This article is part of the Here. Now. essay series, which seeks to de-stigmatize mental health treatment, and improve accessibility to treatment and support for teens and parents in metropolitan New York.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I dashed across the street one day to the cafeteria where I used to get my caffeine fix, poured myself a coffee, added cream and sugar—and then raced back to my office without paying.
Later on, when I sheepishly returned to the cafeteria to belatedly pay, the clerk waved off my apologies: “It’s pregnancy brain,” she explained simply.
Being pregnant is a nice excuse for spaciness, crankiness, or just being tired. But I was never sure how real the whole pregnancy brain thing was—until now. Turns out, researchers have uncovered some startling evidence that pregnancy brain is very, very real, and that it even lasts for years after giving birth.
Scientists in the Netherlands and Spain gave brain scans to women: Those who were pregnant showed clear reductions in the volume of gray matter in certain parts of their brains. “These changes were remarkably consistent,” explained Elseline Hoekzema of Leiden University, a co-author of the study, so much so that researchers could reliably tell which women were pregnant just from looking at their scans.
This might sound scary: Surely, we need all the grey matter we can get, right? Reassuringly, though, researchers found no difference in intelligence or memory between pregnant women and others. (I’m glad the clerk who let me pay for my coffee later didn’t realize that.) Instead, researchers posit that losing some grey matter actually makes moms more effective, rather than less.
Think of it as pruning a plant: cutting back some unimportant branches allows others to thrive. In fact, neuroscientists use the same term, pruning, when talking about brains. Sometimes, clearing out the unimportant matter helps more important connections in our brains to thrive.
The areas in pregnant women’s brains that lose the most grey matter are those associated with empathy. By getting rid of unimportant neuro-links, these women were strengthening their ability to respond to the needs of others, a crucial skill for new moms. In fact, the parts of women’s brains that showed the biggest decrease in grey matter during pregnancy became the areas that reacted most strongly later on, once the women had their babies and were shown images of their newborns. “These findings provide some [of] the first evidence that these [changes] may help a mother to care for her infant,” concluded Dr. Hoekzema.
The notion that caring for another person changes us in such a profound, quantifiable way is being hailed as a major scientific breakthrough. But it also reflects something that Judaism has long recognized: giving to others alters the very fiber of who we are.
The great 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler pointed out that in western society, we’re used to thinking of love as the inevitable result of certain special circumstances. When we meet the person of our dreams, this expectation goes, we’ll fall in love. When we’re surrounded by loving friends who treat us well, we love them back. When faced with an adorable newborn baby, our maternal love will automatically kick in.
Yet it doesn’t always work that way. Our responses are not always rational: not every appealing person draws us to them. Ask anyone who’s ever ended a date, drifted from a friendship, or felt that a romance wasn’t worth continuing: Sometimes relationships just don’t feel vital. Sometimes, even the best-sounding relationships fall flat in real life.
Maybe we have it all backwards, Rabbi Dessler posited. Maybe love doesn’t come from receiving, but from giving instead.
Take a look at the all-consuming love of a parent for a child. At first glance, it looks like a very one-sided relationship: parents give and give, providing food, protection, and care; giving up sleep and comfort; spending time, money, and energy. And in return? At best, a gummy smile. On paper, it’s hardly a fair bargain. But of course no parent sees it like that: They want to give, want to help, want to care for their child.
The other day, I found what surely must be the most pathetic diary ever kept: When my first son was born, he was colicky and underweight, and his pediatrician advised I keep a nursing log, recording when and how long he fed. It’s one long record of misery, recording nursing at 1 in the morning, 3 a.m., 4, 5, 6, 7 a.m… For weeks, I felt horrible, drunk with fatigue, unable to leave the house. Yet I loved him. How I loved him. By all rights, I should resent this little monster that kept me up for torture-level periods of sleeplessness. But, gazing down at his little hands, at his sleeping form (even at his screaming face), I felt an overwhelming rush of tenderness instead.
Maybe that is the secret of love. By giving of ourselves, by giving and giving and then giving some more, we invest ourselves in others. We confer some of our very core: The more we do for another person, the greater our involvement in them, and the greater our capacity to care.
The very word for “love” in Hebrew, ahava, bears this out. It’s derived from the Hebrew word hav, meaning “give.” Love comes about not through fortuitous circumstances or chance, but through the hard work of giving. By giving to others, we cause love to grow, and profoundly change ourselves.
“Pregnancy brain” is real, but not in the way we might imagine. Instead of diminishing us, it makes us grow, creating new reserves of empathy and love.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.