Author, journalist, and mother Chelsea Conaboy is here to help you understand how becoming a parent physically changes your brain. Her newest book, Motherbrain (Henry Holt, 2022), takes a deep dive into “how neuroscience is rewriting how we understood parenthood.” Weighing in at 368 pages, it might not be an easy read, but she intertwines her own parenting stories with the science to help lighten your mental load. And you never know, perhaps reading some clinical neuroscience research might just cure your pregnancy-related insomnia. Motherbrain is not your typical parenting manual, but it will become a welcome addition to your collection of parenting books. Trust us, it will help to add a dose of rational science to those frequent “I’ve lost my mind” new-parent moments.
Conaboy writes her book not as a parenting expert or as a neuroscientist. Instead, she is a new mom (she has two toddler-aged children) and a journalist with experience covering healthcare trying to survive being stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Motherbrain is her own search for the answer to the question plaguing her (and many of us): What does it mean to become a parent?
Motherbrain is her attempt to change the way we talk about and understand motherhood. Conaboy challenges our cultural conceptualization as mothers as selfless: “In the long history of the idealization of motherhood, the notion that the selflessness and tenderness that babies require of their caregivers is ingrained in the biology of women, and only women, is a relatively modern one.” In her takedown of the legacy of maternal instinct, she instead points out that it takes time to learn how to parent.
She makes the argument, through scientific evidence, that motherhood is a distinct developmental stage – as hormonally, physically, mentally, and emotionally disruptive as puberty or menopause. “We expect birthing parents to simply carry on, to be who they always were – and more, to be fulfilled – all while their bodies may feel broken and their brains are being kneaded into shape. We don’t tell teenagers to wait out puberty like a passing rainstorm.”
Conaboy is careful to assert early on in her book that she wants Motherbrain to be “a book about the parental brain,” not just mothers’ brains, although she can’t always find sufficient research about all parental brains. If research into the neurobiology of motherhood is lacking, then research into brain changes in nonbinary parents, fathers, or same-sex partners is nearly non-existent. Conaboy expresses her frustration that current research is overwhelmingly focused on cisgender, heterosexual women who are gestational mothers only. She argues that it is not only gestational parents who experience profound neurobiological changes but “anyone who is deeply invested – with their time and energy – in caring for children.”
Using language an 8th-grade biology student would understand, she clearly explains the new research findings about brain anatomy. Scientists are beginning to understand that your brain’s physical hardwiring changes when you become a mother. A few small studies suggest that women experience changes in their brain structure during pregnancy. These changes may last for at least six years after giving birth. Researchers theorize that the body is getting rid of neural networks it doesn’t need to make the brain more efficient and specialized for motherhood, which may help women to bond with and respond to their babies.
For example, Conaboy reviews new research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which showed dramatic changes in pregnant people’s gray matter. Gray matter describes a part of your brain – the part that processes sensory information and signals nerve cells to respond. Your gray matter helps you make decisions and react to the world around you with your actions and emotions.
Other research shows changes in the part of the brain responsible for self-perception in new mothers. Studies, such as the one published in Nature Communications in November 2022, provide hard evidence to back up the psychological tumult people experience during pregnancy and postpartum. The MRI evidence shows the wiring changes behind how motherhood alters how women read and respond to social and emotional cues from their babies, partners, or other adults. Brain researchers now believe your brain rewires itself and changes its shape to care for your baby. Your brain is emotion-driven in motherhood, and it’s on overdrive in postpartum.
Additional research has been exploring how pregnancy hormones, such as prolactin, oxytocin, and estrogen also physically change your brain’s shape. These hormones can shrink and grow different parts of your brain, re-engineering your brain’s layout to create feelings of attachment between you and your infant.
Researchers hypothesize that evolutionarily, these types of changes in your brain during pregnancy make sense. This rewiring help mothers bond more easily with their infants. The flip side of these brain changes is not so positive, however. Changes in self-perception could also play a critical part in the identity crisis so common in postpartum depression. Other scientists looking at pregnant mother rats have looked at neuroimmune markers and hormones to see if they can identify markers for which rats might be more or less likely to develop postpartum depression.
What about “mommy brain,” “baby brain,” or “momnesia”? The pervasive and crippling brain fog that so many pregnant and postpartum moms experience? You might be familiar with some of these commonly-reported symptoms:
- Not being able to concentrate or being easily distracted
- Inability to remember big or little things
- Constant wandering mind
Sound familiar? So, does becoming a mom affect your brain’s ability to store and recall memories?
The answer is yes, but scientists are still trying to understand precisely how motherhood impacts cognitive function. Some research supports a biological basis for memory challenges during pregnancy and postpartum, while other research does not find a connection. Some studies show pregnant women have significantly worse memory and cognitive function than those who aren’t pregnant, especially in the third trimester. However, other research shows that pregnant women do just as well on cognitive tests as women who aren’t pregnant.
Remember those structural brain changes researchers documented in pregnant women’s brains? Well, neurobiologists and neuropsychologists have a hunch that the reorganization of your brain’s structure during pregnancy could also cause mommy brain. It makes sense, right? Imagine if someone reorganized your entire pantry and then asked you to find a specific box of crackers. Of course it would take you longer than normal to find them. It works the same way with memories stored in your brain’s pantry, aka the hippocampus.
Imagine trying to do 20 complicated math word problems on only four hours of sleep while feeling horribly depressed. Oh, and what if your baby was simultaneously crying in the background? How many of those problems would you get correct?
We know that lack of sleep, disrupted sleep, stress, anxiety, and depression all negatively impact memory and cognitive function. All four of these conditions can be present during pregnancy and especially postpartum. So, researchers have a hard time figuring out whether it is the situation of being a new parent (lack of sleep, anxiety, depression) or the physical changes in your brain that result in changes in your memory or cognitive function.
In Motherbrain, Conaboy argues that the actual cause of the shift in how new parents think and feel is not as important as recognizing the significance of those changes. It is reassuring as a new parent to feel as if Conaboy is on your side, telling you, “it’s ok if you feel like you are going crazy. There are some really good reasons why you might feel that way.” No more gaslighting, worrying that you aren’t cut out to be a mother, or feeling like something is wrong with you. Instead, she gently reminds you that “parenthood is a change in self” with mind-blowing ramifications that take time to adjust to.
The other hopeful lesson Conaboy gives readers is the revelation that research on the parental brain is only getting started. Readers come away feeling like more answers, and better a understanding, are on the horizon. These reassurances are why Motherbrain is an excellent addition to your parenting book collection. And if reading about the neurobiology of the brain is not the answer for you, remember that help is always available at Postpartum Support International (1-800-944-4773) – you are not alone.