Chelsea Conaboy, MOTHER BRAIN: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood

Chelsea Conaboy, MOTHER BRAIN: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood

Guest host Allison Pataki interviews health and science journalist Chelsea Conaboy about her groundbreaking and myth-busting new book Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood. Chelsea analyzes the postpartum experience–a time of distress, adaptation, and powerful neurological and hormonal shifts for parents. She also dismantles the dangerous myth of maternal instinct and outlines the sociopolitical areas that desperately need reform in the United States. Finally, she describes her research and writing process and shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Allison Pataki: Hello, everybody. Allison Pataki here. I am with Chelsea Conaboy, author of Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood. Chelsea, thank you for chatting today.

Chelsea Conaboy: Thank you so much for having me.

Allison: Oh, my goodness, congratulations on this book, on Mother Brain. I know as a mother of three myself, I found it to be very, very valuable. I know that’s the case for many others. Can you tell us about this book and why you wrote it and how you wrote it?

Chelsea: This book really started with my own experience of new motherhood. My first son was born in 2015. I had worked for a long time as a health and science journalist. At the time, I was an editor at a newspaper here in Maine where I live. I felt really capable going into new motherhood. I had a good job and a great husband and felt like I had done all the reading that I possibly could. I just felt as informed as I could be. Then my son arrived, and I went through this major change. I really didn’t have the words to describe what I was experiencing. In particular, I felt really overwhelmed with worry. My son was born on the small side. He was under six pounds. We had just moved into a new house. I worried about his safety and his growth. Then I also worried about the worry itself. It felt like it was somehow crowding out the things that maybe I was supposed to feel, like the overwhelming warmth and certainty at having arrived at motherhood. This book is really the response to that for me. I went looking for answers and really found them in the science of the parental brain. Finding this research really changed my complete outlook on my early postpartum experience. I realized that I wasn’t broken. There wasn’t some sort of missing maternal instinct for me. I was going through this major upheaval that was helping me to become the parent that my son needed me to be.

Allison: You talk about this maternal instinct and this image so many of us have of this instant mother love, this rosy view that we see our newborn, and we instantly fall in love.

The instincts and the hormones will help us to know exactly what to do. You say that is about as accurate as the Disney narrative of a young, beautiful girl who meets her prince. Sight unseen, they fall in love. They live happily ever after. What is this narrative we are living with? Why is it important that you examined it and, as you said, offer a response to that?

Chelsea: It is a fairy tale. It is not reality. As I started really looking at the science and seeing how much this was a period of real development for a parent — the science, it’s relatively new, but we’ve had the beginnings of it for half a century. We’ve had this pretty robust animal literature and then these brain imagining studies that have built on that in the last twenty years or so. I started really asking, why aren’t we talking about this more? Why isn’t it part of prenatal education or our broader cultural conversation about what it means to be a parent? I kept coming back to this idea that it’s because we have a different story in its place. We have the story about maternal instinct. When I was pregnant, I don’t think I would have really recognized maternal instinct as a scientific fact, but it’s still so embedded in how we experience pregnancy and new parenthood. It’s so much a part of how we talk about that time of life. If it’s not maternal instinct, it’s at least this belief that your baby is born — you’re flooded with oxytocin. They’re flooded with oxytocin. You begin breastfeeding. The bond is sealed. It’s just much more complicated than that. When I went back and started looking at the history of that idea, specifically its entry into scientific theory, I recognized that it was not ever science. It was really religious men who were entrenched in cultural ideas of moral motherhood kind of cloaking those beliefs in science and then that being carried forward, really belief, not fact. I wanted to peel that away and see, what is the science actually telling us?

Allison: I also had a baby in 2015, my first. I remember when she came out finally after this long birth. I had had such a traumatic pregnancy and lead-up to her arrival that I was so afraid that if I were to look at her and something were to be wrong with her, I didn’t think I would be able to handle that and process that. I could not bring myself to look at her. I remember the labor and delivery nurse saying, “Look at your baby. Look at your baby. She’s here.” I just remember thinking, exactly as you said, there’s something so wrong with me that I’m scared. I was scared. I was traumatized. You are very honest in this book about your own experience with anxiety. I think you say one in five new parents develop some sort of disorder or mood or anxiety around the postpartum period. You say there’s a lot that we could be doing better here and talking about this more. Can you talk about this more?

Chelsea: It’s tricky. One in five is the commonly used statistic, but the reality is it’s really hard to quantify it for a few reasons. It’s hard to study this. There’s still so much stigma around it. Also, the reality is that pregnancy and labor and breastfeeding and new parenthood, and new parenthood for non-gestational parents included, it’s such a spectrum of adaptation and distress. I actually believe that distress is kind of an inherent part of the process. Where you cut off what’s adaptive and what’s clinical or maladaptive — when does it tip into a place of being a problem? It’s really hard to know. In my mind, what we actually need to do is normalize the fact that this distress happens for everyone and build up supports for everyone. Those people who really struggle in it will have supports available to them. Also, those of us who struggle just a little less or perhaps have social supports around us already also will have resources and knowledge available to us. My point is this is a major stage of development for parents also. So often, we spend all of this time learning about our bodies and what they’re going through during pregnancy. Then as soon as baby arrives, our focus is on child development.

There isn’t any focus on parent development. It’s real. It’s really fundamental. It’s neurobiological. There are things that we can control in that time. There are things that we can’t control in that time. We need to be prepared for all of that. You asked, what can we do differently? I typically talk about three areas that we can do differently. One, our social policies. Our lack of paid leave in particular in this country is really shameful. We’re one in six countries in the world that lack paid maternity leave. We have all of the reasons already in terms of health outcomes and mental health outcomes and economic workforce reinforcement. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for families. Also, it’s good for giving parents this time of development for themselves to adapt to this role, to connect with their baby in the ways that they need to, the ways that their brains need to. Clinical care, we have one standard postpartum six-week appointment. The rest of our time, it’s kind of a wasteland. It doesn’t have to be. We have so many people to struggle before that six-week mark and so many to struggle after that time. The American College of OBGYNs has called for a better, improved approach. There hasn’t been a lot of movement on that yet. Then the third, and I’m hoping that this book can be a part of this, is just to change how we talk to one another about what new parenthood is and what it feels like and what we experience when we go through it and to normalize talking about the distress and the adaptation, the benefits that come from these changes.

Allison: The changes are as significant in our brain as the period of puberty. You point that out. I was blown away by that. What is happening? What are the changes that are happening in our brains and bodies when we become parents?

Chelsea: There are two things that really shape the parental brain, hormones and experience. That’s true across all parents. Fathers and other non-gestational parents also have pretty significant hormonal shifts. Then our babies are these really powerful stimuli for the brain. These hormonal shifts are priming us to be ready to receive the ques that they give us. In gestational parents in particular, it’s this — I bet this will feel familiar to you. These changes compel us, push us into this hyper-responsive period. There’s an increase in activity and connectivity in brain regions involved in motivation, meaning making, and vigilance. I see that as serving two roles. One is to really keep us paying attention to our babies, who need our attention, who are these tiny, vulnerable creatures. For their survival, they need our attention. We might not have the practical skills to care for them, but our attention keeps us trying. Then the other role I see that drive is to push us into this intense period of learning. We go back again and again and try to read their ques and figure out how to meet their needs. Over time, the systems in our brains that previously have been involved in reading our own bodies’ ques and figuring out how to manage our own energy and meet our own needs, they’re essentially extended to now also include our children’s needs. We get better over time at predicting how to meet them. Our social cognition changes, those systems that are involved in learning another person. It’s thought we get better at regulating our own emotions in that process. Those are the things that last, emotion regulation, our social cognition, and also our ability to change with our kids, our flexibility. They’re constantly growing and changing. We have to adjust also.

Allison: You say it so beautifully. The sense of self extends a little further to incorporate this human that has been born from us. When you talked to people about the fact that you were researching and writing this book, or now that the book is out there, and you explained it was Mother Brain, oftentimes, people would say, oh, mom brain. It’s thought of like, oh, I forget what’s on the calendar, I forgot the grocery list, or whatnot. Can you talk about mom brain and this perception we have versus what you’re going into here with Mother Brain?

Chelsea: If we talk about mother’s brains at all, normally, we talk about that caricature of the forgetful, frazzled woman who can’t keep it all together. There is research, particularly during late pregnancy, that points to deficits in memory, but they’re small. They’re typically small and temporary. What we see over time instead is that it’s possible that there’s cognitive gains. In the animal literature, it’s pretty clear that — for example, in rodents, rat mothers also have memory loss during pregnancy, but then they gain all of these skills, this improvement in spatial memory and long-term cognition. Then they’re protected from the effects of stress and aging. It’s really clear that there’s a benefit for them. Researchers are just getting past this idea of trying to measure the memory deficits in women and starting to look more holistically at, what’s the mental load in this time of life? How do we measure cognitive function within context? We have many more demands. How are we managing them? There are some very early indications that we’re managing them well. There is growth in that time. Then there are these fascinating sets of studies that look at the brains of older adults.

Allison: I loved that. I loved the discussion about the grandparents.

Chelsea: Yeah, grandparents. Then there are these studies that look at these big databanks of brain imaging in Australia and in the UK and compare — these are adults who are in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, and older. They’re comparing parents and non-parents and finding that the brains of parents are what researchers refer to younger-looking. They have fewer effects of aging. It makes sense when you think about it. Parenting is this huge cognitive demand. We’re constantly having to adjust and change and learn new things and do all the things that researchers know are protective against aging, like keep working our brains in complex social ways. I just love those studies because they’re such a counterpoint to this idea that we are hindered by motherhood. The exact opposite may be true.

Allison: Bring on all the anti-aging studies pro-parenthood. What was your process like researching and writing this book? How was that for you?

Chelsea: Oh, man. I left my job at the newspaper in 2017 after my second son was born. I started freelancing full time. I wrote a magazine story for the Boston Globe Magazine about this research, specifically about the maternal brain and how it helped me grapple with my own experience. I had been thinking that there probably would be a book involved or that there was a book there. Then that article really went viral. There was just so much interest. People really related to it. I realized, oh, there’s an audience here, for sure. I got a book deal in 2019. I did probably six months of intensive research. I was ready to start doing some reporting trips and buckle down to get the writing started. Then the pandemic hit.

Allison: Traveling? Research trips?

Chelsea: Exactly. It really shifted how I was going to write and report the book. It really shifted my time. We had two young kids. My husband and I are both self-employed. We did what so many people did and just started the juggle, which was splitting our days and working on weekends and finding the time wherever we could. The reporting process was really interesting because it took me in so many different directions that I hadn’t originally planned on, including deeper into the research on non-gestational parents, deeper into evolutionary history. You mentioned grandmothers. Then I, in some ways, got angrier the longer I researched it, so it had a stronger voice in the end than I had originally anticipated. I think all of that was good for the book. It really made me grapple in a deeper way than I expected with my own beliefs around parenthood and things like attachment theory and just what a good parent looked like.

Allison: I loved when you talked about attachment theory. So much good stuff. How perfect that we are talking about mothers and brains and thinking on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” while you were talking about how you found time. Thanks goodness you did. What advice would you have with other aspiring writers, with other authors?

Chelsea: My advice is, there’s a fearlessness that you have to have to do this work, and particularly with rejection. When I became a freelancer, it’s just a totally different world having to be pitching all time. The same goes for writing book proposals. One of my good friend’s father, who worked in finance — he was an advisor. He was someone who, early in his career, had to do a lot of cold calls. He told me that he came up with a formula. He knew that he had to get — I don’t know; just pulling numbers out of the air — fifteen noes before he would get a yes. He started thinking about every rejection as progress towards a yes. That really changed how I felt about rejection. I started creating spreadsheets when I was pitching an article. I would have three or four other editors lined up to pitch the article to next. If I assumed I was going to get a no, I was just going to go on to the next one. That sense of rejection as progress really helped me so much. There’s a lot of that, whether you’re pitching your book to people who you’re hoping will do things like this, a podcast, or if you’re getting ready to pitch a book proposal. There’s just so much rejection in this work. You have to find a way to not take it personal. That was really helpful to me, to think about it like, okay, I’m one more step closer.

Allison: That is so good. The data seeker and analyst in you probably really appreciated the numbers and just the whole idea behind that. That is so great. Readers have not rejected this book. For readers who want to know all about you and keep up with your progress, Chelsea, learn more about Mother Brain, how can we connect with you?

Chelsea: They can find me at I have a newsletter there as well.

Allison: Wonderful. Chelsea, what are you working on next?

Chelsea: That’s a really good question.

Allison: Other than, obviously, this wonderful book and sharing the book.

Chelsea: I have some ideas that haven’t completely come together yet but I think will have a similar mix of science and narrative and probably family and community, figuring out, how can we change those things for the better?

Allison: Awesome. We will look out for that. Chelsea Conaboy, author Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood. Chelsea, thank you so much for chatting today.

Chelsea: Thank you, Allison. I appreciate it.

Chelsea Conaboy, MOTHER BRAIN: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood

MOTHER BRAIN: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood by Chelsea Conaboy

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