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The Hollywood version of childbirth doesn’t bear much resemblance to my experience, or anyone else’s experience I know. On screen, we almost always see soon-to-be moms rushing to the hospital after heavy water, a rare occurrence in real life, followed by howling and cursing through a rapid labor and delivery. Then, poof, voilà!, her hair magically regrows, a healthy level of pigment returns to her cheeks, and she’s completely and irrevocably in love with her baby.
My first thought when I saw my oldest child after giving birth? You’re so beautiful, but that was so hard, I’m so tired, and yet we’re here alone. Would it be so bad if I had a day or two to heal before you and I started dating?
With my second, I stayed at a hospital that allowed my husband to sleep with me at no extra cost. He took most of the responsibilities, I rested, and no one expected anything like a “Madonna and Child” moment from me.
My story continued to diverge from the Hollywood version of new motherhood in the weeks and months that followed. There was no love at first sight, but a process of love accompanied by a lot of anxiety and stress. It wasn’t until my children were about 6 months old to fully develop love, and my first was about 2 years old, that my identity as a mother felt natural and guided by what we might call instincts.
Through conversations with other parents, I now know that deviating from the Hollywood script of new motherhood is not uncommon. In fact, it is the rule. Fortunately, popular culture and scientific research are starting to catch up.
In her new book, “Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood,” Chelsea Conaboy explores new findings about childbirth and early parenthood that present a much more complex picture of the experience. CNN spoke with Conaboy about the many myths surrounding the idea of maternal instinct, what babies need and don’t need from their parents, and how understanding the complexity of the parental brain can make us better parents.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
CNN: What was the parenting story you were told when you became a parent?
Chelsea Conboy: The story I got about what it means to be a parent was somehow not a story at all. I felt like it was never really talked about in a way that reflected on what that change might do to my inner life and my sense of self. This went hand in hand with my assumptions about maternal instincts, or I would carry this idea into this role and know exactly what to do and how to be – because care is innate, automatic and hard-wired for women.
These ideas about maternal instinct, written into scientific theory by people invested in a certain moral model of motherhood, were not just how I should act, but how I should feel. It is not enough to know how to pick up, hold, or rock a baby. I had to be completely devoted, completely selfless and able to overcome any fear through the act of nurturing.
CNN: What was the process of finding out that’s not true for many parents?
Conboy: The first “aha” moment started with my own struggles as a new parent. I was really worried at the time, so I started looking for answers to describe what I was going through. I started researching maternal anxiety and discovered how much parenting changes the brain. And this is true for all people, not just people who suffer from postpartum mood or anxiety disorders.
I wasn’t given this information in prenatal education or parenting books, and it could have made a huge difference for me. In fact, it made a huge difference to me when I finally learned this. It reframed my entire experience. I still had concerns about my son’s well-being, but I stopped worrying, worrying, or thinking that something was wrong, because I knew that all these feelings were part of a productive process going on in my brain that was helping me cope. to this role.
CNN: Which brain research findings about parenting have you found most compelling?
Conboy: One is that attention is what our babies need from us, and changes in our brains actually compel us to pay attention. We get this story that you put the baby on your breast, and you’re going to be flooded with oxytocin, and the bond will be formed forever. But you can be attentive to the baby and feel many different ways. You can be filled with anxiety, you can be filled with warmth, or you can be really tired and still pay attention.
In the same vein, we are taught about attachment, and the formula is often very simple. Bonding with children comes from having a healthy pregnancy, vaginal delivery, breastfeeding and then spending a lot of time with a child. But when you look at the science, you see that caregiving can happen in many different ways. For example, if you don’t breastfeed, it’s not like you’ll miss the bonding window. There are many other options for linking.
One last We often talk about the degenerative “mother brain” in women. But new neuroscience research suggests we’ve been looking at it the wrong way. Parenting can have a neuroprotective effect on the brain and slow the effects of aging. Parenting challenges can affect a younger brain.
CNN: In addition to your current research, you also look at our evolutionary history as a species and whether the current maternal ideal is an anomaly.
Conboy: We have a lot to learn from history. We have accepted this idea of the nuclear family being the basis of society, but it has not always been so. Others always helped with our babies, and those people weren’t always fathers. Grandparents also played an important role.
This parenting by someone other than a biological parent shaped us as human beings, making us more social.
CNN: What does the new science of parenting tell us about dads?
Conboy: We know two things make up the parenting brain: a huge shift in hormones and exposure. Of course, things are different whether you are an expectant parent or not, but not all different.
Men also experience hormonal changes while their partner is pregnant as they approach fatherhood, and after the baby is born, they also experience oxytocin spikes when interacting with their children.
Overall, research shows that fathers’ brains change in structure and function just like mothers’ brains, and the more time spent in direct care, the more pronounced these changes become.
CNN: How has writing this book helped you as a parent?
Conboy: The big thing it did for me is help me be more patient with myself. There are all these parenting books that tell us to trust yourself, but sometimes that’s problematic and confusing because when they tell you to trust yourself, they assume you’ll know what to do.
What I have learned to trust is the process and know that making mistakes is part of the process because we as parents learn from them. That’s not a trivial saying, but as I’ve learned, it’s part of the biological process of learning to read and respond to our children’s needs so we can do better next time.