My niece had a baby last summer. Since I’m a developmental psychologist, I just had to ask her, “How’s it going?”
Her answer had a quiet and whimsical grace.
“There is nothing more beautiful in this world than his smile,” she said. “Or watching him discover something new. Last night he found the upper register of his voice, so he spent five minutes shrieking at a high pitch, playing around with that newfound note.”
Kelly is a beautiful person, so I wasn’t surprised to hear her speak appreciatively about her young son. The joys of parenting are often felt more deeply than any other feelings humans are capable of having. In recent and evolving research, scientists are charting a “global parental caregiving network” in a parent’s brain that drives some of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that Kelly and other new parents experience.
Yet the challenges can be equally great, especially when the profound changes taking place in the parents go unrecognized, or when new families have to go it alone. Developmental scientists consider the transition to parenthood one of the most massive reorganizations in the lifespan—one that changes the brains, endocrine systems, behaviors, identities, relationships, and more of everyone involved. Without support, relationships can strain to the brink, and depression or “depleted mother syndrome” can set in.
Here are ten ways your mind, body, and life will change when you become a parent—and steps you can take to cope with the changes.
In 2014, Ruth Feldman, a researcher in Israel and at the Yale School of Medicine, conducted an experiment with her colleagues. They went into the homes of 89 new parents and collected samples of oxytocin (the bonding hormone), and they recorded videos of parents interacting with their newborns. Later, the researchers put the parents in a functional MRI machine and replayed their videos back to them, observing which parts of parents’ brains “lit up” when they saw their own infants versus videos of unrelated babies.
The researchers found two main regions of the brain particularly active in new parents, both moms and dads. The first is the “emotion-processing network.” This is located centrally in the brain and it developed earlier in evolution than the neocortex. It involves the limbic, or feeling, circuitry and includes:
All together, this network creates more emotions in parents for their own newborns. Other researchers, Laura Glynn and Curt Sandman, add that these regions actually grow in density (or gray matter) in new mothers, and that that growth is associated with more positive feelings toward their infants. (You can find their review article on brain changes in pregnant women here.)
The second region that becomes more active is the “mentalizing network” that involves the higher cortex, or the more thinking regions of the brain. This area, along with the additional superhighways that connect the two emotion and mentalizing systems, focuses attention and grounds a parent in the present moment. (Who couldn’t stare at a new baby forever?)
It also facilitates the ability to “feel into” what a baby needs: Areas of the brain that involve cognitive empathy and the internal imaging of, or resonance with, a baby, light up. These regions help a parent read a baby’s nonverbal signals, infer what a baby might be feeling and what he/she might need, and even plan for what might be needed later in the future (long-term goals).
Together, the emotion-processing and mentalizing networks are also associated with multitasking and better emotion regulation. In other words, parents’ brains are remodeled to protect, attune with, and plan for, their infants.
Mothers aren’t the only ones whose brains are remodeled. The brains of fathers, too, light up in ways that nonparents’ brains don’t. Feldman and her colleagues found that while the emotion-processing network is most active in the biological mothers she studied, it is the mentalizing networks that are more active in the brains of fathers who are co-parenting with moms. And the more the fathers engaged in the caregiving tasks (diapering, feeding, holding, soothing), the more oxytocin they produced, and the stronger the activation was in the mentalizing areas of the brain.
Interestingly, in gay dads who were primary caregivers—half of Feldman’s subjects—both the emotion and mentalizing systems were highly activated.
In other words, parenting is a flexible process: Pregnancy might prepare a mother’s brain for parenting, but the brains of dads and other adults—adoptive parents, and more—are changed by simply engaging in the very acts of caregiving.
Sahil, Kelly’s husband, is open about the new feelings he’s having as a dad. “Winnie [short for Winter] is a curious, cheerful little person, and watching him develop and experience the world for the first time brings me endless amusement and joy. With Winnie, I’ve found new depths of love—it feels like a very biologically driven emotion.”
While he is drinking in the sweet elixir of his baby, Sahil’s feelings are also running through his brain’s thought circuitries. “Besides being afraid of the regular things—injury, illness, and such—I am also sad that his innocence will inevitably be eroded over time, and that he will inevitably experience all the various pains involved in growing into an adult.”
Kelly admires her husband’s changes and says that one of her greatest joys is “watching my husband develop into an incredibly loving, nurturing, and giving father.” (For more on how parenting changes fathers’ brains, I recommend the fun read Do Fathers Matter? What Science is Telling Us about the Parent We’ve Overlooked, by Paul Raeburn.)
Other research has found that hormonal changes in women late in pregnancy dampen their physical and psychological stress response as if to make more space to tune in to their babies’ needs. This is likely responsible for that special peacefulness many women experience in late pregnancy, as if the body is preparing for the important job to come. However, that’s not to say that the downregulation of the stress response is a match for the challenges of modern life once the baby is born.
Along with all these changes, there seems to be a collateral cognitive hit: In a meta-analysis of 17 studies, 80 percent of women reported impaired aspects of memory (recall and executive function) that began in pregnancy and persisted into the postpartum period.
Sahil says, “Having a child has given my life more meaning. For example, rather than working to earn money just for myself, to purchase various objects and experiences, I now have a great reason to do so. I’m more careful now, too. I have a child who depends on me, so I feel like I need to take better care of myself, so that I can be my best possible self to take care of Winnie.”Parents, naturally, continue to develop as individuals, and the arrival of a baby stimulates self-reflection. Watching Winnie moved Kelly to reflect on what must also have been the miracle of her own beginnings. “I’m fascinated by the fact that I, too, floated in a sack of amniotic fluid; that I, too, saw my hand for the first time and probably stared at it for 30 minutes straight, waving it in the air. Or that I, too, might have been startled by my own sneeze, or gas, or yawn.”
The transition to parenting is often linked in the media to declines in happiness. But most parents report that happiness is a superficial metric compared to the deeper meaning that loving relationships and committed parenting bring.
“If we just wanted positive emotions, our species would have died out a long time ago,” says Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, in a New York Times column. “We have children to pursue other elements of well-being. We want meaning in life. We want relationships.”
“Every mom I knew was surprised by the impact of becoming a parent and wished she knew more about coping with it,” writes Jan Hanson in Mother Nurture: A Mother’s Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships. Hanson is a nutritionist who co-authored the book with her husband, the neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, as well as OB/GYN Ricki Pollycove.
There are challenges to parents’ physical health: recovery from pregnancy and delivery, the adjustment to breastfeeding, disturbed nutrition, fatigue, and insufficient sleep. As you would expect, Kelly says that trying to stay rational, keep conflicts down, and even drive safely are difficult on three hours sleep or when she’s been up, exhausted, since 4 a.m. She is experiencing what researchers know: that proper sleep is critical to health and well-being, including mood, decision making, performance, and safety.
There are psychological adjustments to the new parenting role, too. Some parents need time to recover from a difficult or complicated birth process. For some, parenting demands can trigger strong, unresolved feelings from childhood, especially if it was traumatic or troubled. Hormonal changes along with sleeplessness and the constant demands of a new baby can create surprising new feelings, too: anger, sadness, feeling trapped or isolated—even guilt, fear, and inadequacy.
Some parents have to wrestle with having lost a previous child, or perhaps they are parenting a difficult or differently abled child. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes about these psychological challenges, and more, in The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood: Coping with Stress, Depression, and Burnout.
Rick and Jan Hanson and Ricki Polycove have seen so many thoroughly exhausted mothers in their practices that they identified a “depleted mother syndrome,” a condition where the mother’s “outpouring, stresses, vulnerabilities, and low resources” are so overwhelming as to “drain and dysregulate her body.”
The solution they recommend is threefold, focusing on lowering the parenting demands, increasing supportive resources, and building resilience. Rick Hanson is a thorough, compassionate, skilled, and practical therapist, and Mother Nurture is therapy in a book: From one-minute soothers, to resolving childhood issues, there is much help in the way of cognitive, neurological, and commonsense approaches, from simply taking care of your body to staying connected to your partner with empathyto trying, as much as possible, to share the load.
Having a new child introduces new challenges to the parents as a couple. Conflicts typically increase in a relationship after the birth of a child, in part due to the “roommate hassles” of who will do what in the household, as well as disagreements about parenting styles. Sometimes the sense of intimacy, closeness, and sexuality in a relationship can get derailed with the arrival of a little one. Couples are challenged to re-synchronize their relationship and develop a new sense of teamwork.
The couples who are most at risk for serious problems after the birth of a child, write parenting scholars Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan in their book,When Partners Become Parents, are those who were on the rocks before the child came along. Becoming a parent amplifies any pre-existing fissures in the relationship. Especially problematic are poor communication patterns—where one stonewalls, digs in, and refuses to budge, while the other escalates in distress. In contrast, couples who have productive ways of working out new difficulties and challenges do the best adjusting.
There are new logistics to deal with: new strains in managing a household, financial and legal concerns, decisions about when and how to go back to work, and figuring out childcare. Like many contemporary mothers, Kelly and Sahil are figuring out work-family balance, and Kelly experiences the challenges as coming from both sides: the struggle to feel okay going back to work after three months, versus the struggle to feel okay staying home without being criticized as a poor worker or an anti-feminist. This is the time to breathe life into your new relationship, trying to solve problems together, as a team, with kindness.
New parents also undergo a rearrangement of their social life, including how they interact with extended family and friends.
Some friendship networks get reconfigured (not all childless people want to hang out with new parents). Kelly noticed that other people changed in their relationship to her as she became a parent. The new demands on her time made it harder to meet friends away from Winnie, and yet, happily, new friends also emerged.
Kelly noticed that just as her identity started changing as a parent, there was a tendency for people to converse with her exclusively about motherhood. She was naturally thrilled that her loved ones were excited about Winnie, yet she longed for relationships that also nurtured her individual identity as a painter, counselor, yoga enthusiast, and traveler. With all the changes involved in new parenthood, it is important to have someone still “see” you as an individual, reminding you of yourself.
Everyone has advice for the new parent, from conflicting noise in the media down to people in our most intimate circles. This is not new—parenting advice has always swung wildly over the centuries, subject to demands of the times.
Kelly found that people offered unsolicited opinions, especially on sleep and clothing: “At times it felt that anyone who had once been a mother felt the need to say that my baby should put on more clothing—even in 90-degree weather when he was sweating! And I was quite happy to be co-sleepingwith Winter, but I was made to feel guilty about this on many occasions. Sleep is such a touchy topic, and many people tried to convince us to get Winter into a crib if we wanted what was best for him.”
Kelly found support from her sister, who encouraged her to be firm about her internal compass in the face of many differing opinions: “Your only option is to learn to listen to yourself and know that you know your situation and what works for your family, better than anyone else,” she told Kelly.
Developmental psychologists agree: The parent-newborn relationship has been elegantly designed over thousands of years of evolution, and the needs are deceptively simple—a protective, loving, and responsive relationship is what gives babies the best start in life.
Kelly adds that the most helpful exchanges are ones where she is encouraged to share how things are going, and in return hear a similar story and outcome. “Not only does it feel good to know I’m not alone in this, it educates me about what works much better than direct advice.”
Kathleen Kendall-Tackett writes that in many non-industrialized countries, the postpartum period is a special time of “mothering the mother.” New mothers are considered especially vulnerable so their activities are limited, they’re relieved of normal work, and they stay relatively secluded with their babies while other relatives take care of them. Along with that extra care, there are special rituals and gifts that mark this as an important period.
American mothers, in contrast, are quickly released from the hospital and are often even expected to entertain guests who come to visit the new baby. That difference in support, Kendall-Tackett says, may be why in industrialized countries about 50-80 percent of new mothers experience the “baby blues,” and another 15-25 percent have full-blown postpartum depression. In more traditional cultures where new mothers are exclusively nurtured, postpartum depression is “virtually non-existent.”
Kelly agrees: “A mother needs to be nurtured and cared for because she is doing nothing for herself at this point. Everything is being given to the baby and I find little time to do things like even wash my hair or take a bath. Or connect with a friend. Even getting a hug from my husband can be hard in those times when a baby is especially demanding. When I do get that hug, I need it more than ever before.”
The transition to parenthood is a huge transformation. And America, with no comprehensive child-family policy and no federal paid family leave policy, is a particularly unsupportive place to have a child. But the accumulating research is pointing to just how sensitive and important this period is for families. With a little knowledge and some foresight, parents-to-be, and their loved ones, can better plan for the transition. The rise in popularity of the postpartum doula (a person, usually a woman, who is trained to help new families in the home) may be a step in the right direction.
Rick Hanson encourages new mothers—and fathers—to insist that others take their needs seriously. “Treat yourself like you matter,” he says.
Diana Divecha, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist, a research affiliate of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and on the advisory board of the Greater Good Science Center. Her blog is developmentalscience.com.