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Brazelton said that had been his philosophy since he began practicing in Cambridge in And the parent was already feeling inadequate and guilty, so it re-enhanced the feeling of failure. It seemed to me that was the opposite of what we ought to be doing. Brazelton said he was encouraged by the federal task force recommendation made just a few months before our meeting that all women who are pregnant or who have recently had a child be screened for depression , and he hoped a movement among pediatricians to be more involved in maternal mental health would grow.
By that point, I felt sure he would agree with my conclusion: If mothers raised the topic with him, he said, he would be glad to talk about it. Otherwise, it might add too much to their fears. I fumbled with my words, dismayed and confused. The conversation had been so uplifting. He took the question differently than I meant it and talked about the challenges of working mothers who lack social support.
Our lunch ended soon after. People were gathering at the church. He listened to mothers at a time when others discounted them.
Yet his comments to me seemed anchored in the idea that motherhood — women in general, perhaps — requires careful handling, an old idea that remains pervasive. Some of the obstacles to a more open conversation are deeply rooted — ancient, even.
Today, of course, the idea that her brain is muddled by motherhood fuels pregnancy discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere. Deficits in memory and cognitive function that have been detected are generally small, are thought to disappear over time, and may be a function of the brain adapting to its new role.
Generations of scientists were uninterested in the topic, says Dr. Peter Schmidt, chief of behavioral endocrinology at the National Institute of Mental Health, who has studied postpartum issues since Schmidt focuses largely on determining the triggers for postpartum depression or psychosis. The American College of Physicians in May issued a call to close those gaps by including more women as subjects in clinical research and regularly reporting gender-specific data in the results of those studies.
Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist in New York and coauthor of a forthcoming guide to the emotions of pregnancy and new motherhood. Parenting research is typically focused on the child.
Researchers I interviewed said they often get a version of this response when they apply for funding to investigate the maternal brain: What about the offspring? Samantha Meltzer-Brody, director of the perinatal psychiatry program at the University of North Carolina and president of Marce of North America, a group that advocates for maternal mental health research, clinical care, and education.
For a long time, she says, she felt like one of a few vigilantes in her field, pushing to get mothers struggling with postpartum mood disorders the support they needed.
Participation in postpartum support groups has swelled. And the first drug for treating severe postpartum depression could hit the market soon. Still, while postpartum disorders have begun getting the attention they desperately need, less time is spent helping women to understand the range of what is typical for a healthy postpartum experience and developing a new idea of motherhood that does not romanticize it.
I started thinking about a map of the maternal brain as a kind of tool to cut through the romanticization, the history of scientific neglect, the invisibility of mothers. What we know about the maternal brain so far demands more investigation, Mittal says.
But she and other clinicians I spoke with were less convinced that a routine discussion about typical brain development is warranted during prenatal care.
There are no specific conclusions that doctors can draw from the brain research to help an individual make choices about how best to care for herself and her baby, Mittal says. Many women learn about even very common physical effects of pregnancy — diastasis recti, for example, or a separation of the abdominal muscles that can contribute to low back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction — not from their doctors, but from friends or family members.
That would be helpful, of course. But is it enough? The year-old lobbyist from Sharon was unprepared for the range of emotions she felt when she brought her son Tommy home from the hospital in December or when short winter days during maternity leave began bleeding into long, sleepless nights.
She had never struggled with anxiety before having a baby. But the challenges of comforting a screaming child and getting him to sleep stirred up a feeling of helplessness that she says she still struggles with today, though she eventually found a therapist who could help her cope. She was surprised when friends started telling her they had had similar experiences. As she awaited the arrival of baby Colin, born in June, she at least felt more prepared this time. Now, she said she makes it a point to talk with other expectant mothers about the mental and emotional challenges of motherhood.
She sees the anxiety she still experiences as part of the biological changes of motherhood that should be covered during prenatal care. A surge of oxytocin at childbirth triggers changes that allow a woman quite literally to sync to her baby through a coordination of biology synchronized brain responses and heart rates and behavior matching responses in gaze, touch, and vocalizations.
That intense connection teaches a baby from the very first day how to relate to another person, says Ruth Feldman, Simms-Mann Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. The parental brain incorporates human-specific functions such as empathy with ancient ones aimed at protecting the young for the survival of the species. In fact, she speculates that the parental bonding phenomenon came first. Before there were humans. Feldman thinks we should talk about it.
Women experience so much change during pregnancy and new motherhood, she said. Research on the maternal brain is still relatively new, and talking about the findings requires some careful consideration, Feldman says. I anticipated the emotional roller coaster of motherhood as I was expecting my second child last summer. Maybe, at the very least, it would have helped me to put down my smartphone at night and get some sleep.
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The 5 Best Ways to Take Care of Your Brain
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