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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.

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