By Stephanie Ondrack
There is no question that becoming a mother changes us. It is a fundamental shift in identity that alters our former perception of self. Whether we welcome this or resist it, there is no escaping it: we are no longer the same person we were before having kids. It is a constitutional and axiological change, affecting our bodies, as well as our plans, values, priorities, and even our personalities. In fact, it alters our very brain chemistry. And in the case of gestational mothers, it actually changes our cellular composition.
We are all familiar with the fact that pregnancy entails physical changes: our growing body, our slowed digestion, our increased blood volume, our aching ankles, our compromised bladder. Our body becomes, in a very real sense, no longer just our own. We have to endure these inconveniences, ranging from mild discomforts to debilitating afflictions, for the sake of our growing progeny. We share not just our belly, but our food, our oxygen, our calcium stores. Every system in our body participates.
We know, too, that pregnancy affects our moods and mind. We forget words, we have vivid dreams, we have aversions and cravings. Our emotions swing unpredictably, and our thoughts get blurred around the edges. “Pregnancy brain”, a very real aspect of gestation, is caused by a myriad of hormones flooding the maternal brain, as our body is buffeted by such rapid physiological change. Our mental state, our cognitive functions, are affected by our growing tenant.
Although pregnancy is commonly associated with a mental state that’s muddled, distracted, forgetful, and emotional, these qualities are equally applicable to other developmental phases that involve major brain re-wiring, such as toddler-hood and adolescence. Indeed, the process is similar. The temporary confusion in the brain is a symptom of a rewiring process, fueled by hormones, that ultimately leads to major neurological growth. Pregnancy may have a dumbing down effect, but it is merely the passageway towards significant brain development. The bridge, as it were, to motherhood.
The brain changes that are endemic to motherhood are not, in a manner of speaking, all in your head. Brain scans of women before and after they had children reveal significant growth in certain areas: circuitry related to mental sharpness, multi-tasking, memory for details, empathy, and emotional connectivity. In other words, parts of the brain that might enhance or contribute to our role as mothers. We may be foggy for a while, but the net result is one of brain enhancement. Motherhood makes us smarter.
Women experience a flood of hormones during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding that primes the brain for dramatic change in regions thought to make up the maternal circuit. Affected brain regions include those that enable a mother to multitask to meet her baby’s needs, help her to empathize with her infant’s pain and emotions, and regulate how she responds to positive stimuli (such as baby’s coo) or to perceived threats. In the newborn months, a mother’s interaction with her infant serves as further stimulus to link her brain quite tangibly to her baby’s.
Some of these brain changes peak during the months immediately following the birth, which might inform certain aspects of the postpartum experience, including postpartum anxiety. For example, extreme concern over baby’s welfare, a sense of hyper-vigilance that prevents the mom from resting, feelings of helplessness and vulnerability in the face of this new responsibility… Many of these strong emotions and reactions, common to some degree amongst most mothers, are sparked by the hormones targeting specific areas of the brain. They are most pronounced for the first few months after the birth, but fade over time. Although extreme for some and mild for others, the road to motherhood is often rocky. It can be fraught with narrow paths and perilous peaks before we find even ground again. But these particular shifts are transitory.
Other brain changes, however, seem to be there to stay. The increased capacity for empathy and the ability to hold onto many details, for example, are still detectable in scans of a mother’s brain decades later, affecting how she might interact with possible grandchildren. Some of these enhanced brain functions are gifts we can keep for life, affecting the way we relate to the world and its inhabitants forever more. In other words, once a mother, always a mother.
Many of us recognize these shifts in ourselves. My own brain felt cloudy and indistinct during the infant/toddler years, my attention narrowed down to baby basics. I had little interest or energy for much else. I shunned world news, politics, literature, even adult social activities, entirely consumed by the gentle rhythms of family life. But eventually I felt my mind and focus sharpening to be able to hold long lists, complicated activity schedules, and all the minutiae of my three kids’ needs and preferences. And the empathy! My sense of concern and compassion have been forever altered, strengthened and amplified by the passage into parenthood. My desire to support other families through this journey, to care globally about birth and babies, began only when I had my own.
If becoming a mother launches these changes, being a mother reifies them. The very act of looking after our children, loving them and nurturing them, also effects major changes in our brain, equally profound and equally permanent. As we look at or touch our babies, we produce love and pleasure hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin, dopamine, and serotonin, that collectively serve to make us slow down, inhabit the moment, bond with our babies. These hormones boost our nurturing feelings and spontaneous attachment behaviours, and light up our brain’s reward centres when we do them.
These lifestyle brain changes are equally present in non-gestational parents, so adoptive mothers and partners alike experience a neurological shift from becoming parents as well. Even fathers produce prolactin, a hormone most commonly associated with lactation, when they cuddle and hold their babies. The quiet acts of caring for our children, as humdrum as they seem, cause our brains to expand. No matter how we got there, the very act of parenting transforms us. Empathy begets empathy. Parenting is a self-fulfilling process.
If the hardwiring from gestation, bolstered by the programming from simply being a parent, were not enough to turn us into super-parents, another effect of pregnancy might be: microchimerism.
Growing a human being in our body is no small feat: any gestational mother can tell you that. But one of the lesser known effects of pregnancy is that each foetus shares some cells with their mother. After giving birth, we end up with a bunch of foetal cells in various parts of our bodies. These behave like stem cells, able to become part of any of our systems; they travel to assorted places and take up residence there. We might have our baby’s cells in our kidneys, brains, toes, shoulders, or our heart. The baby’s cells actually become part of the mother’s body, and reside there indefinitely. The term ‘microchimera’ comes from the hodgepodge, hybrid animal of Greek mythology.
Researchers speculate that these foetal cells might be beneficial to the mother’s health, increasing her (and the baby’s by proxy) chance of survival. There is some evidence that the foetal cells provide partial protection from certain conditions, such as tumours and blockages. Some researchers speculate that they might even extend longevity, explaining why women tend to live longer than men.
Robert Martone from Scientific American explains:
What it is that fetal microchimeric cells do in the mother’s body is unclear, although there are some intriguing possibilities. For example, fetal microchimeric cells are similar to stem cells in that they are able to become a variety of different tissues and may aid in tissue repair. One research group investigating this possibility followed the activity of fetal microchimeric cells in a mother rat after the maternal heart was injured: they discovered that the fetal cells migrated to the maternal heart and differentiated into heart cells helping to repair the damage.
Viviane Callier of Smithsonian.com says:
Like stem cells, fetal cells are pluripotent, which means they can grow into many kinds of tissue. Once in the mother’s blood, these cells circulate in the body and lodge themselves in tissue. They then use chemical cues from neighboring cells to grow into the same stuff as the surrounding tissue. Although the mother’s immune system typically removes unchanged fetal cells from the blood after pregnancy, the ones that have already integrated with maternal tissues escape detection and can remain in mom’s body indefinitely.
In contrast, much of our philosophical canon posits personhood as a state of individuality and autonomy. We like to think of ourselves as unique, self-made, one-of-a-kind, defined by our distinct thoughts, sovereign actions, and exclusive essence. But microchimerism calls this view into question. We mothers are not limited to our own selves. Our minds and bodies are not only affected by motherhood, but actually broadened beyond the boundaries of self. We are no longer individual—we are family, community. Our “I” now includes our children. Mothers are a true royal ‘we’.
It would seem, then, that mothers are an amalgam of sorts, subject to influence, incursion, and inclusion from hormones and cells alike, and further honed by the performative functions of parenthood. As Katherine Rowland ponders in Aeon Magazine,
The self emerging from microchimeric research appears to be of a different order: porous, unbounded, rendered constituently. This suggests that each human being is not so much an isolated island as a dynamic ecosystem. And if this is the case, the question follows as to how this state of collectivity changes our conscious and unconscious motivations. If I am both my children and my mother, if I carry traces of my sibling and remnants of pregnancies that never resulted in birth, does that change who I am and the way I behave in the world? If we are to take to heart Whitman’s multitudes, we encounter an I composed of shared identity, collective affiliations and motivations that emerge not from a mean and solitary struggle, but a group investment in greater survival.
To some, this notion might be alarming, raising concerns about identity, individuality and personal liberty. We now have ontological ambiguity about how mothers inhabit personhood, perhaps aligning us more with a small-scale colony mentality: are we the borg, the flayed, the hive? Who am I if neither my thoughts nor my cells are strictly my own?
We might also balk at the cliché’d notion of the selfless mother, plural as her essence extends beyond the confines of the individual; “selfless” as her ‘self’ is amorphous and eternally open to further incorporation. We might reject the notion that mothers are thus denied the singular subject position. How are we to express our unique selves, identify our ambitions, own our personal successes, if we are aggregate beings? The collective consciousness of motherhood, at least as far as it’s mythologized, does not leave much room for self-determination or drive. The opposite of selfless is selfish, after all. The familiar tension between the individual and the common good is an ongoing battle within the landscape of motherhood.
But whether because of or despite hormonal influence or symbiotic cells, many of us feel that having children leaves us essentially and permanently altered in every possible sense: new body, new values, new emotions, new thoughts—a whole different modus operandi as we navigate our existence, and our place in society. I am not the same person I was before I had children.
No matter how we choose to frame it, many of us experience motherhood as a gestalt experience, in which we are more than the sum of our parts. Our children—growing them, birthing them, and parenting them—become part of who we are. Parenthood is a bridge that once crossed, we can never return. Although I sometimes look back at my former life and self with fondness, I would never go back, even if I could. Parenthood, with all its challenges, frustrations, and trade-offs, no matter how we define it, is a potent place to be.
Stephanie Ondrack is a homeschooling mother of three kids (currently 18, 14, 11), a longtime instructor with the Childbearing Society, and a very reticent blogger. Follow her at www.thesmallsteph.comto read her rare and infrequent posts on topics related to parenting.