Stories of the Mind-Mother Problem

When I became a mother, it was the most grown-up thing I’d ever done. By age 33 I’d held down jobs and signed a book contract. I’d moved to a new city for the man I loved. The two of us had bought a refrigerator. But having a baby was clearly a vastly larger acquisition–and it felt like a powerful act of self-definition.

Yet when our son was born, a hairless human the same size and approximate cuteness as our cat but with far fewer abilities, I didn’t feel like I’d taken charge of my life so much as lost my way in it. I felt at once supremely capable and alarmingly vulnerable. I had had no idea that love could be so boring, and part of me resisted, while another part wished only to stare besottedly at my baby.

I spent my days nursing while reading the New Yorker, a gift subscription from a friend who didn’t want me to lose my intellectual edge. I spent my days wallowing in the adolescent conviction that nobody loved me. I swung wildly between ecstasy and self-pity, satisfaction and frustration. Though I was evidently the adult in the room, emotionally I was 14 again, wandering in the dark forest of my own feelings.

I probably behaved with teenage obliviousness, too, like most parents do, acting like the whole world revolves around them and the baby. I felt my emotions twanging like rubber bands and wondered what had happened to the unsentimental mom I thought I’d be. I’d had a map of motherhood in my mind, but when I arrived there, there were no signposts and no paths.

Anne Enright writes that after the birth of her child she felt she had arrived at “a place before stories start. Or the precise place where stories start. How else can I explain the shift from language that has happened in my brain? This is why mothers do not write, because motherhood happens in the body, as much as the mind.”

Enright wrestles with this shift in Making Babies, her brilliant memoir of her early motherhood. She finds few answers and many questions: how should a mother recollect herself, or create herself anew? And for a mother who is also a writer or artist, how to cope with a maternal role that in all its demands for care and selflessness seems like the opposite of creative autonomy?

Some time and another child later, I was still thinking about the relationship between creative work and mothering, a parent’s love and an artist’s independence of mind. To find out more I decided to look at great artists and writers who were also mothers. Doris Lessing, Alice Walker, the sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois, the painter Alice Neel: how had they done it?

I started writing about them—and found myself back in the woods with the same useless map. I didn’t know how to tell their stories as mothers; I didn’t know what a mother’s story looked like, or why anyone else would want to read it. Rachel Cusk comments that “the experience of motherhood loses nearly everything in its translation to the outside world. In motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify.” I couldn’t find a narrative thread.

It’s rare to see a mother as the protagonist of her own story. When “The Mother, the Woman” was the controversial theme of the Dutch Book Week a couple years ago, two male writers were invited to pen the annual essay and work of fiction. Was a mother only imaginable seen through the eyes of a son? Could motherhood never be the mother’s story? I worried we’d gone no further since the American feminist Susan Rubin Suleiman said a generation ago: “Mothers don’t write, they are written.”

That’s not true; mothers are writing, painting, and shaping their stories now more than ever. But the stories that are told, like Enright’s, are often histories of frustration and fragmentation. Cusk calls birth an event that “divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed.…When she is with her children she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself.” The novelist Jenny Offill writes of feeling that “a bomb had gone off” in her life.

Psychology, which has long neglected mothers’ stories in favor of the child’s point of view, is starting to suggest explanations for this fragmentation. In her fascinating book Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood, American journalist Chelsea Conaboy explores new scientific insights that make it clear that becoming a mother is not the end point of a woman’s psychological development, as Freud once stated, but a time of growth and change.

According to this research, new mothers are confused and emotionally volatile not only because they’re sleep-deprived, miss their old life, and don’t have time to themselves. Quoting scientist Jodi Pawluski, Conaboy reports that the maternal brain is undergoing dramatic physical change, driven by the “endocrine tsunami that accompanies pregnancy” and the emotional stimuli of motherhood. Pregnancy and early parenthood, she writes, mark a “developmental epoch as significant as sexual differentiation and puberty.”

This is not a matter of maternal instinct. On the contrary: there is no circuit in the brain that automatically powers up when a child arrives. Instead, maternal or parental feelings are created over time by the interaction between parent and child. Babies attract the attention of adults by being cute. Adult brains respond by building new neural pathways to facilitate care. A restructuring takes place in the neural networks that determine how parents respond to their environment, how they regulate their own emotions, and how they assess the needs of others and act in response. The more you care, the more caring you become.

Research from Dutch neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema, among others, traces the physical evidence of this alteration. It doesn’t happen right away: some of the women Conaboy interviews are shocked by their lack of immediate warm feelings for their baby. It’s a long-term process: “Caring for a baby changes what researchers call the functional architecture of the brain, the framework across which brain activity moves. And remarkably, those changes last, not only weeks or months after a baby is born but perhaps even decades later, over a person’s whole life span.”

The changes aren’t all good. Parents’ minds must be flexible to keep up with their children’s rapid growth, so their brains become “more moldable, more adaptable…, maybe even more so than at any other point in adulthood.” This lability and hormonal overload can trigger mood shifts (a majority of participants in parenting studies show symptoms of mild depression), anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can also, as Cusk observed, make you feel like a stranger to yourself.

But it doesn’t have to leave new mothers, in Offill’s terms, shattered, It can also look like Enright’s portrayal of motherhood as the start of a new story with the mother at the center, a story of growth and change, of losing and finding the way.

In the women’s lives I wrote about, I realized, there was a storyline after all. They all had times when they lost themselves, or lost what they cared about most, when everything fell apart. While Alice Neel was pregnant, she had panic attacks at the thought of having to give up her career. While Alice Walker was caring for her infant daughter, she said, everything she wrote sounded “as though a baby were screaming right through the middle of it.”

They were confronted with their secret fears, their childhood pain, their rage. Some felt more vulnerable, through their children, to the stress of living under white supremacy. Almost all of them mourned when their children grew up: the loss of their mother role turned out to be as difficult to process as its arrival.

They came back from their losses, too. After Lessing left her husband and lost custody of her children, she felt adrift, but full of new resolve to have her life mean something. Toni Morrison called becoming a mother “the most liberating thing that ever happened to me,” because it let her ignore other people’s opinions and demands. “I could not only be me—whatever that was—but somebody actually needed me to be that.…The person that was in me that I liked best was the one my children seemed to want.”

Recovering from an emotional breakdown that came out of her depression and confusion after her youngest son left home, Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook. In her sixties, after her children and partner had left home, Alice Neel put new energy into her career. She found fame partly with her portraits of pregnant women, into which she put all the discomfort, pain, excitement, and self-discovery that had once been her experience.

They changed, they recollected themselves, and that was their narrative. It’s the story that Conaboy tells, about how mothers grow and adapt to the constant interruptions of life with a dependent other. They are pushed in unplanned, unpredictable directions by a baby whose presence is quite literally mind-altering. And, as adolescents do, they make themselves anew.

Necessary and validating, Mother Brain confirms the changes I saw in my own life and the lives I wrote about. Conaboy tells as science the story that they told in their art: Neel’s paintings, Lessing’s fiction, Walker’s essays, Audre Lorde’s poetry about the children she raised in a lesbian relationship. It’s a story of self-creation and self-discovery, of going into the wilderness of new experience—the wilderness that arises between mother and child—and, with luck and hard work, emerging more powerful for having been so profoundly changed.

Originally published in Trouw, November 26, 2022.