Abigail Tucker, MOM GENES

Abigail Tucker, MOM GENES

Abigail Tucker joins Zibby to break down the science in her latest book. The two talk about the research that is being conducted on how “mommy brain” is a real biological phenomenon, how the way we treat new mothers can have a psychological impact, and how our own mother’s genes may still be inside us today.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Abigail. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mom Genes.

Abigail Tucker: Thank you, Zibby. I’m so glad to be here.

Zibby: I always know I’m going to enjoy an interview when the title is really funny. I love plays on words like that. I knew this would be very interesting. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about? Also, what inspired you to write it?

Abigail: My book is about the science behind this transformation that will probably be familiar to a lot of your viewers, this series of changes that women go through when they become moms. I’m not talking about gaining seventy pounds or losing your toenails or all these other things. I’m talking about the hidden changes that go on in your brain. Basically, scientists have learned that if you take images of a mom’s brain before and after she has kids, the brain looks different. Scientists are trying to tease out what happens and why and what it means for us in our daily, normal, busy lives.

Zibby: I love that. Why did you want to start researching this?

Abigail: I have four kids. I had detected some interesting changes in my own self. I kind of just thought that I hadn’t been sleeping much or that I just had too much on my plate. I had so many different thoughts and feelings than I normally had. I also noticed that the same things were happening in a lot of my friends and even just people that I encountered at the playground. I feel like being a mom involves a large amount of people watching because you’re always places with your kids, at the doctor’s office and the line at the waterslide, at the Baby Gap. I would just observe women and wonder, what makes you work? What makes me work? What makes us different? What makes us the same? I’m also really interested in animals. I was curious about the commonalities between human moms and mammal moms that you see at the zoo or at the pet store, that kind of thing.

Zibby: Didn’t you and your mom go watch sheep be born or something? Isn’t that part of that?

Abigail: We did. That’s how you know your mom really loves you. You’re like, Mom, let’s go and spend the whole night at a sheep barn waiting for a sheep to have babies so we can see what happens. It was actually really fun. That’s something you can volunteer to do. It’s at this farm called The Hickories in Ridgefield, Connecticut. In the spring, they take, they’re called night watchers or something like that. It’s basically your job to sound the alarm if and when somebody goes into labor. You hang out with fifteen obese sheep for the night. It’s really fun.

Zibby: Wow, no ego boost like a night with obese sheep.

Abigail: Exactly.

Zibby: After a night with four kids, it’s probably a nice vacation.

Abigail: It was a break.

Zibby: This is how we moms of four really relax.

Abigail: Let’s get away from it all.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so funny. There were so many different aspects of the mom science category that I feel like you’re branding, which is so late in — the fact that it’s not a full-on course in college at this point is a tragedy. It should be. Thanks for raising awareness to this. Then there were some facts and figures you sprinkled throughout your book. For instance, “According to the latest research, moms hit mobile consumer apps starting at five AM and reportedly shop fifteen percent faster than other people.” Here is why I love this. Everybody’s always asking, how do you do things quickly? How do you get stuff done? I’m like, when you’re a mom, you have to get things done quickly. Give a busy a mom something to do, blah, blah, blah. We all know this. Now there’s research behind this. Tell me a little bit about some of these findings that just supported things that you already knew, including something like the ability to shop quickly.

Abigail: When you become a mom, the core of this awakening or renaissance or transformation that we talk about, a scientist referred to it as a maternal unmasking, which I really liked because it sounded kind of festive. At the core of it is this newfound awareness of and sensitivity to infant ques. You’re basically looking at your kid, your baby, monitoring their emotional state, trying to figure out how to keep it alive, that whole thing. That newfound awareness transfers to other aspects of your life. Moms hear and see somewhat differently than other people. If you watch their brains respond in an fMRI scan or put on one of those EEG caps that look like a weird, netted sack that you would have onions in at the grocery store, they can show you stuff like colors or pictures of houses, and your brain reacts differently, more sharply in a lot of ways. I think that you’re just kind of programmed to get it done in a way that maybe you weren’t before. That’s not to say there aren’t deficits, which were a little bit depressing for me as a writer reading the literature. People say, is there a mommy brain? Do you really get stupider? I don’t think you really get stupider, but I think your brain definitely shifts into a different mode. There’s an economy of attention. You’re paying attention to different stuff. The one place where researchers do seem to agree that there’s a little bit of a, I don’t want to use the word decay, but sort of a fallback is in the area of verbal recall and the way that you remember words. I don’t know if you have these moments with your mom friends where you’re staring at each other just being like, what is the word that we’re trying to come up with? Then you finally get it. That may be because the changes that we see in the mom brain are often in the deep-down ancient core of the brain as opposed to the fancy bells and whistles that humanity has like the ability to speak.

Zibby: I literally consulted multiple neurologists years ago because I could not retrieve words. Of course, then this crazy thing happened to me where they found a brain tumor that, turned out, had been there my whole life, but they didn’t know at first. Then I went off on this whole thing.

Abigail: Then they’re like, disregard that.

Zibby: It was fine. Eventually, they realized that it had been there since I was born and would always be there. No big deal. Obviously, it was very scary when they didn’t know that. The point is, the thing that started it off is because I could not come up with words. I’m very into words and talking and reading and writing and all of that. I would be like, what is that place where we keep the cars? I would be calling it a garbage can. I’m like, I know it’s not a garbage can, but I can’t find the word. I would ask all my friends. They’re like, no, mom brain. I was like, no, no, this is too much. I cannot speak. Reading your book, I’m like, oh, my gosh. Then eventually, the doctors were like, it’s just mom brain, whatever that is. I was like, this is so unsatisfying to me. How long does mom brain last? When do you think it goes away? Some days, I don’t feel like it’s really gone.

Abigail: Does it ever grow back? These studies that they’ve done where they do the before and after pregnancy brain pictures show that the changes last for two years. I was like, okay, two years, I can handle that. Then I looked a little closer at the papers. It was like, two years is the last time they checked. The changes may last forever. There’s an interesting literature on moms and Alzheimer’s disease. They’re trying to study whether having kids and having certain numbers of kids is protective against Alzheimer’s disease.

Zibby: Yes, I saw that. Didn’t you say that if you have three or more kids you have some protection against dementia or something?

Abigail: There is a back-and-forth about this. There’s a relationship that scientists are trying to unpack. That was a big, recent study that showed that if you had a lot of kids — it’s also not just kids. It’s also pregnancies. If you have a miscarriage, that may also be protective in some way. Scientists are trying to piece together why that is and this relationship between, if we’re forgetting words now, can things really get better when we’re eighty-five? It may. It may get better. I think that’s a fascinating area. Another interesting factor is the study of fetal microchimerism, which is when the baby — your children’s cells cross the placenta into your bloodstream. Some of them end up integrating with your tissue and your heart or lungs or your thyroid or your brain, hint, hint, hint. They stay there forever. They become part of your body. Scientists don’t really know what they’re doing there, if they’re working for us or against us, if they might be protecting us from things Alzheimer’s disease. I just think that if men discovered one day that their bodies were being patrolled by the cells of their children, we would have nine thousand labs that were like, we’re going to get to the bottom of this. Instead, we have just two or three. There might be more than two or three, but a handful of labs that are trying to get to the bottom of this question and figuring out, what do these cells do? Why are they there? How can we use them? What does it mean? I was fascinated by all those questions.

Zibby: I read part of this in the car. I was reading this part to my husband. I was like, “Wait, listen to this.” Then I would keep going. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, listen to this part.” Finally, he was like, “Could we stop talking about this?”

Abigail: He’s like, what about me?

Zibby: Also, you reported that the baby, which becomes a middle-age woman, you still have the cells, perhaps, of your mother even after she’s passed away because it works both ways. Tell me more about that.

Abigail: I don’t know as much about that. There was one interesting study maybe five or six years ago that showed that the cells of your mom — my mom’s cells are in my body. They may have some say, to use a colloquial word, in which embryos make it to gestation. The mom may be sort of screaming for sexual partners that are similar to her. That sounds too close to the real truth. Of course, that’s what your mom is doing. Again, that is an even farther-out field, the fact that our bodies have our moms present in them. If you’ve had multiple kids, those kids are in all there. Maybe they have different agendas. Who knows? Then this idea that if you’ve had a miscarriage or something like that, that child may be inside of you rebuilding part of your liver if you have liver disease, it’s just so cuckoo.

Zibby: It’s literally like a science fiction movie.

Abigail: It is. I kept being like, are you sure? Of course, I’m reading all this literature about mommy brain. I’m like, is this a waking dream? No, it’s real. These scientists who study this stuff are just so fascinating. There’s people at Mount Sinai in New York who are trying to figure out how we might be able to use these fetal cells that might have a regenerative effect in maternal hearts, if we might be able to harvest these somehow and use them to help other people who have heart problems. There’s so much potential here. I think it’s just a field that everybody should be kind of tuned into.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m on the board at Mount Sinai, actually.

Abigail: Well?

Zibby: We’re getting all these presentations at our board meetings that are like, whatever. This, why is this not a topic at our board meeting? Let this guy come in and present, or whoever . All right, well, I’ll be making a phone call after this. Let’s see what happens.

Abigail: Let’s get them.

Zibby: I’m kidding. I’m so unimportant. It’s this massive board of eighty people or whatever. When I was growing up, my mother would always tell me about death, which I obsessed over. She was like, “You always live on in the hearts and minds of other people.” Now reading this book, you actually do. It’s not just a nice phrase. Your cells live on. It gives me the chills.

Abigail: It’s so fascinating. There’s comfort in it. Then there’s also wonder in it. We just don’t understand this. It’s something that I think we will understand more. I have to say that a lot of the people who are studying this are women and moms. That was one of the cool things about the book. When you write about science, it is still a male-dominated field. I loved, in the book, getting to talk to all these young mothers who are studying mothering in monkeys, mothering in mice, mothering in people. Some of them were pregnant at the time. It was just so refreshing. I loved knowing that they were walking the walk too. It’s not like just studying these things in test tubes. They were fighting to have this research time. They had two toddlers at home. I just loved that part.

Zibby: Wow. Where do we go from here with all of this information? I’m so excited to know it. I feel finally understood about the way my brain is working. Maybe there’s now something more I can do armed with this knowledge. What’s our to-do list now that we know?

Abigail: One of the things that I thought was so interesting, especially in light of the pandemic, was the way that moms — we are so programmed to care for our kids and to carry on and to obey this instinct that arises in us, that’s new to us. We are really, at the same time, susceptible to environmental influences. Things like stress, we think of stress as being like, oh, I had a stressful day. It was hard. Scientists who study things like rat moms and monkey moms have seen how stress can actually kind of degrade the maternal brain or stunt its growth. Basically, if you have women under enough stress, it can be really, really bad despite the power of this instinct. I just think there are so many lessons that we can take from other countries about how we can safeguard the mental health of mothers and do things like provide better prenatal care. Things like paid maternity and, actually, paid paternity leave, surprisingly, are things that we can push for.

Even the way women are treated in hospitals, I learned a little bit about hospitals that they have in Israel. These certain fancy maternity hospitals, you can have down pillows there. You get so much extra help. There’s fancy toiletries and all of these things. It’s sort of like, well, who cares? You had your baby. Actually, no, these are signals and ques from the environment that mean that people care about you. On a personal level, new moms are super receptive to social signals. Anything that you can do for a new mother in your own life, if it’s call her, email her, check in, don’t make her one dinner, make her five dinners, let her know that she’s cared for and her baby’s cared for because these things actually can impact the development of her brain. That’s something that I told myself again and again. These little gestures, they’re not just being polite or good manners when you show — if you buy a gift for a new mother or make sure that she has diapers if her husband has to go away for a business trip, these are actually psychological salves that we can give to each other until the government catches up with us.

Zibby: I was just at a bookstore the other day. I found these adorable little socks for babies that have little library cards. I was like, I’m just going to send these to a couple moms I know who just had babies. Why not? It’s not like they’re expensive. It’ll probably make someone’s day. I would’ve loved to get something like that when I was in the thick of it covered in vomit and everything from being a new mom.

Abigail: They’ll remember it forever. That’s the kind of stuff. When you’re in the trenches, just remembering that people out there actually care and that you have a social network, these are things that can even help protect women against postpartum depression. We are social animals. We are constantly drinking in signals from the world. As women, we can influence those signals and build each other up.

Zibby: And you gave us justification for watching HGTV, which I do all the time, which is my guilty pleasure. I’m like, aha, there’s a biological reason why this is my end-of-the-day pleasure.

Abigail: Oh, my gosh, I am so with you on that. Sometimes I’m like, is this why I can’t remember any words? Is it because I watched Love It or List It again? Knowing that that kind of stuff is okay, I think anything you can do to take the stress out a little bit at the end of the day is helpful to you and to your whole family. I say women should help each other. There is really interesting research on things like how paternity leave can result in a drop in the amount of anti-anxiety medication that new moms fill. The book talks a little bit about the differences between dads and moms. I think that there are differences. Also, it’s an established fact that dads can make a huge difference in helping their partners develop into moms and to help control the environment in which they become moms. I just think anything that we can do in our homes and in our broader worlds to help is time well spent and money well spent.

Zibby: I should not admit this, per your comment on anti-anxiety medication, but I literally brought my prescription thing of anti-anxiety medicine into the c-section room because I hadn’t been taking it while I was pregnant. I didn’t wait until I got to the cooling-off area or whatever the next room is. I was on the table popping it in.

Abigail: You’re like, who needs champagne?

Zibby: I wish they could’ve put it in my bloodstream. They should really do that instead.

Abigail: Oh, my gosh, I’m with you.

Zibby: I actually forgot that even happened until right this second. Anyway, so what are you working on now? I know this just is coming out, but where are you going from here? Are you uncovering other secrets? Are you delving deeper into this science? What’s your next step?

Abigail: First on the list is I’m going to take a summer and actually hang out with my kids. There was a little bit of irony because I would be like, “I have to go up into the attic, kids, and write this book about the maternal instinct.” In the course of my writing process, because I had to just try to carve out time every day, I definitely did a fair bit of kid ignoring. I need to spend the summer hanging out with them. I am generally just super interested in how you can use high science to understand the stuff that goes on in our own lives. My last book was about how housecats took over the world, basically, the story of this pet that we have, and really has no business being in our home. It does nothing good for us. How did this happen? I anticipate a new book that explores another aspect of our domestic existence and how we can use concepts from biology and the cool stuff in the labs that are in all of our cities but nobody knows about to understand our present predicament as moms and also just as humans.

Zibby: You don’t know what it’s going to be, or you don’t want to talk about it?

Abigail: I honestly don’t know. I have some ideas. I’m really interested in the way that women interact with each other, not just with our kids. It might be related to that.

Zibby: Interesting. Maybe something with food.

Abigail: Yes. Honestly, yes, tasty things.

Zibby: Then you could explain away the Food Network watching.

Abigail: Another mindless pleasure.

Zibby: Exactly. It’ll all have a reason.

Abigail: This is all according to our plan, absolutely.

Zibby: What advice do you have to aspiring authors?

Abigail: Oh, gosh. I’d just say I think the most important thing is to write about something that you love and that you are genuinely interested in and that you’re, in some way, living. I think that the most successful science writing in particular has a personal dimension. You have to really feel like you’ve got some skin in the game, basically, and the research that you’re learning about isn’t just objectively interesting, but it actually matters to you and the people that you love. That’s what I’d say. Then the other thing is that if you’re a writing mom, there is a certain amount of ruthlessness involved. You must write every day. I don’t have a five-day workweek. I have an abbreviated workday basically seven days a week. That’s how I can squeeze in the time. I’d say that you have to make that claim for yourself. Otherwise, you’re just going to get sucked into the vortex of what’s going on every day. I’d say you can get a lot done in two hours.

Zibby: I did something yesterday and I was like, “Wow, it only took me three hours to, blah, blah, blah.” My husband’s like, “That’s because the kids aren’t here today.” It took months to just sit down for those three hours, but once I had them, I could do it.

Abigail: You can do anything in three hours. Actually, I feel like back when I used to go into the office, I basically worked for three hours. I did a lot of other stuff. I chatted. I got lunch, all the stuff. I feel like if you can pour your best brain into something for two hours most days a week, then you’re good.

Zibby: I feel like in your spare time, you should try to make the science of the mom brain into a much bigger movement and thing. I think this should be something where people are donating money, and hospitals and schools, universities. I feel like we need to elevate this as a topic. It’s so hugely important and not adequately represented. You should be in charge of whatever foundation that is. You should run it. You should fundraise and make it a whole big thing.

Abigail: Let me call my babysitter. Actually, now that you mention that, Zibby, one important thing is that — I happen to live in a neighborhood near Yale University. My neighborhood has all these little signs up looking for moms to donate their brains to experiments. I did that. I volunteered. For these researchers, getting moms to carve out a little bit of time from their lives to do these perfectly safe, actually super interesting experiments is a big challenge. Especially if you live in a place like New York or if you live really anywhere where there’s a research university, it’s not a bad idea to figure out if there is a lab that’s studying human moms. You just go in and chat and put on a cap that’s reading the electrical signals on your scalp and look at baby pictures. It saves these researchers time and energy because they mostly have to do a lot of recruiting by going to baby yoga classes and putting up all these flyers when they could be using that energy to actually push the science forward. We can help them with that. We can show up.

Zibby: I love that. We were driving from Massachusetts back to New York, and I was like, “Let’s just stop at Sally’s and pick up a pizza.” We hauled it in, flung into New Haven, grabbed the pizza, put it on our laps, got back on 95 and kept going.

Abigail: Detour. Oh, my gosh, you’ve got to do it.

Zibby: It was so nice chatting with you. I find your research absolutely fascinating and so important. I feel like it’s just the beginning. It’s very exciting.

Abigail: Thank you so much for having me. This was so fun.

Zibby: My pleasure. Have a great day.

Abigail: Bye, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye.

Abigail Tucker, MOM GENES

MOM GENES by Abigail Tucker

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts