Once, you were a rational soul. Then you had a baby and now you weep over abandoned puppies and can’t even watch the news. Welcome to new mum empathy
As the report about the most recent wave of violence in Syria came on the evening news, I fumbled for the remote and changed channels. Seeing refugee families and the trauma they’re suffering affected me more than I had anticipated. It’s almost too heartbreaking to hear about.
And it’s not just Syria, either. Now I’m a mother, I struggle with any kind of negative news involving babies and children – abductions and stories of abuse frequently have me in tears. It’s as if someone flicked a switch in my brain the day my daughter was born, opening up an endless well of emotion.
I’d never been particularly sensitive before and didn’t expect the change be so dramatic, but my mum had warned me this would happen. ‘Wait and see – you’ll feel differently about all children once you have your own,’ she’d said when I was pregnant. I brushed her off back then, but she was right. Now I see my daughter Isobel, two, in every child’s face, and accounts of suffering have taken on a new, almost unbearable, dimension.
This increased empathy isn’t solely down to a fresh perspective on life, it’s also a result of actual chemical changes in our brains. ‘The increase of empathy mothers experience is something that can’t be underestimated,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg. ‘Throughout pregnancy, and immediately after birth, your brain undergoes some enormous changes. While it used to be thought that motherhood had a detrimental effect on mental function – so-called “baby brain” – it seems that, actually, it purposely rewires to make us better at multi-tasking, and to enhance our natural empathy and motivation to care.’
One recent study found that, after childbirth, there’s an increase in grey matter in the areas of the brain related to emotion, reasoning and judgement, which could have a long-term effect. ‘While you’re expecting, there is an enormous increase in oxytocin – the love hormone,’ says Emma. ‘This is known to increase empathy and communication in all relationships, so you can see why heightened levels in a new mother might make her more sensitive.’ This dampens down after birth, although the changes in our psyche seem to last longer once we take on the role of protector.
One recent study found that, after childbirth, there’s an increase in grey matter in the areas of the brain related to emotion, reasoning and judgement
Don’t tune out
Constantly feeling so raw isn’t easy. And, as Emma points out, there can be a conflict between our new mum empathy and the demands society puts on us. ‘As well as survival, these feelings encourage bonding with your baby. This should be a positive thing, but a major difficulty for mums now is that our culture doesn’t always encourage this.’
Many parenting styles work on the premise of getting babies into a routine, but these can require you to tune out your empathy. For example, if your baby cries, you’ll instinctively want to hold him, but is this always the most useful approach? ‘Women can be left feeling conflicted between biological changes and societal demands,’ says Emma.
But, while we want our kids to understand rules and routines, we shouldn’t shy away from our recently-heightened emotions. ‘They mean we strive to provide the best possible environment for our children, and we can also use them to improve our relationships, too,’ says parenting expert and author Karen Doherty. ‘If you know how another exhausted mother is feeling, for example, you can offer to help her out, forging new friendships.’
If your feelings overwhelm you and start making you fearful, however, give yourself a reality check. ‘Our primary urge is to protect our children, but we can also get caught up in caring too much and become overprotective,’ says Karen.
Providing your heightened emotions don’t tip over into anxiety, the empathy you’re feeling right now is a natural part of becoming a mother. And – if you can use it to your advantage – this new trait could inform your whole parenting experience, and that’s something to really get emotional about.