I can pinpoint the day I knew I was pregnant. It wasn’t the sleepiness or nauseousness brought on by the smell of coffee that tipped me off. The "aha" moment came when I started crying while watching the documentary Waiting For Superman. When the little girl who so desperately wanted to get into the school of her dreams was passed up because she did not win the school lottery, I started crying. And I never cry in public. Don’t get me wrong, I cry in the shower, sometimes in my car, but crying in public — nope. Not even Titantic made me cry in the theatre, and I love me some Leonardo DiCaprio. All it took was becoming a mom to push me into that moms-cry- at-everything stereotype.
I cry at the thought of my puppy potentially being eaten by a coyote, and at those cheesy Lifetime movies, and any and all diaper commercials. I thought I was making it up when I said my personality changed after having a baby, but according to studies on this topic there is some truth to this belief. And I’m not the only one who noticed a personality shift since becoming a mom.
“Becoming a mother changed me to the core,” says Murielle Ferdinand, a mom to children ages 5 and 8. “I once had that inside force and toughness — I was never a crier. Now, I am more emotional. What gets me the most is watching videos of young kids in the military surprising their families with a visit or sad stories involving children. I still won't cry for chick flicks though!”
I have always been a crier! Post-kids it's 100 times worse.
Ferdinand isn't alone in believing that a profound change has taken place. And it turns out the changes are measurable.
“Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure,” Dr. Erika Barba-Müller, a clinical psychotherapist who specializes in perinatal mental health, tells Romper. Barba-Müller is co-author of a study about these perceived personality changes published in Nature Neuroscience.
“Pregnancy involves unparalleled hormone increases and radical biological adaptations in a woman’s body,” she says. Barba-Müller explains that the "sex steroid hormones" that help a fetus develop also have an effect on a woman's brain, changing the structure and function of different regions.
In her work, Barba-Müller found pregnancy is associated with lasting changes in the brain’s structure, specifically reductions in grey matter volumes in the prefrontal and posterior cortex, which are areas of the brain associated with social cognition. Several researchers believe loss of grey matter is what allows a new-mother to focus on the needs of her baby, increasing the mother-baby bond.
These brain changes were determined to persist at least two years postpartum, but for many of us, these changes seem to never go away.
“Since I had kids I cry much more easily at TV shows and movies," Mary Ann Borer tells Romper. The mother of a 13- and 15-year old, she says she has always been emotional, but that the feeling intensified after becoming a mom. "I honestly can't stand to watch movies or shows with kids in danger anymore!”
The same goes for mom of two toddlers, Lauren Garcia, who says, “I have always been a crier! Post-kids it's 100 times worse.”
“There is a remarkable overlap between the brain changes of pregnancy and the network subserving 'Theory of Mind,' a process that involves attributing mental states to oneself and others,” Barba-Müller explains.
First-time moms undergo a personal transformation, say researchers. Changes in priorities, values, and concerns are part of this change as a woman prepares to become a mom.
“The expected culmination of this transition is a new maternal identity, a focalization of the affective bonds into the baby and the capacity to recognize, accept and love a new unavoidable reality,” Barba-Müller says. In short, we feel a new level of love, we learn to feel on behalf of our babies, we become capable of seemingly feeling everything.
“My personality has changed very much after having my first baby. I became much more empathetic. Before kids I would cry over what made me upset but rarely for what was upsetting to others. Now I can barely produce a tear when it comes to me,” says Ivona Wise, mother to 3- and 5-year-old girls. “But every time I see someone being sad or a situation that seems not fair, I feel burning in my eyes right away; sometimes several times a day.”
Then there’s the flip side to the emotional-mom stereotype. Some of us who used to cry easily or feel wounded by other people's pain have toughened up, in a sense.
I was very sensitive pre-kids, but after... nope. Having my kids I think made me more confident in who I am, but less sensitive.
“I actually feel the opposite. I feel like having kids has made me less reactive and emotional," says Amy Long, the mother of a 6- and 8-year-old. "I need to be strong and hold it together for my kids, so I almost never cry now," she explains. "My own mother was this way, too. We called her the rock when we were kids because she never cried at movies when we were all bawling. Now sometimes, not always, I find myself being the rock.”
And I get that. Although I cry at episodes of This Is Us, and while listening to “Born This Way” (every. damn. time.) I don’t cave as easily as I once did as I no longer have the energy to waste on people and things that I don’t want to deal with (see above: priorities). Instead, I focus more on what is best for my kids; how to be the best role model to my girls and pour my energy into raising them to be strong, assertive leaders. This means saying no to get togethers or trips that I really don't want to attend because I rather be with my girls; or letting go of friendships that were sucking too much energy out of me. My focus has changed.
Cathy Arreguin says that though she experienced postpartum depression after the birth of her twins, the lasting change is that she cries less. The mom of four says, “I was very sensitive pre-kids, but after... nope. Having my kids I think made me more confident in who I am, but less sensitive.”
Dr. Lane Strathearn, director of the division of developmental and behavioral pediatrics and physician director of the Center for Disabilities and Development in Iowa City, Iowa, says there are dramatic changes in terms of neuological and endocrine function that occur as a result of pregnancy that have a physical impact on women from a brain and hormone perspective. But how those changes manifest in terms of personality may depend on what’s there at the start.
Surges and changes in different hormones — dopamine, oxytocin, and other pregnancy hormones — help the baby grow and develop in utero. But those same hormone systems also help to facilitate changes in the brain of a mother, essentially mentally preparing her for the arrival of her baby. Simply put, they may help women to be responsive to their infants.
Strathearn looked at how mother's brains respond when they see their baby smile or hear them cry, and found that women with a secure attachment level as adults showed a stronger response to their babies. This study suggested that what we have experienced as children, affects us later in life. As much as we don’t want to be our parents, we often fall back on those parenting methods.
“For the mothers with secure attachment, there was a reward signal in the areas of the brain involved in reward processing and that’s what you would expect to see in an area of the brain that reinforces patterns of behavior. So when a mother saw a baby smiling, it was much much stronger when they saw their own baby’s face,” he says. It’s this positive reward response in the brain that helps mothers connect with their child, and reinforces care-giving behaviors that support their baby’s development.
He did not observe that same degree of brain signal in mothers with an insecure attachment, as the areas activated in the brain were more involved with decision-making rather than emotional responses. These variations may translate to a difference in behavior. Strathearn explains, “For these mothers, it may be that when they interact with their baby it’s more ‘OK what do I need to do now,’ or ‘How do I fix this problem?’ So it’s a more cognitive type of response rather than emotional response, and of course you need both when you’re a mother.”
These changes appear to occur to help us prepare for motherhood. And whether this means some of us cry more, or are tougher than we used to be, these changes are important to helping us in our new role.
“I was a very empty and self-centered person before becoming a mom, and now I am, maybe not better, but more open and sensitive to others,” Wise says.
Even as you are reorganizing your entire house to accommodate a new person, and turning that "office" into a nursery, the physiological and neurological changes happening within you are performing a similar kind of preparation, Wise says. "It provides an opportunity for some of these patterns to be reworked or reorganized."
Growing up, I was never told not to cry, but I was not raised by a mom who cried easily. Now, I understand that the version of myself who cries in Hallmark movies and wells up at every little milestone my girls reach is the product of a process that fine-tuned me to be a better mom.