Ask an Expert: Was Mary Poppins ‘perfect’ because she never had kids of her own?

In honour of Mother’s Day, mother and neuroscientist Dr. Liisa Galea tells us more how mothering shapes the brain and affects cognition. She also offers her own insights as a working mom about managing multiple ‘projects’ – family and professional – on the go, all at once, seemingly all the time.

Q: The chronic pressure that moms (and women in general) feel to be “perfect” is overwhelming. How can women dispel this notion of perfect and understand that “okay”, rather than perfect, is really okay?
A: Who says we aren’t all perfect? Of course I’d love to have a sparkling clean house every day when I come home but I have learned to live with the dust bunnies. Being perfect is unattainable and once you make peace with that, why sweat the small stuff? Life is too short to spend it vacuuming your house. Spend time on things that make you happy and minimize the things that don’t make you happy – stop reaching for perfection and give yourself permission to enjoy your life – imperfections and all.

Q: What are your thoughts on “work/life balance”?
A: What’s that? I’ve never heard of it. Seriously though the best advice I ever got about work/life balance was that it did not exist. Sometimes your life will take over and work falls to the side (i.e. a sick child or parent) and other times your work life takes over (i.e. you have an immediate deadline). Just go with the flow and ride the rollercoaster of life.

Q: As a working mom, what are your parenting goals and how do they differ from your professional goals?
A: Interesting question… My parenting goals have always been 1) to make sure my kids know they are loved unconditionally; 2) to try to give them to tools to achieve their version of happiness and success in life and 3) to be there for them whenever they need me (this does involved some challenging juggling with my career goals). My professional goals have also always been to be the best I can be. As a mentor I try to do the same as I do for my kids – try to give my trainees the tools they need to be the best they can be. I try to be as honest as possible with both my kids and my students. I don’t think it helps anyone, including me (or the pursuit of science), if I am not honest about my research or my life.

Q: Having kids is a life-changing experience but is it a brain changing one too because of hormonal changes?
A: Anything in life that challenges us is going to affect our brains. There are a host of adaptations the body has to make in order for to bring the pregnancy to term. Hormone levels increase from 2-1000x normal levels during pregnancy and these are sustained for months at a time.

It’s no surprise that our brains are influenced by this ‘soup’ of hormones. There is an increased risk of neuropsychiatric disorders in the short term that new moms and their families should be aware of (i.e. postpartum depression, psychosis and obsessive compulsive disorder). In the short and long term there is a decreased risk of gynecological cancers.

New data from my laboratory and others suggests that motherhood alters the plasticity of the aging brain with middle-aged maternal brains being more plastic in response to hormones in middle-age compared to non-mothers. This is a fascinating new field of research to examine the long-term effects of motherhood on brain health.

Q: The term “baby brain” is popular in describing new moms as forgetful or experiencing muddled thinking after childbirth. Is “baby brain” an actual, medical phenomenon or are we all just really tired with a newborn baby?
A: There is very good evidence that “baby brain” is a real phenomenon, with approximately 75% of new mothers reporting memory loss. In fact, it appears reductions in verbal memory are exacerbated with each pregnancy and deficits in working memory are exacerbated when carrying a girl, but not a boy, fetus!

Scientists have determined that while fatigue, sleep deprivation and “busy-ness” play a role in the memory difficulties, it is not the only cause of cognitive decline during pregnancy and early postpartum. Total brain volume declines by about 4-8% during pregnancy but mothers will be happy to know that it bounces back to preconception size by 20 weeks postpartum. Furthermore, there is good evidence from the animal literature that once the ‘kids’ are more independent, mothers show better memory than non-mothers. The idea is that having children is an ‘enriching’ experience and exposure to pregnancy hormones may boost brain plasticity long–term and memory in middle-age.

Q: What words of wisdom do you have for soon-to-be moms or moms celebrating their first official Mother’s Day as a mother this year?
A: Enjoy every moment. Life moves fast and before you know it your crying baby is walking out the door at 18 to embark on their own life. There will be stressful moments in your parenting life. My kids are not fond of the Rolling Stones’ song “You can’t always get what you want” – I used to play/sing that for them during their tantrums. Of course they have sung it back to me on occasion over the years.

This story originally appeared on Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute