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I Love Mothering, and Other Things - My Rat Brain

By Lynn Jenkins - 25th June 2012

I love the brain.  I love reading and learning about how it operates. A lot of you might be thinking now, ‘OMG - what a nerd?!?’  But I can’t help it – it fascinates me.  

I think it fascinates me because it is the culprit behind everything we think, feel and do. It is the ‘Grand Maestro’ for our lives in that it coordinates absolutely everything to do with our cognitive and physical selves. For everything we do, think and feel there is a part of our brain or a circuit of brain parts that is responsible. That’s pretty cool when you think about it. Isn’t it? Anyone with me??

Of particular interest to my nerdy obsession is the parenting brain – the brain structures and chemicals that are involved in parenting. I once read “The maternal brain is a complex 'place' ” . It certainly is!

I recently came across an article that looked at the motivation of mothers to mother, as they and their kids grew older. It was conducted on our research mammal friends – rats – but it really got me thinking about the parallels with humans.

What caught my eye was that mother rats who were brand new mums, that is, their pups were still quite new, chose to spend time with their new little bundles despite having cocaine on offer. But the mums who were a bit further along and had had their pups around them for a while preferred the hit of cocaine over spending time with their kids!

I was particularly interested in this because my third baby is now nine months old, and I have been thinking about a pattern that I have noticed in myself. When my other two babies hit the eight/nine month mark, I started to become genuinely interested in taking some steps back into the big wide world again; doing something other than being at home with them all the time. I then returned to work, only one day per week mind you, but I genuinely wanted to. My interest started to expand back out into the wider world. And it’s happened again with my third!

While work is not cocaine as such … the way cocaine was described in the research study I read could be applied to work or other ‘outside’ pursuits. In the study, cocaine was described as "a …stimulant with well-documented reinforcing properties”.

I think work, and whatever outside pursuits is of interest to us, have reinforcing properties. They have the power to reinforce us as women, or more specifically our other-than-mothers' roles, or our mother-and-others' roles, depending on what term sits most comfortably.    

There is a ‘me before children’ in every mother. The ‘pre-children me’ encompasses all the roles we’ve held previously, those in the present, as well as those we might have fantasies of possibly holding in the future.  

When our kids are new babies our focus naturally is on them. In fact we are biologically wired to take care of them. It can be like that first state of being in love. All encompassing and all consuming. We can be surrounded by poo and wee and vomit, have little to no sleep most days and yet somehow have quite a bit of tolerance and endurance.  

It is part of being a parent – as soon as we have our babies it’s like we enter into that holy relationship where the vows of traditional marriage apply – ‘to have and to hold from this day forward for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish as long as we both shall live.’  

We will always be parents to our kids, but as they grow older, perhaps we can start to see the other parts of our lives a bit more. Or perhaps we are happier to share ourselves with the other parts of our lives a bit more? Or incorporate our beloved children into those parts a bit more?  

The research study I read also observed that as the pups grew older, the mother rats reduced the voluntary time they spent with their pups and tailored the nature of their caregiving to the needs of the maturing pups – so instead of the mothers being there 24/7, they responded to the needs of the growing pups but not necessarily much more.   The mother rats were still motivated to look after their pups after being in the parenting role for quite a while (in rat time that’s not a long time) but it was in a different, less all-the-time-ever-present way. And, it seems, with a slightly higher penchant for cocaine!

So perhaps my pattern of becoming genuinely interested in outside pursuits (that is, work not cocaine!) when my kids turn a certain age is all part of the natural progression of parenthood. My focus is still hugely and almost entirely on them despite their age, but when they get to a certain age the scope of my view is broadened a little and I get a glimpse of the world and its offerings again.

Maybe one rat mother’s hit of cocaine is a another human mother’s hit of work or exercise or art class or …

Has anyone else noticed an increased interest in a hit of a ‘cocaine equivalent’ activity in their parenting journey?

The article:  Pereira, M., Seip, K,M., & Morrell, J.I.  (2008).  Maternal motivation and its neural substrate across the postpartum period.  In R. Bridges (Ed.), Neurobiology of the Parental Brain (pp. 39 – 59).  San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

image freedigitalphotos.net Stuart Miles

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