew we were grownups when we went on our summer holiday and our little girl caught a stomach bug, meaning she refused to eat or drink. We spent 2 nights in hospital in Crete, through intermittent power cuts, each staying awake for two hours at a time to make sure our daughter didn’t pull out her IV or fall out of her adult style hospital bed. We complained a little, of course we did, but then we got on and came out the other side as slightly more mature people.

Interestingly, I only really finally felt myself again when I went back to work after my 20 months off. The change of environment, even for just 3 days a week, has reminded me who I am. There’s a new work me though which is very different to before. I’m at a new company but one filled with friends who understand and support me in my return to work. Let’s be honest: most jobs are easier than a day at home with a toddler.

So what am I now? Older and more tired – but more myself than ever. Probably softer and more emotional. Hopefully wiser, less selfish, braver, more patient, more determined, grittier. I care less about my appearance, worry less about what people think of me and I don’t sweat the small things. My thinking is more shades of grey than black and white now. I’m definitely kinder to myself. I’ve taken my multitasking skills to the next level and complain a whole lot less. I’m a woman and mama that’s excited for the future, proud of all that’s passed, determined to be a good role model for my daughter.

Perhaps we really do need to need #meternity for everyone.

This post was written for and first appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Natural Parent Magazine.

Photo by Alex Pasarelu on Unsplash