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Hollywood’s version of childbirth bears little resemblance to my experience, or that of anyone else I know. On the screen, we almost always see soon-to-be-moms rushing to the hospital after a dramatic water breaking, a somewhat rare occurrence in real life, after which she howls and curses her way through a speedy labor and delivery. Then, poof, voilà!, her hair magically realigns itself, a healthy level of pigment returns to her cheeks, and she is in love, completely and irrevocably, with her baby.
My first thought when I saw my oldest child after delivery? You are really cute, but that was really hard, I’m really tired, and yet here we are all alone. Would it be so bad if I had a day or two to recover before you and I started hanging out?
With my second, I was fortunate enough to be in a hospital that allowed my husband to spend the night in the room with me without any additional cost. He took on most of the care, I got to rest, and nobody expected anything resembling 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 love-in-process accompanied by a fair amount of anxiety and stress. It took until my kids were about 6 months old for the love to turn on fully, and until my first was about 2 years old for my identity as a mom to feel natural and guided by what we might call instinct.
Through conversations with other parents, I now know that my deviation from the Hollywood script of new motherhood is not unusual. In fact, it’s the norm. Thankfully, popular culture and scientific research are starting to catch on.
In her new book, “Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood,” Chelsea Conaboy looks at the new findings surrounding childbirth and early parenthood that present a far more complex picture of the experience. CNN spoke to Conaboy about the many fictions surrounding the idea of maternal instinct, what babies do and do not need from their parents, and how understanding the complexity of the parental brain can make us better parents.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What was the story of parenthood that you were told when you became a parent?
Chelsea Conaboy: The story that I received about what it means to become a parent was, in some ways, not a story. I felt like it wasn’t ever really talked about in a way that I could reflect on what this change could mean for my internal life and my sense of self. That went hand in hand with my assumptions about maternal instinct, or this idea I would step into this role and know exactly what to do and how to be — because caregiving is innate, automatic and hardwired for females.
These ideas about maternal instinct, which were written into scientific theory by people invested in a certain moral model of motherhood, weren’t just about how I was supposed to behave but also how I was supposed to feel. It’s not enough to pick up a baby, shush it or know how to swaddle it. I was supposed to have complete devotion, be totally selfless and be able to overcome any fears through the act of nurturing.
CNN: What was your process of discovering this is far from true for many parents?
Conaboy: The first “aha” moment began with my own struggles as a new parent. I was really overwhelmed with worry at the time, and so I began looking for answers to describe what I was going through. I started researching maternal anxiety and discovered how much the brain is changed by parenthood. And that is true of all people, and not just people who experience postpartum mood or anxiety disorders.
I hadn’t been given that information in any prenatal education or parenting books, and it could have made a huge difference for me. In fact, it did make a huge difference for me when I finally learned this. It reframed my whole experience. I still had worries about my son’s well-being, but I stopped worrying about the worrying, or thinking there was something wrong with me because I knew that those feelings were all part of a productive process that was happening in my brain and helping me adapt to this role.
CNN: Which findings did you find most compelling among the brain research being done on parents?
Conaboy: One is that attention is really the thing our babies need from us, and the changes in our brains really compel us to give them our attention. We get this story that the baby is placed on your chest, and you will be flooded with oxytocin, and the bond will form forever. But you can be attentive to a 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 give attention.
In a similar vein, we are taught about attachment, and the formula is often very simple. The bond with a child happens through having a healthy pregnancy, vaginal birth, 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 so many different ways. For example, if you don’t breastfeed, it’s not like you are going to miss the window on bonding. There are so many other opportunities to connect.
One last one. We so often talk about “mommy brain” as being degenerative for women. But new neuroscience research suggests we have been looking at it in the wrong way. Parenthood might have a neuroprotective effect on the brain and slow the effects of aging. The challenges of parenting can keep the brain looking younger.
CNN: In addition to the present research, you also look back at our evolutionary history as a species and how the contemporary maternal ideal is an anomaly.
Conaboy: We have a lot to learn from history. We have so accepted this idea of the nuclear family being a foundation of society, but that is not how it always was. Other people always helped with our babies, and those people were not always fathers. Grandmothers played an important role, too.
This parenting by someone else than the biological parent shaped us as humans, making us more social.
CNN: Does the new science of parenthood tell us about dads?
Conaboy: We know that two things shape the parental brain: a major shift in hormones and exposure. Obviously, things are different depending on whether you are the gestational parent or not, but not all different.
Men also have hormonal changes as they approach fatherhood while their partner is pregnant, and after the baby is born, they also have spikes in oxytocin when they interact with their children.
Overall, the research shows that fathers’ brains change in structure and function just like mothers’ brains do, and the more time they spend in direct care, the more dramatic these changes are.
CNN: How did writing this book help you as a parent?
Conaboy: The big thing it did for me is helping me have more patience with myself. There are all these parenting books that tell us to trust yourself, but sometimes that is problematic and confusing because when they tell you to trust yourself, it assumes you will know what to do.
What I learned to trust is the process and knowing that making mistakes is part of the process, because we, as parents, learn from them. That is not just a trite saying, but as I’ve learned, is part of the biological process of learning to read and respond to our children’s needs so next time we can do better.
Elissa Strauss covers the culture and politics of parenthood. Her book on the radical power of parenting and caregiving will be published in 2023.