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Mother Brain

How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood

Chelsea Conaboy

Holt Paperbacks

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ISBN10: 1250871425
ISBN13: 9781250871428

Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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Conaboy expected things to change with the birth of her child. What she didn’t expect was how different she would feel. But she would soon discover what was behind this: her changing brain. Though Conaboy was prepared for the endless dirty diapers, the sleepless nights, and the joy of holding her newborn, she did not anticipate this shift in self, as deep as it was disorienting. Mother Brain is a groundbreaking exploration of the parental brain that untangles insidious myths from complicated realities.

New parents undergo major structural and functional brain changes, driven by hormones and the deluge of stimuli a baby provides. These neurobiological changes help all parents—birthing or otherwise—adapt in those intense first days and prepare for a long period of learning how to meet their child’s needs. Pregnancy produces such significant changes in brain anatomy that researchers can easily sort those who have had one from those who haven't. And all highly involved parents, no matter their path to parenthood, develop similar caregiving circuitry. Yet this emerging science, which provides key insights into the wide-ranging experience of parenthood, from its larger role in shaping human nature to the intensity of our individual emotions, is mostly absent from the public conversation about parenthood.

The story that exists in the science today is far more meaningful than the idea that mothers spring into being by instinct. Weaving the latest neuroscience and social psychology together with new reporting, Conaboy reveals unexpected upsides, generations of scientific neglect, and a powerful new narrative of parenthood.


Praise for Mother Brain

Mother Brain offers a science-based reassurance that ‘unlike a rigid instinct, [parental aptitude] also can be repaired and redirected’ by any motivated caregiver.”Science Magazine

“I learned so much from Mother Brain—about neuroscience, yes. But also about pernicious mythmaking, and the vast chasm between the reductive, sexist lines we’re sold about motherhood versus the science and stories of how families are actually made, how brains and hearts and bodies are transformed by pregnancy and parenthood. Chelsea Conaboy has written a generous, engaging, deeply researched book that will change the way you think about your own parents, your children, and yourself.”—Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad

Mother Brain captivated me from page one. Chelsea Conaboy fearlessly pours herself into the silence surrounding the open secret of mothering and caregiving—how we are profoundly remade by it, in both beautiful and destabilizing ways.”—Angela Garbes, author of Essential Labor and Like a Mother

“Conaboy’s fearlessly researched and deeply empathetic Mother Brain blew my mind, and I don’t mean that just figuratively. Every page pruned away sexist, guilt-inducing assumptions about the 'maternal instinct,' wiring me up for new growth as a parent and a feminist. Even as Conaboy dissects complicated studies and points out what’s still missing, there is so much wonder and hope (and humor!) here. If every new parent, boss, and lawmaker read this book, I swear, we would make a century of progress overnight.”—Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester

“Part memoir, part scientific sleuthing, Mother Brain is storytelling at its very best. This book is deeply engrossing, not only because it untangles so many mysteries, but because it helps us reframe what we thought we already knew—about motherhood, about parenting, about ourselves. This book is a game-changer.”—Amy Ellis Nutt, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Teenage Brain and Becoming Nicole

“Chelsea Conaboy shines a bright light on the truth of parenthood, and the way it changes us. Mother Brain is a book about neuroscience—but it’s also, ultimately, a book about the mysteries of the human heart: how we become ourselves, and how we are transformed by the mysteries of pregnancy, birth, and childrearing. A book for anyone raising a child, or who ever was one. Mother Brain is insightful, generous, and wise.”—Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and Good Boy

“Becoming a parent often comes with an influx of overwhelming feelings, and beliefs that result in guilt and shame. Conaboy dissects the research of what is truly going on inside our brains through storytelling to help us remove the unrealistic parenting expectations and get true support.”—Eve Rodsky, New York Times bestselling author of Fair Play and Find Your Unicorn Space

“Chelsea Conaboy’s Mother Brain takes direct aim at the damaging and false narratives of morality and biology that have shaped our thinking about women and mothers for centuries. In a book that is both fascinating and relatable, Conaboy shows how emerging science is disrupting hide-bound notions of a ‘maternal instinct.’ A must-read not only for parents and caregivers, but for the policymakers and organizational leaders who have far to go to create the kind of world where caregivers can thrive.”—Brigid Schulte, New York Times bestselling author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love & Play When No One has the Time

Mother Brain uses science to confirm a truth known to adoptive and other non-gestational parents: becoming a parent rewires our brains to love and care for children, just like biological parents. This physiological change anchors us to our children and makes space for society to see us as real parents. Thank you, Chelsea Conaboy, for including our mother brain in your tome about parenthood.”—Nefertiti Austin, author of Motherhood So White

“I wish I’d had this book when I first became a mother. If I’d known what was coming, I might not have been so blindsided by how different I felt in my own head. Chelsea Conaboy has done a great service to parents and brains everywhere . . . I am so grateful for her work, insight, courage and generosity.”—Emma Jane Unsworth, author of After the Storm

“Chelsea Conaboy presents a vital new narrative of what it means to parent, and to care. Meticulously researched and deeply personal, Mother Brain explores how parenting and caregiving shapes us, changes us, and makes us human. Compelling and compassionate, this is the book we need as we look towards a future where parenting, in all its diversity, is valued and celebrated.”—Elinor Cleghorn, author of Unwell Women

“An awesomely detailed and refreshingly positive review of brain science as a rich source of explanations for the often surprising, commonly bewildering, routinely criticized experiences of parenthood . . . powerful, honest, and reassuring. A great read for beleaguered new (and old) parents.”—Professor Gina Rippon, author of The Gendered Brain

“I absolutely loved Mother Brain. If I had read it in the early days of my recovery from postpartum psychosis, it would have been more than medicine—reassuring, legitimizing, and qualifying all those negative feelings that I thought were ‘just me.’”—Laura Dockrill, author of What Have I Done?

“A fascinating insight into a hugely complex but important topic. Mother Brain is vital reading for anyone who wants to understand more about how and why the maternal brain changes during such an important life event. Conaboy writes in a compelling and accessible way that will help so many people understand themselves better.”—Melissa Hogenboom, author of The Motherhood Complex

“[A]n engaging book debut . . . The author deftly translates scientific studies—by neurobiologists, anthropologists, primatologists, psychologists, and endocrinologists, among others—into accessible prose that speaks to needs and anxieties that many parents share.”Kirkus Reviews

“[Conaboy] deploys her journalistic skill to bring this complex subject to a readable level . . . Conaboy’s book isn’t a parenting manual but rather a work of pop science jam-packed with neurobiological research; it’s both fascinating and surprisingly readable . . . Highly recommended.”Library Journal (starred review)

“Digging into neurological and cognitive research on becoming a parent, Conaboy contends that caregiving isn’t as instinctual as often assumed . . . Conaboy’s detailed research and eye-opening myth-busting add up to a cogent argument . . . Surprising and enlightening, this should be required reading for all caregivers.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1At the Flip of a Switch

Year after year, a nest appeared in early spring, tucked inside a wreath on the front door of my childhood home. The mother robin didn’t seem to mind that I would peek at her from just inside the glass,...

About the author

Chelsea Conaboy

Chelsea Conaboy is a journalist specializing in personal and public health. She was part of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer prize–winning team for coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and more recently has worked as a magazine writer with bylines at Mother Jones, Politico, The Week, the Boston Globe Magazine, and others. She lives in Maine with her husband, their two young sons, and her own changing maternal brain.