CHAPTER 1At the Flip of a Switch
Year after year, a nest appeared in early spring, tucked inside a wreath on the front door of my childhood home. The mother robin didn’t seem to mind that I would peek at her from just inside the glass, inches away. At least, I didn’t think so. After all, she kept coming back. And I was glad. She was a marvel to watch, tireless as she set twig to twig, layering in mud and then fine grass to make a safe space for those beautiful, fragile blue eggs. Her devotion to her scraggly, gape-mouthed chicks seemed complete. She was alert and vigilant, patient and selfless. She knew just what to do to care for them, to protect them, as mothers are supposed to.
That’s what I thought. Because that’s how the story goes, the one told across time and through generations, carried forward in fable and in myth until it becomes a part of how we measure the world around us, how we see ourselves. We are the dedicated mother bird, the story tells us, guided by a maternal instinct perfected through the ages into something solid and certain, like a smooth red marble hidden beneath a feathered breast. We nest. We nurture. We defend. Naturally.
Then something happens. We have a baby of our own. And we realize, that sweet story line that seemed full of truth and beauty—it’s bullshit. Broken. Either that, or we are.
* * *
FOR SO MANY OF US, maternal instinct doesn’t show up, at least not in the ways we expected it to. Caring for a newborn does not feel innate. There is no switch that flips when we become pregnant or when our baby arrives. Too often, we don’t question the narrative, the one that says we should know just what to do and how to feel. The one that discounts how parenting requires a whole set of practical skills that we may or may not already possess. The one that omits the facts and circumstances of our individual lives before pregnancy and afterward, that says we will transition seamlessly (but for a bit of sleep deprivation) from a person committed first and foremost to sustaining our own survival to one who is now also entirely responsible for a tiny, nonverbal creature that depends on us for their every need. Instead, we question ourselves.
That’s what Emily Vincent did.
Vincent had been certain, as the end of her first pregnancy approached, that she wouldn’t want a full twelve weeks of maternity leave. She loved her job as a pediatric nurse. By eight weeks, she figured, she would miss her coworkers and her patients. She would be lonely with all that time at home. Then baby Will arrived, and she couldn’t imagine being apart from him. Eight weeks came and went, and she didn’t want to go back to work full-time, not yet and maybe not even after her twelve weeks were up. She worried about day care. Would he be safe there? Would his caregivers pace his feedings correctly? Would they leave him to cry for too long? Would he be OK outside the cocoon of protection and care that she and her husband had woven for him, with love, yes, but also with urgency and with worry? Those are common concerns for a new parent. But for Vincent, they felt like a symptom of something bigger. Her work had been her identity. That identity was in crisis.
It wasn’t just about Vincent’s job, either. There was also Dawn, the baby from the movie Trainspotting, whose image—one particular image—kept popping into her head, though she hadn’t seen the movie in at least a decade. If you’ve seen the film, you know the one I’m talking about, though Vincent had urged me not to watch it. She didn’t want it to live in my head as it had in hers. (Watch Bao instead, she told me—“with tissues”—referring, as if it were an antidote, to Pixar’s Oscar-winning animated short film that imagines a boy as a plump dumpling with an overprotective but loving mother.)
Dawn and Will have nothing in common except that they are both babies and, by nature, vulnerable to their circumstances. Fictional Baby Dawn died neglected in Edinburgh, the adults in her life lost in the abyss of heroin addiction. Will is lovingly cared for at home in Cincinnati by parents who have the means to commit themselves to raising him. Still, the image of Dawn lying motionless in her crib was there in Vincent’s mind when her son napped during the day or as she lay in bed in the wee hours of the morning after feeding him, telling herself over and over, “He’s fine. He’s in his crib. He’s fine”—a mantra of truth against her worst fear. She couldn’t explain it.
“I felt really silly for being so upset about that movie scene,” she told me when Will was nearly six months old. “I felt really silly about suddenly not wanting to go back to work full-time.” She felt afraid of how she was feeling, she said, of what it meant about her ability to be a good mother and about her sense of herself.
Alice Owolabi Mitchell questioned herself, too.
She had prepared for many possible outcomes of her daughter’s arrival. She was acutely aware of the fact that, as a Black woman living in the United States, she was at considerably higher risk than a White expectant mother for suffering complications, including fatal ones, through pregnancy and the postpartum period. Her own mother had died of cardiac arrest two weeks after giving birth to a son when Owolabi Mitchell was a teenager. That baby boy had grown into a fourteen-year-old whom she and her husband were raising. Her mother’s story and her own—they were a lot to carry. While pregnant, Owolabi Mitchell had started seeing a therapist and enlisted the help of a group of doulas. She made plans to go to a diverse mothers’ group in nearby Boston, as well as one close to her home in Quincy.
Then, Everly was born early, about a month before her due date. Owolabi Mitchell didn’t have a chance to make final preparations for leave from her job as a fifth-grade teacher or to say goodbye to her students. She felt she hadn’t fully been able to shift her frame of mind to focus on her baby’s arrival. Days after Everly was born, shelter-in-place protocols began to roll out across the United States in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Owolabi Mitchell’s breast milk was slow to come in, and she and Everly struggled to get the latch just right. She worried about whether Everly was eating enough, about whether her own stress was hampering her milk supply, about the myriad threats the pandemic posed to her family. In-person support groups were canceled. With doctors’ offices mostly closed, six weeks—then seven and eight—passed, and Owolabi Mitchell wasn’t able to see her ob-gyn for her standard postpartum visit.
In those first weeks, one worry seemed to surmount them all: Why didn’t she feel connected to her baby? She had anticipated a flood of warm emotions when Everly was born. She expected she would fall in love at first sight with such force that it would sustain her through those disorienting first days and make her forget about the pain of her own recovery, even carry her through the turmoil of a pandemic. “I was expecting that automatic switch, and that didn’t happen,” she told me. She wondered, “Am I already a bad mom because I don’t have this?”
My experience of brand-new motherhood was different in the details, but so much about Owolabi Mitchell’s and Vincent’s stories, and so many that I’ve heard from other new parents, is familiar to me. Our expectations of ourselves did not match reality. In the days and weeks after my oldest son, Hartley, was born, I felt joy and awe. But I did not feel any sort of natural calm, no sense of certainty or clarity in my thoughts or actions. Instead, I felt a kind of roiling, a constant, unfamiliar motion. Each of us had stepped through the portal of childbirth and were startled to realize that the topography of the map we had been given to guide us in unfamiliar territory barely resembled what we found. Where we expected land, there was water, and we were unmoored.
* * *
IN MY FIRST WEEKS AND months as a mother, worry became a kind of ceaseless static in my mind, never not there. With the worry came guilt. And with the guilt, loneliness. I didn’t feel like the parent my son deserved or the naturally nurturing mother I had been told repeatedly I would be. The orbit of my life had shrunk to encompass little more than the chair in which I nursed my son and the room where his bassinet stood next to our bed. Feeling overwhelmed even in that felt like failure.
None of this—the all-consuming nature of it, the devastation that accompanied the joy—was how I had imagined it would be. Close friends who had young children reassured me that the early months were hard, that things would get better when the baby started sleeping more at night, but they never talked about this thing I felt that I couldn’t quite name, a kind of untying. Neither did I.
Even as the months passed and my worry began to fade some, the sense remained that I had stepped into a disorienting new reality in which everything sat a few degrees off-center. In some ways, it was thrilling. I recognized a new power in myself. I would stand in the mirror, holding my son, in awe of our two bodies, of the thing I had done. Other times, when I waited in line at the grocery store behind a mother with a toddler in her cart or when I spotted someone else walking to work with the same ugly breast pump bag that I had, I would wonder, did they feel it too? Had they become familiar with the same soundtrack of what-ifs, crescendoing in absurdity? (What if that sniffle is the start of pneumonia? What if I fall down the stairs while carrying him? What if my child chokes, someday, on one of those dreaded laundry pods?) Did they find themselves crying uncontrollably as they read about the capsizing of a boat full of refugees in the Mediterranean—or the latest school shooting or hate crime—the news not only tragic but now something visceral, an agony for somebody else’s babies? Did they know the strange tug between the urge to run from the shower to comfort their crying child in the next room and the desire to climb out the bathroom window, so desperate for a moment to themselves, with their old selves?
I feared that their answer was no. That I was an outlier, that the maternal instinct that was supposed to provide equilibrium in the tumult of new parenthood was broken. Or, worse, that something deep within me had been altered. Set loose.
Pregnancy and parenting books seemed only to gloss over the questions I now had about myself as a mother. I found an inkling of something different first in a tattered hand-me-down copy of Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development by famed pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, originally published in 1969. Brazelton wrote that many new mothers face emotional and psychological challenges, that those struggles are normal and “may even be an important part of her ability to become a different kind of person.” Soon after, I read other people’s writing about the maternal brain and, because I am a questioner by nature and a health journalist by training, I dug into the research myself.
I would think of Brazelton’s words often as I pored over studies documenting the change in the volume of gray matter in a mother’s brain or what one paper describes as the “wholesale remodeling of synapses and neural activity.” Half a century ago, Brazelton sensed what researchers today are establishing using human brain scans and animal models: parenthood creates “a different kind of person.”
Birthing a baby doesn’t simply turn on a long-dormant circuit marked for maternal instinct and specific to the brains of females. Researchers studying the neurobiology of parents have begun documenting the many ways having a child reorganizes the brain, altering the neural feedback loops that dictate how we react to the world around us, how we read and respond to other people, and how we regulate our own emotions. Becoming a parent changes our brain, functionally and structurally, in ways that shape our physical and mental health over the remainder of our life span. Scientists have found such significant change in gestational mothers, by far the most studied group, that they now recognize new motherhood as a major developmental stage of life. And they’ve begun mapping how, in all parents who engage in caring for their children, no matter their path to parenthood, the brain is changed by the intensity of that experience and the hormonal shifts that accompany it. We are, in a very real sense, remade by parenthood.
Most pregnancy books and health care providers pay lip service at least to the fact that hormone levels rise steeply during pregnancy and childbirth and plunge soon after. New parents are discharged from the hospital with pamphlets gently warning about the “baby blues,” a period of moodiness and mild depression that most birthing parents experience in the first weeks after childbirth. But rarely do we learn what that jolt of hormones sets in motion.
This hormonal surge around childbirth acts like a rush order on the remodeling of the brain, sensitizing it for the creation of new neural pathways aimed first at motivating parents—despite self-doubt or lack of experience—to meet baby’s basic needs in those tenuous first days, and then setting them up for a longer period of learning how to care for their child. Babies change like the weather and then grow, before we know it, into walking, talking beings with complex physical and emotional needs. Parents need to be able to change with them. The brain adjusts in ways that account for that, becoming more moldable, more adaptable than it typically is, maybe even more so than at any other point in adulthood.
The physiological changes are dramatic. Using brain imaging technology and other tools, scientists can clearly detect and measure changes in the physical structure of new mothers’ brains. They’ve found that regions key to the work of parenting, including those that shape our motivation, attention, and social responses, change significantly in volume. These structural changes are complex. Some regions seem to shift in size, growing or shrinking as the brain responds to the rapidly changing nature of new parenthood, especially through pregnancy and the first few months with a newborn, in a process thought to represent a fine-tuning of the brain for the demands of parenting.
Researchers have identified a general pattern of activity across birthing parents’ brains that builds over time, a caregiving circuitry that is activated as they listen to recordings of their baby’s cry, for example, or respond to images or videos of their child smiling or in distress. The imprint of that circuitry is present even when a mother is doing nothing in particular, lying in an fMRI scanner and letting her mind wander. Caring for a baby changes what researchers call the functional architecture of the brain, the framework across which brain activity moves. And remarkably, those changes last, not only weeks or months after a baby is born but perhaps even decades later, over a person’s whole life span, long past what we think of as the child-rearing years.
Taken together, the science suggests that remodeling of the parental brain involves much more than rearranging furniture to make room for one more role in a busy life. Becoming a parent moves weight-bearing walls. It tweaks the floor plan. It changes the way light enters the space.
As I learned more, my worries seemed to quiet some. Having a baby changes the brain. Not only for the one in five birthing parents who develop a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, but for all of them. For all parents. I had felt adrift in new motherhood, and this anchored me. The turmoil I felt might be normal, an intrinsic part of the reorientation of the brain for parenthood. This prompted a slew of new questions: What else was I missing? How exactly did the brain change, and what could those changes mean for my life? And then, why hadn’t I known about this earlier?
The story I found in the science was decidedly not one of a woman girded by the magic of motherly love, who responds to her baby’s every need reflexively, accepts the self-sacrifice required of her without question, and taps into a well of mother-knows-best wisdom. That narrative, it had become clear to me, was about as representative of new motherhood as the someday-your-prince-will-come Disney stories are of dating and marriage.
Instead, the science tells us that to become a parent is to be deluged. We are overwhelmed with stimuli, from our changed bodies and our changed routines. From the hormonal fluxes of pregnancy and childbirth and breastfeeding. From our babies, of course, with their newborn smell, their tiny fingers, their coos, and their never-ending needs. It is brutal, in a sense, how completely engulfed we are by it and from multiple fronts, like a rock at the ocean’s edge, battered by waves and tides and sun and wind. Some researchers refer to this as the environmental complexity of new parenthood. All the new input our brain must take in, suddenly and all at once, may feel disorienting and distressing. But it has a point.
This flood of stimuli compels us to care for infants in their most vulnerable state, because a parent’s love is neither automatic nor absolute. In a sense, the brain works to keep our babies alive until the heart catches up. It transforms us into protective, even obsessive caregivers when so many of us lack any skill whatsoever in actual child-rearing. If that were all, the parental brain would be worthy of awe. That’s just the start.
Scientists have begun tracking how the neural reorganization caused by parenthood affects a person’s behavior, their way of being in the world, their life at large. Ask any researcher what exactly they know to date, and they’ll likely tell you, “far too little.” This work is just beginning. But the findings so far and the questions they point to are deeply meaningful in themselves. For me, studying them has been like seeing my own reflection in a storefront window along a bustling sidewalk—a chance to recognize myself.
Researchers studying women have found that new motherhood seems to alter how they read and respond to social and emotional cues, not only from their babies but perhaps also from their partners and other adults. It may change their ability to regulate their own emotions, helping them to stay calm—in a relative sense—in the face of a screaming infant (or a stubborn preschooler or a moody teenager), and to plan a response. While many people experience real but generally temporary memory loss during pregnancy and the postpartum period, motherhood in certain contexts also has been found to enhance executive functioning, affecting a person’s ability to strategize and her capacity to shift attention between tasks. Though the results are somewhat complicated to date, a small number of studies suggest motherhood may even protect cognition later in life.
The questions at the forefront of this field are urgent and, in a frustrating sense, basic. Parenthood has been neglected by science, seen more as a subject of morality and the soft laws of nature than as one worthy of rigorous investigation. For a long time, beyond pregnancy and the act of breastfeeding, human maternal behavior was thought to be determined wholly by social and individual factors, with little physiological basis. But parenthood is all those things, psychosocial and neurobiological, a change in lifestyle and a change in self.
Researchers leading the field today—notably, many of them women—recognize that and are pursuing answers that could have far-reaching effects. Why do the brain changes directed at making parents into motivated caregivers also make them vulnerable in ways that can undermine that very goal? What does a person’s reproductive history, even one in which they have no children, mean for their long-term health? How does the brain-altering disease of addiction interact with the brain-altering period of new parenthood? Do pregnancy-related brain changes alter the effectiveness of antidepressant medications in the postpartum period? How does trauma, in all its forms, including the extremely common experiences of pregnancy loss and childbirth trauma, affect a person’s postpartum development and mental health over time? “Mommy brain” jokes aside, what really happens to a person’s cognitive function after they have children? What about their creativity and their emotional state? How does having a child affect a person’s life, beyond their aptitude to parent?
It has become clear to me that the parental brain is an essential topic not only for people taking prenatal classes or navigating the first weeks at home with a newborn. It’s one that grandparents and policy makers, health care providers and advocates, any working parent and any manager of working parents should understand, too, along with any person who is considering whether to become a parent and looking for information, beyond mythology, to help them decide. This science can play a role in shifting gender norms at home and at work, in building public policies that actually support parents of young children, in securing reproductive rights, and in reimagining the relationship between parenting and society. At the very least, it alters the stories we tell ourselves about our individual experiences of parenthood and about the world around us, stories that so desperately need rewriting. Stories about the inner life of that mother robin, or my own brokenness.
This science has exposed something essential that is so obviously missing from the old story of maternal instinct: time. Becoming a mother, a parent, is a process. Unless we’ve previously done the intensive work of wholly caring for another vulnerable person, our fundamental capacity for parenting is not preexisting. It grows. That growth can be painful and powerful. And long-lasting. All sorts of factors determine just how it will occur. How would our expectations change—the ones we hold ourselves to, the ones we judge others by—if we could see that fundamental truth?
* * *
IN FACT, WE’VE KNOWN THIS for a long time. Many people who experience this transition have recognized it for what it is. Feminist scholars have been saying for generations that much of what we are told about motherhood, and especially the notion that maternal instinct is something hardwired, universal, and essential to female identity, is false. In the early 1960s, a gentle-spirited researcher at Rutgers University and his colleagues built on work he had done studying domestic kittens and added evidence to that claim.
Jay S. Rosenblatt was somewhat unusual in that, through much of his career, he studied the psychobiology of maternal behavior in mammals, in all its complexity, while also seeing patients as a psychoanalyst. He was a painter, too, having served during World War II painting camouflage, perhaps a hint at his ability to see what was hidden.
For decades, many of his peers and most of his predecessors had looked at the patterns of behavior carried out by mothers across species—their propensity even as first-time mothers to build nests and to feed and protect their young—and found them to be so uniform, so particular to females, that they had to be an inborn characteristic of the sex. Maternal behavior was “indisputably innate,” Frank A. Beach Jr., a founder of the field of behavioral endocrinology, wrote in 1937. That view was widely held. “Without exception investigators studying maternal behavior in the rat have classified the activity as native,” he wrote. Native, as in the opposite of learned or acquired. Built in.
For a while, newborns were viewed in a similarly static way, as creatures who grow and develop motor skills, but who don’t develop in any social way until they have passed the newborn stage. The authors of one 1950 study tracked the development of puppies and wrote that the dogs’ ability to learn in the first weeks of life “must be extremely limited.” The human condition was much the same, they found. At the start of a new life, it seemed, mother and baby acted almost wholly by instinct.
Instinct has always been a somewhat loosely defined thing, generally thought of as those behaviors that members of a species perform, nearly all in the same way, without ever having been taught them, such as a bird’s regular migration path or a bee’s very particular role in constructing a hive. Psychologists writing the theory of instinct in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often disagreed on the definition of an instinct or just how it worked. By the early 1950s, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz and others popularized the idea that species-typical patterns of behavior occur through inherited, machinelike mechanisms in the central nervous system. Lorenz famously described the process of imprinting, by which newly hatched birds of certain species attach to the first moving creature they see, typically their parent but possibly a member of a different species or an inanimate object in motion. Lorenz’s observations of birds that imprinted on him formed the foundation for his theories on instinct across the life span, but especially regarding links between mothers and babies.
Lorenz believed instinctive behavior was the result of inherited impulses that build up in designated areas of the brain until an animal encounters a particular stimulus that triggers the release of a set action. In her book The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America, science historian Marga Vicedo explains that Lorenz often used a lock-and-key metaphor to describe an innate behavior and the corresponding stimuli that would release it. “The form of the key-bit,” he wrote, “is predetermined.” To Lorenz, the instinctive behavior of mothers and babies was a complex system of such locks, a heavy key ring of releasers forged long ago.
There are many aspects of Lorenz’s work and writing that have proven essential to the study of behavior across species. He was one of three ethologists awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work on imprinting and the broader subject of how genetics shape behavior. Some of his peers said the award was inappropriate, given that Lorenz had joined the Nazi party in 1938—a decision he later said he regretted—using his theories about behavior to support the idea of a racial state and to advocate against the spread of “socially inferior human material.” Still, he is cited throughout the modern literature on the parental brain for his foundational work on how social bonds are built in biology and especially for his theory on how a baby’s cuteness prompts a powerful response in an adult’s brain.
Copyright © 2022 by Chelsea Conaboy