Have you ever wondered why you feel soppy when you’ve had your baby? Have a bad case of baby brain? Emily Ollman-Hirt (from Mums in Mind) is a final year Counselling Psychology doctoral trainee and psychotherapist specialising in mother and infant mental health. She is interested in the emotional and psychological changes that we undergo upon becoming mothers. We are lucky to have her translate from the slightly more stuffy world of neuroscience and psychology research into mummy speak!
No-one can prepare you or ‘tell’ you how it feels to become a mother for the first time. I knowingly run the risk of sounding a bit elitist by saying that there is something special about being part of the ‘motherhood club’ – we all know what it really means to undergo the biggest transition of a lifetime. Fundamental changes take place in your body and mind as you are literally reshaped inside and out.
Have you ever wondered why, since having your little one, you can so easily cry during the news or ‘Wanted Down Under’?! This is because during late pregnancy and the first few years of a baby’s life, a mother becomes more emotional so that she is sensitively available and in tune with her baby’s needs. Chemical changes take place in her brain so that she cannot help but be distracted by the sounds of a crying infant, meaning that the baby gets attended to quickly (e.g. Pearson et al). So being all soppy actually ensures your baby’s survival!
Being a bit more emotional also lets you be ‘in sync’ with your baby which in turn makes your baby feel secure. Here comes the science-part: Experts have demonstrated that the mother unconsciously synchronizes her emotions with that of her baby (e.g. Stern, Schore, Gerhard). Amazing! This is like a really extreme form of empathy – the mum takes in her baby’s emotions and she sort of digests all the extreme and overwhelming feelings for the baby. So as the baby experiences a feeling of joy, or of upset, parts of its little brain are lighting up and being activated. Simultaneously, the exact same parts of the mothers brain light up too. Their brains are mirroring one another. She then offers feelings back to the baby in the form of comfort and soothing, helping her baby to feel safe and not be overwhelmed. And all this goes on without the mother ever being aware that she is even doing it! Research has shown that the greater the ‘maternal sensitivity’, the more secure the baby grows up to be. So, don’t worry about your husband laughing at you for being ‘hormonal’ and soppy all the time – weep away!
Forgetting people’s names, where you put your keys, putting water in the kettle but not switching it on… you may feel that you have been somewhat spaced out since having your baby? We call it ‘baby-brain’ and it really can feel like your brain has turned to mush. Well it may surprise you then to learn that motherhood improves learning and memory (Kinsley et al 1999)!! Events in late pregnancy and early postnatal period literally reshape the brain, “fashioning a more complex organ that can accommodate an increasingly demanding environment”. You might at times feel like you can’t remember where you left your head, but research shows that maternal brains actually grow in volume, especially in the areas responsible for reward, emotion processing and reasoning and judgement. This helps us respond to our babies’ needs! (American Psychological Association,2010) So our brains don’t turn to mush! – But why then is remembering what we went into the supermarket for is suddenly so hard when only months previously you were heading up important meetings in the boardroom?? It is all related to what famous child psychoanalyst called ‘maternal preoccupation’. Psychology tells us that in late pregnancy and afterwards, a mother’s attention is fully focused upon her unborn and later, young baby. During those early months, the mother will enter a ‘zone’ where she will feel entirely consumed with looking after the baby. So our attention and focus has not gotten worse, it’s just been re-directed towards our new little charges! – And we probably just feel that way because we have too many new feelings and tasks to juggle all at once. Most importantly, let us not forget what severe, torturous sleep-deprivation can do to one’s brain. I am pretty sure months of barely any sleep shrunk most of my frontal cortex away…
Worrying for Two!
Worrying about whether you’re doing things right, whether your baby is big enough, small enough, developing fast enough, sleeping enough, feeding enough… wondering whether other people do a better job as a mother. The list of things to worry about as a new mother are endless, and often made worse by the amount of differing advice and guidelines on offer almost everywhere you turn. This is probably one psychological change that is absolutely universal amongst mothers everywhere. It is important to remember though that research shows that mothers’ high stress levels are impacted by our own, as well as outside expectations for women to be “perfect mothers” (Villani 1997)’ We need to stop giving ourselves a hard time and realise that we are ‘Good Enough!’ It can be difficult if you are a perfectionist, but being a mother is one thing that NO-ONE is perfect at.
Sometimes a difficult birth or a long and emotional journey of fertility treatments, previous losses or other stressful events can make a new mother feel even more anxious than usual. And this is generally for a very good reason and totally understandable, as the mum feels over-protective of her precious baby. However sometimes some outside support such as counselling or some therapy can t help mums learn how to manage their worries and relax enough to start really enjoying spending time with their little ones.
There are so many other areas of a woman’s life that change when you become a mum. Your sense of yourself as a woman; your femininity; your interest (or lack of) in sex; your relationships and your self-esteem. Even your identity as a person undergoes transformation as you learn to fit in being ‘mum’ too. As a mother myself I always found it really important to talk to other mums about these changes and the way I felt about them. Sometimes just talking to others and realizing that they feel the same can make you feel normal again! This is why I have set up ‘Mums In Mind’: to make important information about motherhood and their baby’s psychological development available to mums, as well as providing mums with the important space to learn, talk and develop as people as well as mothers.
Lastly, I thought I’d end by sharing this quote that I really love – it is from Rachel Cusk’s book about her journey into motherhood ‘A Life’s Work’.
“The experience of motherhood is an experience in contradiction. It is commonplace and it is impossible to imagine. It is prosaic and it is mysterious. It is at once banal, bizarre, compelling, tedious, comic, and catastrophic. To become a mother is to become the chief actor in a drama of human existence to which no one turns up. It is the process by which an ordinary life is transformed unseen into a story of strange and powerful passions, of love and servitude, of confinement and compassion.”