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Motherhood changed me — and my brain

For The Baltimore Sun

Motherhood changes you.

This is a refrain pregnant women or new mothers will hear quite often. Sometimes the statement — usually coming from another, more experienced mother — is even bigger: Motherhood, they’ll say, changes everything.

For me, the warnings came so often, they became like background music. I barely heard the words – much less did I truly understand what such a thing could possibly mean.

I suppose I had a basic understanding that becoming a mother would mean I would have to provide, care for and love a helpless human being, teach him what he needed to know to grow into adulthood, and protect him however I could from harm. I knew I’d lose sleep and have to give up some free time. I read books that said I might feel frustrated, isolated, maybe even depressed.

But I didn’t know know what a profound change I was in for. And it would take years before I fully grasped that a change had even occurred.

My daughter, my youngest, was 3 — which meant I had been at the mothering thing for five years or so — when I realized I had become someone I didn’t recognize.

I had morphed so fully and completely into “Mommy” that Tanika barely existed.

I woke with the children on my mind and my heart beat to their rhythms.

My sisters tell me I went “a little bit crazy” after having children, and I can’t say they’re wrong. I fretted about their eating and sleeping schedules and obsessed about how much we talked to them. I stalked their developmental milestones, and worried when progress came slowly. I once left a restaurant in tears because I was certain that the other diners were plotting to eat my twin infant sons. A little bit crazy, for sure.

As the babies grew, my levels evened out, and the me inside the preoccupied mother of three was slowly resurrected. I realized that I missed reading good books and watching mindless TV shows. I missed fitting into my clothes. I missed my friends. And though I was happily married and loved the life my husband and I were building for our kids, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes feel boxed in and anxious, like the ceiling was being lowered, slowly and silently, and I was the only one who could feel it.

I eventually found my way back to myself, but I often think back on that time with wonder. Who was I during that time? And how did I get to that place?

I recently read a fascinating article from the Boston Globe magazine that shed some light on those questions, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I want to share it with everyone I know.

In studying the brains of women who had never been pregnant and those who had, researchers are starting to understand that there are distinct and profound changes in the brains of mothers — changes that are as transformative as the effects of puberty.

When her first child was born, the article’s author suffered from a kind of “anxiety and hypervigilance” that I recognized from my own days as a new mother.

“What I didn’t know then — what I wish I had known then — was that I was in the midst of the most rapid and dramatic neurobiological change of my adult life,” the author, Chelsea Conaboy, says. “The unmooring I felt, and that so many new mothers feel, likely was at least in part a manifestation of structural and functional brain changes, handed down through the millennia by mothers past and intended to mold me into a fiercely protective, motivated caregiver, focused on my baby’s survival and long-term well-being.”

Such neurobiological changes in the maternal brain — which can last well past the newborn phase — have been too long misunderstood, or worse, neglected, researchers Conanboy spoke to said. According to one scientist: “It’s one of the most significant biological events, I would say, you would have in your life.”

This I know to be true. Motherhood is not just a life-changing event; it’s a biology-changing one. Because of my sons and daughter, I’m a new and different me.

Motherhood, indeed, changed everything. Even my brain.

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