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How Motherhood Changes Us

In 2000, I had a successful career as a director in an internet design firm in a wonderful city; I had just about finished putting my husband through medical school and residency; and I had my first child, a healthy boy. By all appearances, I had a charmed life.

Yet soon after my son’s birth, while balancing work, a new child and a sick family member, I became unable to sleep. If I did drift off, I would wake up convinced my son was crying for me. In reality, he wasn’t. I was breaking down. When I went to the Emergency Room, what I mistakenly insisted for months was a sleep disorder, they quickly diagnosed as severe postpartum depression. I recovered, but only after many, many months and with a new firm sense of my limitations and a radically different vision of what makes a good life. In talking to many mothers in the years since then, I have come to understand that, while most of us (hopefully) don’t experience something as dramatic as I did, we all do experience a significant transformation when we become mothers.

Interestingly enough, new brain imaging technologies are baring this out. Only in the last decade have scientists confirmed that our brains are plastic; in other words our brains continue to grow, change and adapt over the course of our lives in response to our experiences. And experiences related to motherhood force growth.

Initially, this project was intended to explore one question: how motherhood changes us. However, as I began more formally interviewing mothers, I also became drawn to hearing the stories that aren’t often told. Why do we most often see images in the media of two same-race, healthy, middle-class, married, heterosexual parents with same-race, healthy, biologically-conceived children? I wanted to paint a more comprehensive portrait of motherhood today–one that would increase understanding and compassion between and among mothers who, superficially, might seem quite different.

To both ends, I have sought out mothers of different ages, races, socioeconomic classes, professions, biological and adoptive, hetero- and homosexual, single and coupled, of typically- and atypically-developing children. I’ve interviewed women from North Carolina, Maine, Pennsylvania, California, Massachusetts, Vermont, St. Croix, and South Dakota.

In my interviews with mothers, we touch on what drives us to become mothers; how we expect our lives to change and then how they really change; how our ideas about work and life and self identity change; and how our relationships with families, friends and partners change. The interview structure has been purposefully loose, in order to zero in on what serves as the heart of each mother’s story. Some interviews focus on a situation specific to that mother which colors much of her experience of motherhood. I am constrained in that I capture each mother on a single day; we all know that our perspectives change across a single day and over time.

The first person I interviewed was my mother-in-law, who died soon after of end-stage breast cancer. The day I interviewed her, when she was very, very sick, I asked why she continued treatment. She said, “Once you’re a mother, whether they’re one or 50, you don’t want to leave those children.”

– Liisa Ogburn

  • "It’s not about statistics. It’s about using individual stories to create that connection, that empathy. Then, rational arguments, like numbers, can play a supporting role."
    - Nicholas Kristof

    "When you’re lost in a good story, it’s not arbitrary, it’s not pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It’s biological, it’s chemical, it’s a survival mechanism."
    - Author Lisa Chron

    "Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people’s worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work and potentially change our brain chemistry — and that’s what it means to be a social creature."
    - Neuroscientist Paul Zak

    "Listening is an act of love."
    - David Isay, StoryCorps