One of the recurring topics in conversations with other mothers is that men and women experience and react to parenthood differently. Both men and women love their kids, but somehow the intensity of the emotions, thoughts, and behaviours seem to be insanely higher for women.
Many times, these differences have led to thoughts such as:
- ‘He does not care about me or baby.’
- ‘How can he not think of all the bad things that could happen?’
- ‘Doughnuts are not a food group, why can’t he feed the kids something else?’
- ‘Checking or helping with homework involves more than asking the kid if he had done his homework.’
- ‘I have my breast in my baby’s mouth and he is thinking about sex. How is that possible?’
My husband is an amazing father, who is absolutely crazy about our boys. However, I had these thoughts at one point or another in reference to each one of our three kids. Looking back, these were not big deals. Our kids are healthy and well-adjusted individuals. But in the heat of the moment, the intensity of my thoughts really bothered me. Distracting myself, going to work, and venting to my girlfriends, were the only ways I could calm down. And I know I am not the only one. My mummy friends were experiencing the same thing.
Of course, as a psychologist, I had to research the science behind it. And just like with anything else, there are always multiple biological, social, and cultural factors at play. Let’s just focus on just one big one: oxytocin (not to be confused with oxycodone-the pain pill).
We all know that everything changes with pregnancy. We not only experience emotional and behavioural changes, but our neurological structures change also due to a potent cocktail of hormones. Oxytocin, a powerful hormone and a neurotransmitter, dramatically increases during pregnancy and post-partum, and causes changes to different areas of the brain that control empathy, anxiety, and social interaction. One of these areas is the amygdala. Enhanced activity in the amygdala helps connect mum to the baby, making her hypersensitive to the baby’s needs. It is an amazing human survival mechanism.
Neural activity increases when the baby cries when we snuggle or nurse the baby. It has a dual effect on the mother. Mom will experience feelings of love, trust, relaxation, safety, caring, and oversensitivity to the emotions of others. This will spill over in the relationship with the spouse. As she is eager to share all these overwhelming feelings with him, she may be disappointed when the feelings are not reciprocated, and instead, she may be perceived as needy.
The other one is the ‘momma bear’ effect. Mums will experience constant worry, a keen awareness of the surrounding environment, a need to overprotect of the baby, and even aggression at times when things don’t go according to her plan.
A new baby is an amazing miracle, but it’s also one of the most stressful events in one’s life, and especially stressful for the couple as a unit. It definitely takes some time and adjustment.
Research is inconclusive on whether a female’s brain ever goes back to what it was prior to childbirth. And although men experience some increase in oxytocin, it’s not even close to what a woman experiences thus, creating a huge discrepancy in how spouses manage this process.
Ruxandra LeMay is a licensed psychologist with an interest in couples’ therapy, parenting, addiction, anxiety, and mood disorder issues.