It’s one of those things in pregnancy and early motherhood that you hear about being a rite of passage, but you don’t quite believe it will happen to you. I thought I would avoid acid reflux – I’d never had it before, yet I ended up an extremely severe case that turned out to be a condition of pre-eclampsia. I had heard that women often lost their hair post-partum, and I brushed it off until I ended up having to chop my hair into a lob from shedding so much. I have always been a little forgetful and scattered, so I thought it couldn’t get worse with “mom brain.” Wrong again. Throughout my second trimester into my third, I felt the focus of my mind soften and my memory falter. Since having my babies, I have been unable to watch anything remotely violent or demeaning – I even have trouble enjoying my beloved Real Housewives without being overcome by compassion for each woman’s trials and tribulations. For me I have felt at times a little like I am losing it, and I have a distinct sense that my mind is different than it was before, for better or worse.
What we all call “mom brain” can often feel like a weakness in a society where we’re expected to be on-the-ball, razor-sharp, picture-perfect and, let’s be honest, unemotional. Being an emotional woman is perceived as a negative trait – it’s seen as out-of-control, crazy, unstable, and even dangerous. “Hysteria” as a disease may have been deleted from our lexicon in the 1950’s, but the cultural effects remain. All of these different aspects – the inattention to details, the foggy memory, the deep empathetic sensitivity – of new motherhood that we continue to view as weaknesses due to our outdated cultural standards are, in fact, super-powers. Scientists have discovered that the new mother’s brain undergoes upgrades during pregnancy that persist for up to two years after giving birth. During this period, a mother’s brain’s chemistry and circuitry change dramatically in a way that’s unlike any other time in life, outside of adolescence.
The numbers of neurons and connections in emotional centers of the brain, as well as in the taste and smell centers, of a mother’s brain increase in number. Scientists believe that the elevated levels of the hormone progesterone and estrogen during pregnancy play a role in the maturation of neurons and neuronal connections. They also believe that these hormones protect the expectant mother against cortisol, the stress hormone. Dr. Pilyoung Kim, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver, is one of these scientists studying the way the mother’s brain changes. She has observed significant structural growth changes in the midbrain, where what we call “maternal instinct” is controlled, and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in decision-making, learning, and regulating thoughts and feelings. Researchers even believe that mother’s IQs may raise slightly after giving birth, although this is still being investigated.
What these mom brain upgrades mean is that the brain is essentially rewired for a woman to become the best possible mom she can be. Her senses are all heightened, making her better able to connect with her baby and her natural environment, which is important for both bonding and survival. It makes the mother what psychologists call “learner ready,” meaning she is able to pick up new skills and gather knowledge on new topics with greater ease. The mother has a more developed, and literally larger, emotional intelligence – she feels more deeply and is especially attuned to the subtle emotional cues of her child. A very strong bias in the brain is formed that motivates the mother to care for her child above all else, which is what can negatively affect the previous ability to multi-task or put other parts of life first.
These are super-powers. Mothers are biologically redesigned during pregnancy and early motherhood to support their role in being attentive, emotionally attuned, and focused on their babies. We are adapted perfectly to our new role, and need only to more deeply believe in ourselves, our brains included. This isn’t as easy said as it is done, however. Our brains are wired with what scientists call a “negativity bias.” This basically means that we are programmed to weigh anything (events, thoughts, feelings) that are negative more heavily and prominently than things of a positive nature. For mothers, this is heightened by our super-powered senses that in previous times helped us to avoid danger and protect our newborn babies. It’s an old trick that served us well during our evolution, but in today’s modern world it is detrimental to our wellbeing.
We also know that in times of stress, our brains rely on the neural pathways that are already in place, essentially our habitual patterns of thinking and being. The good news is that we also have something called neuroplasticity, the brains ability to create new neural connections and pathways. We can train our brains out of this negativity bias by continually triggering positive thoughts, emotions, and telling ourselves new stories in order to sculpt neural pathways in our brain that support positive habits and behaviors. Some of the best tools for releasing old patterns and rewiring the brain include mindfulness meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy. I have personally used both and found each to be deeply helpful and life changing.
Another tool that I have used is working with coaches, including my friend and mentor Kristin Meek of WYLD Leadership. Kristin and I are co-creating WYLD Mamas is be a monthly workshop where we create time and space to learn about the brain and have meaningful conversations about motherhood, our purpose and designing the lives of our dreams. With Kristin becoming a new Mama at the end of the year and me in my first year, there is so much for us to both learn from each other and other new and experienced Mamas out there. We are looking forward to connecting with many of you in and outside these workshops as we all go through this incredible journey.
For more information on WYLD Mamas, check out:
The Post Natal Depletion Cure by Dr. Oscar Serrelach