"We Don't Go Back to What We Were"
A Conversation with Chelsea Conaboy
Early in my first pregnancy, I noticed that certain missteps got tagged with the term “mommy brain” and I realized that this “mommy brain” was the “is this because of your period” for a new stage of life. And it was said (even by me, to myself) with an understanding that it was a diminution of something, or perhaps a lot of things. You were a lesser version of yourself while under the influence of hormones and babies and nap times. Maybe you would get back to your original self someday, when this was all over.
But the last decade or so has shown me that you can actually do a hell of a lot with a mommy brain, not just in spite of it. I did some math recently and it turns out that I’ve been pregnant or breastfeeding for ten out of the past 12 years. That’s 120 months of getting the shit kicked out of me physically, hormonally, emotionally, but it’s also a period of time in which I managed to get a PhD and build a career in reading and writing. I share this not to brag but to remind the group that gestating and birthing and caring for a brand new person — not to mention caring for the not-so-new ones — actually requires an extremely high level of executive function and the process of attaining that skillset can open up whole new avenues of acuity and creativity.
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And so Chelsea Conaboy’s Mother Brain: How Neuroscience is Rewriting the Science of Parenthood, with its perfect title and sharp mix of science and personal narrative, helped validate what I already deeply felt: that the crucible of early parenthood doesn’t shrink us, it forms us. And it’s formative in much the same way as adolescence: a huge change in brain function that turns us into who we must become. We don’t go back to our original selves and we wouldn’t want to.
I’ve mentioned before that I like to send pregnant friends Angela Garbes’ Like A Mother. I now plan to add Chelsea’s book to the care package, creating a kind of starter pack for new parents. What a pleasure — what a relief — to have these two books side by side. Read on for my conversation with Chelsea on the “spirited” response to her Times’ essay, whether the parental brain looks younger, and writing a book about what kids do to your brain during a pandemic.
Photo Credit: Yoon S. Byun
Talk to me about the genesis of this book.
This book really came from me being a brand-new mother and completely overwhelmed by how it felt. My first son was born 5 pounds, 12 ounces. He was tiny and he was a little bit early. We had some struggles with breastfeeding and I just was so worried about him and his growth and my ability to take care of this super tiny creature. Not only that, but I was also worried about the worry itself. I felt like it was kind of somehow crowding out these things that I thought that I was supposed to be feeling in that time, which were this warmth and love, which I also felt, and this sense of certainty that I thought I would feel in new motherhood. I went looking for the words that could describe what I was going through and started with the research on maternal anxiety and looking at, first of all, how little we talk about that – this was in 2015 and it was even less so then – and how those symptoms are kind of missing from the postpartum depression symptom checklist. And then looking at the neuroscience behind it and what happens that can make us experience that hyper-vigilance and anxiety in those early months. That led me to this point that our brains change during this time of life. It raised just tons of questions for me about, well, what does that mean? What does it look like? Why didn't I know that beforehand and what do I do with this information now?
And you had been a science writer, right?
I’ve been a healthcare writer, primarily.
So it was in your wheelhouse but all science is kind of ever-changing and neuroscience in particular, there's new stuff and new methods all the time. What were the challenges in writing on this topic?
I first did a magazine story for the Boston Globe that ran in 2018 and it got a really overwhelming response. It was one of their most well-read stories of that year and it's still really widely read. That was just looking at the kind of basic science of the maternal brain specifically and my own experience, so half personal essay and half looking at the science. And I already sort of thought, like, ‘I think there's a book here,’ but after that reaction I was like, ‘Oh, and there's an audience here.’ I was really intimidated by the idea of writing a book about neuroscience because I really haven't thought of myself as a science writer. Although I wrote a lot about science, I didn't write so much about basic science, or it was a science through a clinical lens, through a people-forward lens that I had written about primarily. That also was a challenge in figuring out how to sell the book proposal, how to make people see that I was the right person to write this story, for this book anyways, to look past the fact that I didn't have that science background. But I did have all of this experience of translating research papers and other really dense things. One of the things I've written the most about is health insurance policy and the laws around it so I have a lot of experience figuring out how to translate complicated things for the average reader. And that translation piece is so critical. You can have all of the research that funding agencies can possibly provide us but if we can't talk about what it means for our actual lived experiences and put it into perspective with our real lives, it's not worth much. So that was my goal here. Also, this field is kind of new, or I should say young. There's as many unanswered questions as there are answered questions. So I felt like it would be valuable, given that, to have someone like me look at it from the context of my own life and from the lives of the parents I interview, to say ‘what could this research mean?’ As long as I was really clear about where the science stops and where the story begins.
The newness of it means that there are more questions than there are answers but, as you say in the book, part of it is knowing what questions to ask in the first place. So much of science is who gets to ask the questions and once more women started going into neuroscience, somehow more research started to get done on changes in the maternal brain and the caregiver brain. And I also think people are really hungry for books that combine new research like this with personal narrative.
I hope that's true. I should say I took a lot of careful steps to make sure that I wasn't screwing up the science because I was so hyper aware that I'm not a neuroscientist. I had a couple of neuroscientists generously look at the manuscript for me just in a casual way. The book got a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, their public education science technology program and their books program. And, as part of that, they asked me to hire a neuroscientist to be a science advisor. They gave me the money to do it, so that was amazing.
That must have helped with the anxiety.
Oh, totally. I found this really incredible neuroscientist, Adriana Galvan, who is at UCLA and studies the adolescent brain so it's very parallel to this. She had a lot of knowledge to draw on and she's just wonderful. And I also had it fact checked so I had multiple layers to make sure that I was making up for whatever expertise I lacked.
Can I ask you about that comparison to the adolescent brain? Because, to me, becoming a mother felt so much like another “coming of age.”
I love this question so much. I really like talking about the parallel between the teenage brain and the parental brain because I think it's so apt. So often when we talk about new parenthood, we are talked at about it as if it's this major shift in hormones that we just have to wait until things settle out and return to normal. That's just baloney, it's scientifically not how it happens. We know this. We know that our hormones change in ways that last our whole lifetimes. We now have this body of evidence to show that our brains change in pretty dramatic ways that also last our whole lifetimes. This is a new stage of development in our lives. You think about adolescence as this time of major upheaval with huge shifts in hormones, huge changes in brain function and structure and basic anatomy of our brain in terms of volume changes, and a time of our lives that comes with really significant increases in the risk of mental illness that is still fundamentally adaptive, that is preparing us for this new stage of life, which is adulthood. Parenthood is the same thing. It is a time of huge hormonal fluctuations, even for non-gestational parents. It is a time of major changes in the function and structure and volume of our brains. It is a time that comes with big increases in risk for mental illness and that is also fundamentally adaptive and we are changed by it. We don't go back to what we were.
Yes, exactly, we don’t go back.
I talk about this a lot. We used the research on the teenage brain to make a lot of changes in the past, say, 15 or 20 years. We've taken that research and we've changed school start times because we know that teenagers' changing brains need more sleep. Some schools have changed how they handle discipline. We've changed the public health messaging around substance use and other risky behaviors. We've taken this science to teenagers to help them understand themselves and to their parents as well, to help them understand what everyone's going through in that time. I think we really kind of urgently need a similar conversation around the parental brain, one that can change policies, change how we talk to one another, change our really fundamental understanding of who we are through this change and afterward.
I love that and it's so long overdue, that shift in the way that we talk about it. Because I was prepared by cultural messaging for a kind of shutdown. And it's certainly not easy — the whole point of this Substack is to talk about the creative and organizational challenges brought on by parenthood — but it’s also off the mark to characterize pregnancy and the postpartum period as something you just have to get through and then get to the other side where you're back to what you were. I talk about this a lot but I found that new motherhood opened up this whole creative portal that I hadn’t had access to before. It's just so much more complicated than what I was led to believe parenting would do to my brain.
There are just so many completely missing pieces in this picture of what these brain changes mean for parents. I think the science is still at a very basic point. We have research on creativity within neuroscience and other contexts but it's just not a question we've really approached at all within the parenting context. I do talk about it in the book, though within the framework of how our social cognition changes our actual capacity, the networks of our brain that are responsible for how we read and interpret our own internal signals that make up our emotions and also how we read and interpret social cues from other people and understand their state of minds and their emotions. All of that changes. And Alison Gopnik, the child development philosopher writer, talks about babies and children as the blue sky thinkers. They're just full of creativity and wonder and seeing. It's a fundamental component of childhood, seeing the world in new ways. And here we have these brains that are tapped into them, are looking at how they see and trying to figure out what they think. I just think there's something there that feels fundamentally creative. And we don't talk about that enough.
Instead we’re talking about how you’re trying to kill the maternal instinct? I’m joking but you published an essay in The New York Times that people are having a lot of feelings about. Was that something you were expecting? Were you prepared for that kind of response and people being so resistant to the message of the book?
Yes and no. First of all, I did not know until relatively recently that I was going to have an essay in the Times but I have been talking with my therapist since January about like, ‘what if people are really mad about this?’ You know, everything that I say about maternal instinct and then there are also some other things, like how I write about gender and hormones in this book that I knew could rub certain people the wrong way. It's also a pretty uncomfortable place for me to be on this side of the interview. I've been a newspaper journalist my whole life. I'm just not used to being the one speaking about my own work. I'm much more comfortable writing about other people. So I've been trying to think about how to be confident in my voice and also confident with people challenging my writing and my thinking. So I was grateful to have done that preparation work with her. Then when I knew that this was the excerpt that they wanted, I did have a feeling that it was going to blow up. The scope of it still was surprising and kind of hard to take but I think that had a lot to do with the nature of the headline, which I think was entirely accurate but also deliberately provocative.
Yeah, I got the feeling, from what I saw online, that it was mostly a reaction to the headline, not what was actually in the essay and certainly not what’s in the book itself. But I find it really interesting that people see it as anti-woman, that your presentation of this science is trying to take something essential away from women, because to me it felt like you were identifying something that I felt so strongly as a new mother, and even as an old mother, but didn't have the language or the science background to name.
I think there have been a couple of essays that have been written in response to this that are all sort that saying that I'm wrong and then sort of saying, ‘but she's right that there is social construct around this idea’ and naming a bunch of things that we agree on and then saying, ‘But she's wrong because you'd have to dismiss all of this biology to think that maternal instinct is a myth.’ But my point is actually the opposite of that. These biological changes are real and dramatic and count. They want to get upset about the idea of maternal instinct and it feels comfortable to think of that as something that women do, that gender essentialism piece. I think people also felt like I was trying to say that maternal intuition or maternal love, that there's no biological basis to that. But actually I would argue that both of those things are strengthened by the science. It's just that those things are also pretty hard-won for mothers and it's not only gestational mothers who can do it.
Right, it's not like a switch is flipped the minute a baby comes out of your body. I kind of want to talk about Winnicott because you bring him up in the book and he’s been having a little bit of a moment for the last couple years as people kind of rediscover him.
The good enough mother kind of idea.
Yeah and on the one hand, it’s reassuring, his whole ‘Oh, the mother knows this’ thing and I guess people like that he is kind of investing all of this agency and knowledge in mothers. And I read him as fundamentally trying to reassure mothers, which is very welcome when you're in those early days-
Just like Dr. Spock saying, "Trust yourself."
Yes, trust yourself. But what about when you're like, ‘I actually don't know’? When I had my first child, there was this intense learning curve of first, ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ and then, ‘ok, I guess this is how you do this.’ When it came to subsequent children, I finally felt what we might refer to as “maternal instinct” because I knew how to do it all already. It just fundamentally felt like learned behavior to me, not necessarily instinctive.
Yeah. There's some evidence of that feeling you just described in the research. This is not true for all people because circumstances change but there is a sense that there's less anxiety the second time around because you do have this infrastructure in place, literally, in your brain. What I wish I had known during those early weeks was that I didn't have to know what I was doing but that there were changes happening in my body and in my brain that were targeted to help me pay really close attention to my baby. That's how I think about the intensity of those first few weeks now, that everything is helping us to zoom in. The window of our attention is closing around our baby and their wellbeing and their needs. And the point of that, in my mind, is sort of twofold. One, they need us to pay really close attention to keep them alive. And two, if we're hyper focusing on them, we are going to learn more quickly. There may even be some mechanisms in place that help us to learn more quickly. There's some animal research on the role of cortisol — which is thought to stay high for a little bit of time after delivery — that in rodents, it seems to have a link towards maternal memory, helping the mother rats to learn their babies more quickly and learn what to do. So our attention hones in on them. That helps us to get to that place that's more regulated, where we're able to read their cues and understand their needs and regulate ourselves and more efficiently learn them as they keep changing. So I just think the notion that a mother knows what to do because they're a mother is harmful. A mother knows what to do because there are these biological processes that help her to learn and they often feel pretty grueling in the moment.
I'm always thinking about how we balance this between parents or various caregivers because it can feel exhausting to be the one who knows the baby best and that also contributes to the idea that only mothers can do all this stuff. Is there a way for two or more people to experience that steep learning curve at the same time?
I don't think that they're ever necessarily going to match because the physiological experiences are so different, and those experiences really underpin the kind of learning that you're going to do. There are these different mechanisms that are helping each of you to adapt to this new role and they are they different. But I think one big message in the book is the role of experience, that it's not just hormones and it's not just the physicality of carrying a baby in your body. If your husband is home with the baby and he is wholly responsible for keeping that baby cared for and fed, and he's having the experience of being tuned into those cues- it's really the responsibility and the attention to those cues to know what they mean and what the baby requires in response. That's true for mothers, too and it goes back to this idea that mothers know. We don't know until we've practiced, really. That's something that often gets lost because we default to that idea that mothers know best. The practice for fathers or for other parents also changes their brains just as it is changing ours. I talk about some studies, one in particular from Israel, that looked at different sex couples and couples of gay fathers and found between the fathers and mothers there were certain differences, particularly around activation of the amygdala. But if you looked at the mothers and the primary caregiving fathers, that activation of the amygdala was quite similar. If you looked across all fathers, the more time they spent caring for their babies directly, alone, the more connectivity there was between the amygdala and this cortical region that's involved in mentalization. So there was a little bit of a dose effect there. Experience matters and the more you have it, the more adaptation you might see.
I know that we don't have the science on this yet but now that I have children of various ages, I'm dying to know what parents' brains look like during all of those parenting years. Recently my husband complained to me that his word recall isn't as good as it was. My first thought was ‘oh no’ but I happened to be reading your book at the time and so my guess (and hope) is that it’s because he’s been parenting for 10 years and has four kids and there's got to be something that goes on there in terms of attention, right?
I mean, certainly that's what the researchers will say, that it's not like all of the adaptation is going to be in a positive direction. There may be costs in certain ways. And the research around the “mommy brain” phenomenon is sort changing right now. It's been thought for a while that, yes, it's real, but it's sort of mild and temporary. Now, they're starting to look at, what if we look at pregnant people or newly postpartum people's memory but do it in a much more parenting relevant way, so change the test to be specific to parenting. There have been some that have found that those women do better. Maybe your husband will have random word recall issues but have these other strengths, or he's really good at task switching now because he's balancing from child to child and what their needs are. The thing is, we have some really fascinating studies of older adults but there's this whole swath of our lives as parents that we just have no research on when it comes to what parenthood means for the brain.
Are people looking at that now? Is that happening?
I think it will happen. Just in the past few years, there's been these really interesting studies that look at adults in their 50s, 60s and 70s looking across thousands of brain scans in these big data banks in Australia and in the UK and comparing parents and non-parents and basically finding that parents' brains are younger looking, which means that still they show signs of aging, but they're slower than than those who aren't parents. That's the idea that parenthood is fundamentally an enrichment. Not that there's not other ways to be enriched but there are these constant social and cognitive challenges that we have to rise up to meet. So that is a good thing for our brains over the long term. Just like when they tell you when you retire, don't stop using your brain.
Do the crossword puzzle, right.
Yeah, it’s like the ultimate crossword puzzle for the brain.
It's the ultimate crossword because one day it's a crossword puzzle, the next day it's Sudoku, you never know what you're going to get. The past is never predictive of the future. That's got to keep us sharp, right?
Or kill us. I don't know. It depends on the day.
One or the other.
Speaking of the children, I want to talk about the other side of the process of writing this book because you have two young children and this is your first book. Those are a lot of steep learning curves all at the same time. What was the process like, the challenges, the childcare…
Yeah, and on top of it, like many of the people you're interviewing right now, most of it was written during pandemic time. So it was intense. I got my book deal in fall of 2019, was doing research interviews in February of 2020. I had written just one chapter at that point and I was like, ‘I'm ready. Now, I'm full speed ahead.’ And then...my husband and I are both self-employed. He's a filmmaker and photographer so his work really fell off that spring of 2020. I was able to some degree keep going but working out of our very tiny home office and we were still typically splitting the days and all of it- my youngest was home, our oldest was in hybrid kindergarten and then my husband and I were just juggling childcare. So it was pretty brutal, like it was for all of us. He and I did a lot of nights. We eventually got this space, an office just down the street from us. One of us would come in at nights after dinner and lots of weekends also. I would say on top of all this, I really did not anticipate fully what it would be like to be in such an intense moment of parenting both in my life and historically, while reading deeply about things like attachment theory and maternal instinct and how a parent's emotional regulation shapes their child's emotional regulation. It really was hard.
Right, you talk a lot about the experience of new motherhood but this was another kind of crucible, right?
In some ways I'm really grateful for it in the sense that I feel like it made me really wade through some deep stuff about how I thought of myself as a mother. It made me have such strong feelings about things like attachment theory and how fucked up it is in terms of all of the things, like the burden we put on mothers but then how it really does not account at all for neurodiversity, generally, and neurodivergent kids and neurodivergent mothers. It’s just not a narrative that includes them at all.
Yeah, this is kind of why I brought up Winnicott before because I think that I have all these ideas ingrained of the mother as so important and I can't help but feel things would been so much easier for me and probably better for my children if I hadn't internalized all of that so much.
Yes, yes. And attachment theory was a big piece of what I was struggling with because it is either directly or indirectly embedded in so much of what we think about what parents and particularly mothers are supposed to be. Yet, it really just is a science that's based on a mother and a baby with nothing else around it. Like, no other children, dramatically different and pulling us in a different directions. No husband who has needs of their own, no mother on her own who has needs, no global pandemic that is stressing the system. No racism, no climate change, no financial insecurity, no other family members who complicate the family unit in other ways.
Yes, and I always think about that in those moments when two kids are crying. When two of your kids are crying at the same time, you have to choose one to go to first. That's just the way it is. Even if you never live through a pandemic or have any other complicating factors, if you have more than one child and you’re alone with them, you're going to have to choose at some point and someone is going to feel…detached.
You know what? I came to really appreciate that that problem has always been present for human mothers, always, back to the earliest human mothers. It has never been just a baby and a mother.
Right, now you can be one mother with one baby but that was never an option before. So much of our internalized narrative about motherhood is just like 50 years old or whatever, which is nothing.
Right, and the answer to that also is that mothers had help, they never were doing it all on their own. If they were doing it all on their own, they were in trouble and their kids were in trouble and they might not have survived, truly. So then what does that mean? They always had help from other human adults, it probably wasn't from the father, or at least not consistently from the father. It was probably other women, including grandmothers. But that propelled this capacity within human adults to engage in caregiving for babies that they didn't carry themselves and that we have this ability across our species to become specialized caregivers. We've lost the recognition of that at so many levels, including in terms of how we value the people who do that specialized caregiving in our society still. They’re doing it, but we're supposed to pretend that they're not there.
For more of Chelsea’s brilliance, order your copy of Mother Brain here.
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