With Mother’s Day around the corner and a newborn and four-year-old at home, I’ve been contemplating my maternal brain, and how it makes my relationship with my kids unique. Of course, each of us is distinct in how we love and take care of our little ones. In the end, the difference between mom vs. dad pales in comparison to our individual selves as parents. Still, I put the question to some fellow moms: What changed when you became a mother? I was impressed at how similar the answers were.
Not surprisingly, most led with the warm fuzzies: “I’m more emotional, more physically connected, and the go-to person for comfort,” said a friend when I asked how her parenting experience compared to her partner’s. “I have a physical bond with my kids. I carried them for nine months and nursed them. We’re so intertwined,” said another. Her husband noted, “I’ll finally eke out a snuggle from my son, and then mom walks in and he leaps up and runs to her.” And it wasn’t just hugs, kisses, and tear-wiping that moms talked about. They hinted at a complicated bond that included intense highs and lows — being the target of unsolicited I love you’s and outstretched arms after a fall, but also bearing witness to the most extreme outbursts of anger and meltdowns.
Beyond the tender side of mothering, though, a smart, capable theme stood out.
Almost every mom I asked said that her mind can work on a dozen things at once, spinning the details of appointments, nutritional needs, schedules, and so forth, all while thinking deeply and carefully about the budding personality in front of her. Moms seem adept at holding information past, present, and future. As a friend put it, “I see my son playing basketball and think, He’s using his imagination, pretending he’s on some team, that’s so cool and … I remember last year he couldn’t do that and … I wonder what sports he’ll play in high school and … Are his ears clean? And … His pants look a little short. I think I’ll see if the Gap is having any sales and … I better get his dinner started soon.’”
“Beyond the tender side of mothering, though, a smart, capable theme stood out.”
Is all that mental juggling a product of our biology? We know that motherhood does seem to trip certain chemical pathways and mold the brain in a way that wires us for care-taking. For example, in a 2010 study from Behavioral Neuroscience, researchers scanned the brains of new moms and found that areas like the hypothalamus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex had actually grown in the postpartum months. These first two regions belong to the midbrain, housing a lot of our feeling centers, so expansion here might amp up a mom’s emotional responsiveness and prime her to nuzzle, smooch, and respond to cries. But growth in the prefrontal cortex suggests a boost in mental skills like planning, forethought, and reasoning, helping mom’s mind stretch to tackle new challenges.
Animal studies also support the maternal-smarts hypothesis. For example, neuroscientists who study reproduction and behavior see that pregnancy and motherhood change the female rat’s nervous system, turning on certain genes and hormonal pathways that help with learning and memory. The thinking is that chemical changes in pregnancy prime the brain for the care-taking complexities ahead. Then practice with the actual baby causes growth as mom connects with her little one and learns to manage all of life’s moving pieces.
Which brings us to the obvious point. Dads and adoptive parents have equally deep attachments to their children; clearly nature didn’t set up moms to be the exclusive providers of love. In fact, it’s probably just the opposite — consider that throughout human evolution a lot of moms didn’t survive childbirth. (Remarkably, until the mid-1930s, roughly 1 in 150 pregnancies ended in the death of the mother.) Babies must come programmed with the ability to bond to their primary caretakers, regardless of who birthed them. Still, it seems that pregnancy and new motherhood do give us a head start in certain ways. It’s not clear whether moms become the point person on family matters because of this natural boost, because society leans them in that direction, or both.
Whatever the reason, my own house has certain splits. With a husband who runs on the sensitive side, I don’t see such a contrast on the emotional front (although as I’ve described before, I wonder if our son shows his love for us in different ways.) But the idea that my prefrontal cortex might have a leg up does ring true. I can literally carry a newborn, wipe my son’s bum, and talk on the phone, all while watching the clock, planning a snack for an incoming guest, and mentally solving work problems. Meanwhile, if my husband (loving, super dad) is with our baby and the diapers are out of arm’s reach, he calls out to me for help.
Even the moms who hold down full-time jobs had a similar take on the matter. When I asked my own mother, a busy and successful scientist, she said that regardless of how the mom brain is shaped — genes or experience — the mindset hardly faded when my sister and I grew up: “You’re in your 30s, and it’s taken me a long time not to think about where you are at 3 o’clock when school gets out.”
Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and science writer. She authors the weekly “science of kids” column for Babble and is a regular contributor to Strollerderby. Follow the science of kids to keep up with the latest research in child development and parenting.
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