For anyone who has – while pregnant – temporarily forgotten her own name, poured a bottle of milk onto a kitchen floor without knowing why, or tried to text her cat then wept bitterly because that technology doesn’t yet exist – I have good, or at least validating, news:
Pregnancy brain is real, says neuroscience. Researchers in Spain and the Netherlands took brain scans of women before and during their pregnancies, and compared them to the brain scans of men and (non-pregnant) women. The results showed that – and I’m afraid this is true – pregnant women’s brains shrink. In fact, they shrink so much that the scientists could identify which scans belonged to pregnant brains just by looking at them.
If, like me, you slowly and deliberately tipped your own urine sample onto your jumper at the midwife’s office, or spent your pregnancy watching the words you were about to say tumble clean out of your head, this may not come as a surprise. The interesting thing about these findings though, if that this brain shrinkage didn’t occur in the areas of the brain that deal with urine samples and cognitive ability. So exactly why some of us transform into temporary dumbasses when we’re brewing babies remains a mystery.
Instead, the bits of our brains that shrink are concerned with facial recognition, emotional empathy and social intelligence. And the researchers think this is a good thing.
You see, our brains actually shrink when we hit adolescence. A lot of what we learn in our early years serve no purpose in the complex adult world our bodies are preparing us for. So, throughout puberty, teenage hormones flood the brain, dismantling childhood structures (the ability to complete really complex skipping-rope steps, perhaps) and building new ones (better social and cognitive abilities, and presumably the very specific upper-body strength that allows us to slam doors really hard while still maintaining an impressive slouch).
Being away from him was like physical agony, and if I was away for too long, everything would sound like a baby screaming. Birdsong, the water in the pipes, my own heartbeat
And the researchers are postulating that a similar seismic change takes place in the brains of pregnant women. Essentially, they believe, the rush of pregnancy hormones in the brain makes women more emotionally intelligent for up to two years after giving birth. Of the 25 women they tested, those whose brains changed the most during pregnancy were more attached – and less hostile – to their babies once they’d given birth.
To me, this makes perfect sense. Pregnancy really did a number on me, physically – I broke a rib, had severe morning sickness, anaemia and gestational diabetes. But lots of unexpected things happened, too – my face exploded in a constellation of freckles. My glasses prescription changed by several years’ worth of points. And I started bloody mothering everybody. I’d ask my friends if they’d eaten enough. I’d lecture my husband at length about dental hygiene, for some reason. I plumped pillows, started using the word “lovely” a lot, and I wept at everything.
Pre-pregnancy I was already a weeper. As a sufferer of depression and anxiety – and an inveterate weenie – I sobbed about something at least once a week. But rarely, before I got knocked up, would these sobs be about a cake baked on prime-time television. Suddenly I was seeing the emotional value in everything – a fallen leaf, a lone glove stuck on a railing, the very fact that dogs exist and like us – life was catching me in the throat and there was nothing I could do about it.
Post-pregnancy, this has served and not hindered me. My son had a difficult birth and was a little traumatised for the first few weeks of his life, and often during that time I felt like a finely-tuned machine that solely existed for his wellbeing. I could anticipate when he would cry by a single facial twitch. Being away from him – even just upstairs for a nap – was like physical agony, and if I was away for too long, everything would sound like a baby screaming. Birdsong, the water in the pipes, my own heartbeat.
Almost two years on, my top no longer floods with breast milk as soon as I think of my son, but my maternal instinct is something I can feel thrumming through my veins, and now I know why. It looks like motherhood has rebuilt me from the ground up, and if science says that’s OK, then it’s fine with me.