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Mother Brain by Chelsea Conaboy: how parenthood changes the way you think and feel

Maureen Gaffney on Separating Myth from Biology — the Science of the Parental Brain

Mother and baby. Illustration: Getty Images
Mother Brain: Separating Myth from Biology — the Science of the Parental Brain
Mother Brain: Separating Myth from Biology — the Science of the Parental Brain
Author: Chelsea Conaboy
ISBN-13: 978-1474618366
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Guideline Price: £20

What does it mean to become a mother and how does it change a woman? These are some of the fundamental questions that American journalist Chelsea Conaboy sets out to answer in this book. For many women, she says, the question feels dangerous, forcing them to acknowledge just how much they are changed by motherhood — distinct from their former selves, from those who do not have children, and from men. And most often, this difference means lesser: overwhelmed, frazzled, hindered by their own biology, less interesting, and never quite measuring up to what’s expected of them.

While there is no shortage of information about how pregnancy and childbirth will change a woman’s body, Conaboy maintains that this is not matched by a similar focus on what is happening to the mother herself, in particular what is happening to her brain, inner life and sense of self. (Others are likely to demur and point to books that address the experience of becoming a mother. So she set out to find out what science, particularly neuroscience, is discovering about how becoming a mother changes a woman’s brain and what is at stake in the process.

Her initial interest in the topic was prompted by her own experience. Although overjoyed and awed when her first child was born, worry soon became a constant, followed by guilt and loneliness. She describes feeling a kind of “untying”, everything a few degrees off-centre, as if something deep within her had altered. Sometimes, she stood in front of the mirror holding her son, in awe of their two bodies and what she had done and feeling a new power in herself. Other times, she watched other mothers and wondered if they felt the same way as she did — endlessly worried about their babies; or moved to uncontrollable tears by the news of yet another boat of refugees in the Mediterranean capsizing.

Like many new mothers, she found herself desperate not just for more time, but for more information on what she was experiencing in her body and in her brain. She first turned to Peter Schmidt, the head of behavioural endocrinology at the American Institute of Mental Health, who had described new motherhood as a distinct developmental stage with long-lasting effects on the systems in the body that regulated social behaviour, emotion, and immune responses. This idea of motherhood as a new developmental stage, akin to puberty, excited her and chimed with her own experience as a new mother. Her response was to investigate the new science on the parental brain. This mix of neurological and hormonal changes, and the lived experience of mothers who experience these changes and how they play out in parenting is what the book is about.


These changes help explain the state of heightened sensitivity, worry, and obsession about their baby that often characterise the early weeks

It describes how having a baby changes a mother’s brain, functionally and structurally, some regions of the brain actually change in size, growing or shrinking to meet the changing demands of caring for a baby, reorganising the neural feedback loops that shape how we react to the world around us, how we understand and respond to people, how we regulate our own emotions and how these changes can affect our physical and mental health for the rest of our lives.

These changes help explain the state of heightened sensitivity, worry, and obsession about their baby that often characterise the early weeks after a baby is born — what paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once described as “primary maternal preoccupation” and are designed to help mothers respond to a baby’s complex and changing needs. Helpfully, Conaboy even puts a number on this preoccupation. Two weeks post-partum, mothers on average report spending 14 hours a day thinking about their baby. For fathers, it was half that. They also checked on their babies, even when they knew everything was okay.

This intense preoccupation begins to wane about four months after the birth, neural activity in the mother’s brain now shifting from the threat-sensitive amygdala to more distributed regions of the brain that motivate a mother to be responsive to the baby’s need for independence and a different learning environment.

She emphasises that these changes are not some neurological version of the maternal instinct — the idea that a woman is a lock waiting for the baby to act as a key that will unleash that instinct, an idea that has been used to keep women yoked to the home and to sew self-doubt in those who struggle with new parenthood. Rather, they serve to prime and motivate a mother to be hyper-attentive and responsive to a baby’s needs. She is also at pains to clarify that the mother brain is not synonymous with the female brain nor with the birthing brain. “Rather, it is the brain that is ‘earned by care’ as feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick might have described it” (p. xiv).

These brain changes alter how mothers read social and emotional cues not just from their babies. They may also change how they respond to their partners and to other people; improve their ability to manage their own emotions; help them shift attention from one task to another and, in certain situations, may enhance their cognitive ability to strategise. Researchers have found heightened activity and connectivity in two interrelated networks in the brain that may underlie these changes. The first is the dopamine system which is involved in processing infant cues, making predictions about how things may go, and also contributes to the behavioural flexibility that helps a parent adapt to the constantly changing needs of a child.

The second is the salience system which, in conjunction with the amygdala, the threat centre of the brain helps us assign meaning to events. This is the system that helps a mother interpret a baby’s cues, especially signals of distress, and respond appropriately. Some studies have shown blunted responses in these two systems in mothers who suffer from post-partum depression. But there is also evidence that the more experienced a mother is, the better connected the two brain systems are.

And it’s not just biological mothers who are changed by the experience of becoming a parent. Researchers have also begun mapping brain changes in fathers and in all those who care for children — changes that are triggered by the intensity of the experience and the hormonal changes that go with it. For example, fathers who live with their partners show an average morning decline in testosterone of 26 per cent and an evening decline of 34 per cent, with greater declines in the fathers of newborns and those who reported spending at least three hours on childcare. While this might dampen their sexual ardour, it is thought to increase their capacity for empathy.

The biggest problem is that the book is needlessly long. She devotes an entire chapter to debunking the myth of the maternal instinct

This book contains a lot of complex research findings, and in general, Conboy does a good job of presenting it. So, will women find it interesting and helpful in understanding their experience of becoming a mother? Some will. But this 261-page book, with a further 71 pages of references, is not for the faint-hearted. The biggest problem is that the book is needlessly long. She devotes an entire chapter to debunking the myth of the maternal instinct, something that could have been done in a few pages — and then for good measure revisits it again in another chapter. The last four chapters of the book are meandering and sometimes repetitive, and whatever new information or insights they contain could have been easily integrated into earlier chapters. Conversely, there is quite a lot of information about fathers scattered across the book that merited a separate chapter.

In the preface, Conaboy discloses that her original intention was to write an essay about her own realisation of motherhood as a developmental stage. But then, as she delved into the research on the parental brain, to use her own word, she was “hooked” and unfortunately it shows. A little bit of distancing from the research and a lot of editing would have made this a better, more readable, and useful book.

  • Dr Maureen Gaffney is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and the author of Flourishing (Penguin 2011) and Your One Wild And Precious Life (Penguin, 2021)

Three more titles

Motherhood: A Manifesto by Eliane Glaser (2021, Fourth Estate)

Glaser takes a broad, societal approach to motherhood arguing that it is the unfinished business of feminism. Her main contention is that the cult of the perfect mother raises the stakes for women, yet at the same time, the enduring bias they suffer manages to demean them, and the resulting inequality and injustice are often internalised by the anxiety and guilt that mothers feel.

M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman by Pragya Agarwal, (2022, Canongate)

Agarwal is a behavioural scientist and takes a broad cultural approach to understanding motherhood, especially the issue of identity examining what it means to want to be a mother, the assumptions that are made about you and what they reveal about the society we live in. She takes aim at the judgmental attitude to women’s bodies, for example the use of words like “incompetent” to describe problems with a uterus that creates problems maintaining a pregnancy.

The Motherhood Complex: The Story of Our Changing Selves by Melissa Hogenboom (2021, Piatkus)

Hogenboom also takes issue with the myth of maternal perfection. But her main focus is on how the experience of pregnancy and motherhood changes women’s brains, their sense of self, physically and socially. She also examines the cost that motherhood exacts on their careers, the intrusion of technology on family life, and stresses how important it is for women to understand how and why the experience of motherhood affects their physical and emotional health.

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by Phillipa Perry (2019, Penguin)

This is a book that focuses on the importance of understanding your own upbringing, how that shaped you as a person and how you rear your own children. This psychological focus on relationships — the relationship between parent and child, parent and partner, and parent and own parents — is informed not just by science but by her own experience as a psychotherapist.