How Motherhood Works


Modern appliances couldn't vacuum away women's desires for life beyond housework.
Modern appliances couldn't vacuum away women's desires for life beyond housework.
White Packert/Getty Images

In 1962, famed American pollster Gordon Gallup surveyed 1,813 married, white women around the country for a snapshot of contemporary middle-class motherhood. From their responses, some of which were filtered through husbands uncomfortable with their servile spouses speaking publicly, Gallup concluded that housewives enjoyed the plum position in society. Unlike their male counterparts who had to climb steep and rickety career ladders, U.S. housewives, according to Gallup, "know precisely why they're here on Earth," and strive for two clear-cut goals: being a satisfactory wife and a laudable mother [source: Coontz].

It isn't exactly a spoiler alert to say Gallup's assessment missed the mark. As Betty Friedan would soon after describe in her 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique" as "the problem with no name," being a housewife in the 1960s was beginning to lose its luster like a tarnishing tea service. Contrary to the notion of the 1950s and 1960s as the apex of the American at-home mother, serving as the domestic goddess already was seen widely as an adjunct facet of women's lives rather than its sole purpose. By that time, psychologists and social critics had begun chastising at-home mothers for wasting away in suburbia, coddling their adolescent "baby boomers" with so much maternal affection. But women had yet to toss off their aprons and march out of their kitchens en masse when Gallup began knocking door to door.

That major transition from at-home to at-work mothers that escalated with Friedan and second wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s certainly altered domestic dynamics. In 1960, for instance, 27.6 percent of married mothers with school-aged children held jobs; that number had skyrocketed to 70.8 percent by 2010 [sources: Alger and Crowley, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics]. In addition to modern women juggling work and motherhood, the demographics of who is joining the new mom ranks -- and when -- has also changed considerably in recent decades. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2008, women over 35 years old with at least some college education made up a greater proportion of the American mothering population than they did in 1990 [source: Livingston and Cohn]. And while briefcases have become the common mom carry-all, wedding bands have fallen by the wayside: As of 2012, a majority of women under 30 years old who are having babies are doing so outside of marriage [source: DeParle and Tavernise].

However, there is one facet of American motherhood that largely has remained unchanged over the past 200 years. Though the constructs, demographics and social values of mothers in the United States have constantly evolved within a larger cultural history of women, since the late 1700s, moms have been regarded as the gatekeepers of the nation's future health and promise.

American Motherhood: A Brief Cultural Timeline

During America's founding, motherhood was considered an invaluable civic duty.
During America's founding, motherhood was considered an invaluable civic duty.
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The 18th-century home functioned as much as a place of shelter and communion for families as it did as a discrete center of production. Agrarian society and artisanal trades were centered around the homestead, and mothers were central to that domestic output, responsible for tasks such as washing, cleaning, candle-making, butter-churning and weaving. Meanwhile, women enjoyed few -- if any -- legal provisions, their earnings and inheritances under the control of their husbands. In the 1750s, however, Enlightenment era thinking began to call for greater gender equality, and in the American Colonies, where anti-England sentiment was brewing, motherhood became endowed with a sense of civic duty and liberation.

Although it would be 1920 before women earned the right to vote under the 19th Amendment, mothers were immediately tapped as the source of all-important virtue in the newly established nation. Republican motherhood idealized the female task of rearing the young citizens of the infant country, conflating the influence of a mother on her children with the portent of how they would grow up and contribute to America's success [source: Rendall]. And as the country's economy shifted from domestic production to capitalism, driving fathers out of the home and into factories and urban centers during the 19th century, motherhood was further characterized as the noble bedrock of adolescent upbringing and morality. Likewise, the Victorian household was distinctly divided between the male duties of providing income and physical protection and the women's realm of nurturing and spiritual protection [source: Plant].

After World War I, however, American maternal culture dramatically turned away from soul-soothing and spiritual guidance to science. For example, the 1847 formation of the American Medical Association and its legions of male doctors lobbied to outlaw midwifery in many places in the early 1900s, effectively repositioning childbirth from a womanly affair in the home to a sterilized, male-directed procedure in a hospital [source: Leggitt]. Meanwhile, Progressive-Era child and parenting experts supported by the U.S. Children's Bureau encouraged mothers to approach child rearing as a vocation, scheduling feedings and naps and paying careful attention to the quality and amount of playtime [source: Hulbert].

In that way, the glow of full-time, at-home motherhood began to dull long before Betty Friedan's 1963 "The Feminine Mystique" appeared and second-wave feminists began burning their aprons (rather than brassieres). Anti-maternal sentiment circulated in the United States during and after World Word II, most notably with Philip Wylie's 1942 coining of "momism," referring to a supposed debilitating effect of too much maternal coddling [source: Coontz]. And yet, even in the following decades, as American motherhood has metamorphosed from an inevitable identity to an optional occupation -- with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's 1960 approval of oral contraceptives and the 1964 Civil Rights Acts barring sex discrimination in the workplace -- the role remains controversial and contested.

Centuries-old debates about how best to be a mother won't be settled anytime soon, but whereas parties may disagree on motherhood conceptually, the biological facts of how having a baby changes the female body are indisputable, if not incredible.

How Motherhood Leaves Its Mark on the Body and Brain

Becoming a mom isn't easy on the body.
Becoming a mom isn't easy on the body.
Baerbel Schmidt/Getty Images

Most women don't look forward to childbirth because of the physical changes that come with it. Sure, maternity ward moms lose about 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) immediately once the baby exits the womb, but by that point, their pre-maternal bodies are little more than memories of a bygone era [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. In the initial days and weeks following delivery, a mother's body adjusts to its baby-free state, discharging uterine tissue and blood, incision fluids, breast milk and even urine in some cases [source: Cleveland Clinic]. Even though a woman's belly isn't as distended as it was in the delivery room, stretch marks from torn collagen fibers leave behind a visible reminder that baby was there. And as if adjustment to maternal life isn't challenging enough, post-partum hormonal fluctuations tend to trigger mood swings as well [source: Wickelgren].

Motherhood can influence not only women's moods but also their cognitive capacity, as evidenced by a physiological phenomenon called "Mommy brain." Pregnant and new mothers commonly report gaps in short-term memory, forgetting simple things like where they left house keys or driving past a destination without noticing. At first blush, this might seem like yet another item on the laundry list of ways in which childbirth isn't gentle on the female form, but researchers in the mid-2000s began suspecting that the temporary mental mush may be the brain's way of readying itself for motherhood; in other words, what's often framed as "maternal instinct" may actually be an adapted neurological process [source: Sohn].

Repeated studies bear out the idea that "Mommy brain" signals a neurological makeover for new moms. Research on rats, comparing those that are mothers with virgins, have identified a flock of neurological differences between the two sets of females. Mama rats can detect and catch prey quicker, navigate through mazes faster, and exhibit lower levels of stress in threatening situations [source: Howard and Lambert]. Scientists suggest that the maternal edge may be related to brain areas sharpened by pregnancy-related hormones, including cortisol, oxytocin and prolactin, and perhaps mushy "Mommy brain" is the result of the brain literally resculpting itself for motherhood [source: Pappas].

A 2010 study from Yale University confirmed that human moms also undergo slight -- but significant -- neurological changes when they leave the delivery room. Functional MRI (fMRI) scans of 19 moms soon after giving birth and a few months down the road found enhancements in three key brain regions linked to motivation, reward and emotions: the hypothalamus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala [source: Sohn]. Along with that Yale finding, previous research has detected an uptick in olfactory neurons in new moms' brains, explaining why the scent of their babies is especially noteworthy to their nostrils [source: Pappas]. Such freshly paved synaptic pathways indicate that the mother-child bond is a unique and permanent brain function that fosters coochie coos and chin chucks.

In addition to that neurological construction project, which builds a lasting bridge between mother and baby, distinct psychological processes also influence a woman's initial desire to become a mama, as well as the sometimes bumpy adaptation to new motherhood.

Motherhood in the Mind: From Baby Fever to Baby Blues

Male “baby fever” tends to peak after their first child.
Male “baby fever” tends to peak after their first child.
David Young-Wolff/Getty Images

Plenty of adult women have probably experienced something along these lines: They're out in public, grocery shopping or strolling in a park perhaps, and a cuddly, giggly baby with pinchable, chubby cheeks crawls into their sight lines. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, they come down with so-called "baby fever," the symptoms of which include sighing wistfully during diaper commercials.

In 1891, the world's first evolutionary psychologist, Edward Westermarck, coolly explained this phenomenon as a "universal child-bearing instinct" that nudges both men and women toward reproduction [source: Rotkirch]. More than a century later, scientists still haven't entirely explained the biological underpinnings of mental reproductive mania, but they have confirmed that "baby fever" exists for men and women alike. In their late 20s, especially, as many as 58 percent of men and 78 percent of women develop overwhelming, and sometimes fleeting, desires to procreate [source: Clark-Flory]. Interestingly, for men, baby fever becomes more common after fathering their first child, whereas women's susceptibility to it lessens following new motherhood [source: Rochman].

That gender difference may have to do with the mood swings associated with childbirth. In the 24 hours following delivery, a woman's levels of estrogen and progesterone plummet to their pre-pregnancy levels, commonly triggering mild depression [source: A.D.A.M. Medical Dictionary]. Doctors refer to those first couple weeks of crying episodes, sleeplessness and loss of appetite as run-of-the-mill "baby blues." However, when those blues persist into the first couple months of new motherhood, postpartum depression may be to blame. Thirteen percent of pregnant women and new mothers experience depression, which may be attributed to hormonal fluctuations and going off of antidepressant drugs while expecting [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. Although baby fever can ultimately spiral into baby blues and postpartum depression, the latter two mental health conditions are treatable through maternity-safe medications and talk therapy.

Once women get over the initial postpartum hump, the stress of raising a child doesn't disappear by any stretch, especially since they arrive at yet another life-altering crossroads: to work or not to work?

Work vs. Kids: The Mommy Track

Working motherhood has its costs -- and its rewards.
Working motherhood has its costs -- and its rewards.
Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

In early 2012, Wendy M. Williams, director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science, and her academic colleague Stephen J. Ceci put their heads together to solve a puzzle that had long plagued the STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- fields. With record numbers of female students pursuing STEM careers, Williams and Ceci wanted to find out why so few end up achieving full professorships and tenure at colleges and universities. After crunching the numbers, a succinct explanation for the STEM women drop-off emerged: motherhood [source: Williams and Ceci]. Rather than put in extensive hours in pursuit of academic tenure as their biological clocks tick away, many female STEM students tend to take the off-ramp to raising a family.

Indeed, becoming a mother encompasses more than decisions about bassinets and breastfeeding. For most modern women, it involves a career choice and a determination of how much maternity leave will cost them in the end. Analysis from the U.S. Census Bureau published in 2011, for instance, found that 50 percent of first-time moms without a college degree and 13 percent with a secondary degree quit their jobs for pregnancy-related reasons [source: Bass].

Even when new moms hold on to their jobs, childbirth likely leads to a pay cut over the long term. According to the National Bureau for Economic Research, highly skilled women sacrifice 21 to 33 percent of their potential lifetime incomes after they become mothers, while dads in the office can expect to give up barely one-tenth of that [source: Leonhardt]. The business world is especially stingy toward working mothers; a Harvard study published in 2010 reported that M.B.A.-holding moms who took 18-month maternity leaves experienced, on average, a 41 percent income disparity compared to M.B.A.-toting men [source: Greenhouse].

But what about the kids? Isn't a discounted income a meager price to pay for raising healthy, adjusted kids? Conceptually, yes. Yet research on maternal employment and child development has found that working mothers don't adversely affect their children's lives. A meta analysis out of the University of California, Irvine, concluded that on the whole, children grow up into stable, successful adults whether their moms devote their time to domestic duties or office work [source: Ulene]. Moreover, a little bit of work may be good for mamas. A comparison of full-time, part-time and unemployed mothers found that part-time jobs correlated to better health, lower stress and greater sensitivity to their children's needs, compared to the women on either end of the employment spectrum [source: Rochman].

But of course, all work and no play make mothers dull -- and not to mention exhausted -- women. So to circle back to where the issue of motherhood typically begins, it's time to find out how becoming a mom affects women's love lives and long-term romantic relationships.

Mommy's Sex Life

Parenting can do a number on a couple’s sex life.
Parenting can do a number on a couple’s sex life.
OMG/Photodisc/Getty Images

The year 2011 brought its own bundle of joy to pregnant women and their partners. According to a conclusive analysis published then in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, sex while expecting poses no harm to a healthy developing fetus [source: Rochman]. That pronouncement roundly discredited popular, though misguided, superstitions that intercourse and orgasmic contractions could potentially rupture a uterus or induce childbirth too soon. In fact, a woman's libido may crest during her second trimester due to pregnancy-related lubrication and engorgement in the genital area [source: Mann].

After delivery, sex is probably the last thing a new mother craves. Typical doctors' orders advise no hanky-panky for at least four to six weeks following childbirth, giving plenty of time for the body to heal [source: Mayo Clinic]. But just because sex may be physically safe for new moms after that recovery window doesn't mean they'll automatically be in the mood. It's common for motherhood to correlate with a drop in sexual desire for many reasons. A 2005 study out of Sweden conducted extensive interviews with new mothers about their sexual attitudes, and the women voiced common concerns about negotiating their pre-partum and postpartum bedroom lives. Not only did many of the participants prefer sleep over sex due to the schedule demands of caring for a newborn, the mothers also expressed anxiety over their altered post-baby bodies [source: Olsson]. On the up side, a majority of the interviewees also expected their libidos to rebound in the near future.

If, however, those new mothers were breastfeeding, it might've taken longer than expected for that lovin' feelin' to rekindle. Women who breastfeed commonly complain of lackluster sex drives -- likely a direct result of hormones. Prolactin stimulates milk production, simultaneously lowering the amount of estrogen and testosterone in the bloodstream, both of which are related to arousal [source: Boston Women's Health Book Collective]. Ironically, researchers at University of Chicago published a study in 2005 that claimed breastfeeding women emit a chemical signal that incites sexual arousal in non-nursing women [source: Peres]. Nursing women, on the other hand, often have to wait until a child weans to experience a rebounded sex drive.

Postpartum libido loss aside, couples that transition to parenthood face long-term challenges to keeping the spark alive. Despite the initial joy of expanding a family, having a baby often marks a downturn in marital satisfaction for as many as two-thirds of couples [source: Zimmerman]. As of 2009, in fact, more than 25 studies identified a significant dip in nuptial bliss after babies enter the picture, followed by a return to happy harmony after grown kids fly the coop [source: Coontz]. A growing body of research also suggests that lesbian parents may enjoy slightly higher relationship satisfaction due to more even division of housework, but overall they mirror their heterosexual counterparts [source: Lamb].

Teasing apart that underwhelming data does offer a heartening nugget of wisdom for women wishing to become mothers: Couples that experienced intended pregnancies that they equally agreed upon demonstrated the most relational resilience during the parental transition [source: Lawrence]. In other words, when it comes to motherhood, it pays to plan ahead. Just don't expect to be fully prepared for everything that goes along with raising a baby, as any mommy brain out there can fully attest.

Author's Note

After writing the final paragraphs of How Motherhood Works, I initially worried that I had just painted a downright worst-case-scenario of how being a mother affects women. From the get-go, pregnancy and childbirth are tough on the body. Pre- and postpartum hormonal fluctuations take a toll on the psyche. Then after the birthing is over, all of the directives about how to be the best parent possible emotionally exhaust today's time-strapped mother.

But once I reflected on the sum total of the research, I realized that while motherhood is a physically, mentally and emotionally daunting prospect, there's a radiant silver lining to it. The fact that women's brains and figures are literally built to take on what some refer to as the hardest job in the world is scientifically phenomenal. Strip away the cultural constructs and gender-biased baggage of what motherhood should look like, and you have an incredible biological feat. And that's all the more reason to consider motherhood not so much as a role, but a unique strength and breathtaking possibility.

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