How Becoming a Mother Changes Your Brain…Forever

We’ve all joked at one time or another about the Mommy Brain, that penchant toward forgetfulness and anxiety over our child’s well-being that begins during pregnancy, seems to peak in the early postpartum months, and yet is still present to some degree years into motherhood.

As I inch ever nearer my over-the-hill birthday, with my youngest having just turned 7 years old, I wonder if my enduring — though muted — Mommy Brain is more than me simply getting older. Did my brain really never fully recover after having babies?

As uncovered in The Week, research has well established that motherhood indeed forever changes the female brain. Indeed, we are not the same creatures we were before our first born, and our Mommy Brain will never fully go away.

But don’t mistake this news as a bad thing. The chemical and structural changes in our brain are what make us successful as mothers. In fact, the more changes to our gray matter in certain regions of the brain, the better mothers we are — and these changes are what set the stage for our grandmotherly instincts in the future.

Related: Healthy Boundaries for the Grandparent-Grandchild Relationship

The real tragedy, as The Week pointed out, is how none of us really know about this — that motherhood creates the most profound brain changes in any part of a woman’s life.

We can joke about our forgetfulness, we wrestle with our anxiety over our children’s well-being, and we struggle with our changing identities. But our society’s proclivity to focus on the joys and wonders of motherhood place an implied shame on the hard parts of becoming a mother — that baby blues are normal, that there will be a remake of your identity, that you will wonder sometimes if you’re cut out to be a mother, that you will doubt your ability to handle the responsibility of growing a human.

And yet, research as far back as the 1960s declares that this struggle for understanding ourselves as a new mother is normal — that it’s actually a good sign in the neurological transition from simply “woman” to “woman as mother.”

We just never hear about it. We grow up thinking that a girl becomes an adult when she leave home at age 18 or perhaps when she graduates from college in her early 20s. But from the research on changes that happen in the maternal brain, it’s more like women are not fully adult until they become mothers.

Related: The Hardest Part About Becoming a Mother

And because we don’t know about the awesome rehaul that goes on in our brains when we enter motherhood, we are terrified by the emotional storms and identity crises we experience — not realizing all the while that they are normal.

We don’t talk about them, because we believe that becoming a mother should only be joyful and exciting. Society tells us to focus on the gender reveal party, the baby shower registry, and the list of baby names. The closest we often get to touching on the hard parts of becoming a mother is how to manage the pain of labor, although there is thankfully an increasing awareness of postpartum mood disorders.

But there remains an unbalanced attention on the baby’s health, lesser so on the couples relationship, and somewhat on the mother’s return to work. Our society pushes us to want to always look at the emotionally bright side of welcoming home a new baby, when the darker side — the struggle we all feel as we shift from “woman” to “mother” — is, while maybe uncomfortable to slog through, even more crucial to our civilization’s prosperity.

So let’s start talking about it.

Photo credit: Anastassiya Bezhekeneva/Shutterstock

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