Menu

What happens to a woman's brain when she becomes a mother

Motherhood changes our brains and writer Chelsea Conaboy wants us to know that.

What happens to a woman's brain when she becomes a mother

It's no secret that becoming a mother changes you. When we find out we're expecting we also expect our lives, our sleeping habits, and our bellies and breasts to change.

The one place we don't expect change is in our brains, but thanks to a report in the Boston Globe Magazine, the word is out: The brain changes women experienced in pregnancy are significant.

So why is no one talking about this and how it impacts mothers?

That's the question journalist (and mother) Chelsea Conaboy sought to answer when she wrote her now viral article, "Motherhood brings the most dramatic brain changes of a woman's life."

You've likely seen in it your Facebook feed (and if you haven't, it's definitely worth the read). Mothers have been sharing the story online, posting it along with comments like "I'm not crazy after all!" and "I wish all new moms knew this." One mom simply just wrote "legit" when linking to the piece.

The comments scattered across social media prove that Conaboy investigation into maternal brain changes was needed. And it started because she needed these answers, too.

"It was such an important topic for me because it was something that was affecting me so deeply," she tells Motherly. "And that's how this story really began. I had this experience of basically heightened anxiety after my first son was born and I started looking at the research around women's brains and the transition to motherhood."

When she dug into the neurobiology of the maternal mind Conaboy learned that her anxiety was due in part to powerful maternal brain changes that are "intended specifically to help us do this job of being a parent", she says.

"It really was helpful to me to think of those changes as productive and empowering rather than something that impaired me," she explains.

“Neglected Neurobiology”

As Conoboy wrote for the Globe, "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."

Parts of the brain that help us multitask, empathize and regulate our responses to stimuli or threats are affected by this surge of hormones, she explained.

It's a really basic, beautiful and powerful change that takes place, as maternal brain researcher Jodi Pawluski told Conaboy, it's one of the most significant biological events in a mother's life.

Conaboy hopes her piece will help more mothers understand how powerful these brain changes are and believes that understanding what's happening to us may help moms reframe and reclaim our experiences, even (or especially) when the changes are impacting us negatively.

"I think we all as mothers or expectant mothers need to be really mindful that things can go wrong and that we need to seek help when that's appropriate and necessary," she says. "There's good, proven treatments and support systems."

A conversation worth having

Understanding how normal all this is can help women feel comfortable getting help, but also just feel more comfortable with what they're experiencing. It might make it less scary, not more so.

Conaboy says she's heard from expecting mothers who have thanked her for helping them prepare for how their mental health may be impacted postpartum, and also from mothers who are already raising children and are struggling, and have thanked her for just helping them understand why.

Until recently, many prenatal care providers were hesitant to address maternal brain changes with expecting mothers for fear of overwhelming patients, but in the wake of her story, Conaboy hasn't just heard from moms who want this information, but also from midwives and doulas who say they're already incorporating this information into their practices and don't find it's too much for patients to deal with.

"It can be overwhelming but I think that's true of anything that happens during pregnancy. Hopefully medical providers are really thoughtful about how they communicate with women," says Conaboy, who recalls how one of her sources for the story, researcher Ruth Feldman, explained that "just because it has to be handled carefully doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it."

Thanks to Conaboy, women are talking about it online and with each other, even if our prenatal care providers aren't yet leading the conversation.

You might also like:

Why right now is the best time for a drivable getaway

Flexible schedules mean more vacation options. 🙌

Looking back now, last winter feels like a lifetime ago. At the time, my husband and I were eagerly planning our summer vacation just as we've done in years past. You know how the next part goes: COVID-19 came into the picture and changed our plans not only for vacationing, but for so much else in life.

In the time since then, we've gained a truly valuable new perspective on what matters—and realized we don't have to look so far to make beautiful memories with our kids. By exploring getaways within driving distance of our home, we've developed a new appreciation for the ability to "pack up the car and go."

Of course, that isn't to say that travel is the carefree adventure it once was. With COVID-19 still a very big part of the equation, we've become much more diligent about planning trips that allow for social distancing and exceed cleanliness standards. That's why we've exclusively turned to Vrbo, which helps us find nearby accommodations that meet our new criteria. Better yet?

Thanks to the money we've saved by skipping air travel and our remote-friendly work schedules, we're able to continue with the trips throughout the fall.

Here are a few more reasons we believe it's a great time for drivable getaways.

Flexible schedules allow us to mix work + play.

After months of lockdown, my family was definitely itching for a change of scenery as the summer began. By looking at drivable destinations with a fresh set of eyes—and some helpful accommodation-finding filters on Vrbo—we were able to find private houses that meet our needs. (Like comfortably fitting our family of five without anyone having to sleep on a pull-out couch!)

With space to spread out and feel like a home away from home, we quickly realized that we didn't need to limit our getaways to the weekends—instead we could take a "Flexcation," a trip that allows us to mix work and play. Thanks to the ability to work remotely and our kids' distance-learning schedule for the fall, we're planning a mid-week trip next month that will allow us to explore a new destination after clocking out for the day.

We’re embracing off-season deals.

With Labor Day no longer marking the end of our vacationing season, we're able to take advantage of nearby getaways that mark down their rates during the off season. For us in the Mountain West, that means visiting ski-town destinations when the leaves are falling rather than the snow. By saving money on that front, we're able to splurge a bit with our accommodations—so you can bet I search for houses that include a private hot tub for soaking in while enjoying the mountain views!

Vacationing is a way to give back.

If we've learned one thing this year, it's that life can change pretty quickly. That's given us a new appreciation for generous cancellation policies and transparent cleaning guidelines when booking trips. By seeing both of these things front and center in Vrbo listings along with reviews from fellow travelers, I feel confident when I hit the "book now" button.

Beyond that, I know that booking a trip through Vrbo isn't only a gift to my family. On the other side of the transaction, there are vacation home owners and property managers who appreciate the income during these uncertain times. What's more, taking getaways allows us to support our local economy—even if it's just by ordering new takeout food to enjoy from our home away from home.

While "looking ahead" doesn't feel as easy as it once did, I am confident that there will be a lot of drivable getaways in our future.

This article was sponsored by Vrbo. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

Every week, we stock the Motherly Shop with innovative and fresh products from brands we feel good about. We want to be certain you don't miss anything, so to keep you in the loop, we're providing a cheat sheet.

So, what's new this week?

Happiest Baby: Baby sleep solutions designed by the experts

Created by renowned pediatrician, baby sleep expert and (as some might say) lifesaver Dr. Harvey Karp, Happiest Baby has been helping new parents understand and nurture their infants for close to two decades. Building on the success of his celebrated books and video The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block he's developed groundbreaking, science-based product solutions that conquer a new parent's top stressor—exhaustion.

WSEL Bags: Dad-designed diaper bags that think of everything

WSEL stands for work smart, enjoy life—an ethos we couldn't agree with more. Founded by a stay at home dad who struggled to find a diaper bag that he not only wanted to use, but one that would last far beyond the baby years, these premium, adventure-ready backpacks are ideal for everything from errands to week-long getaways.

Codex Beauty: Exceptionally effective sustainable skin care

Codex Beauty's line of sustainable plant-based skin care blends the science of plant biology with biotech innovations, to create clinically proven, state-of-the-art products for all skin types. They're all vegan, EWG and Leaping Bunny verified and created in collaboration with Herbal Scientist Tracy Ryan who uses concepts dating back to the 8th century leveraging plants like sea buckthorn and calendula flower. Not only are we totally crushing on the innovative formulas that are in the packaging but we're in love with the sustainable sugarcane-derived tubes as well.

Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

Keep reading Show less
Shop

Mama, all I see is you

A love letter from your baby.

Mama,

I can't see past you right now, I'm so small and everything's a little blurry.

All I see is you.

When you feel alone, like the walls are closing in, remember I'm here too. I know your world has changed and the days feel a little lonely. But they aren't lonely for me.

You are my everything.

When you feel like you don't know what you're doing, you're making it look easy to me. Even though we're still getting to know each other, you know me better than anyone.

I trust you.

Keep reading Show less
Life