Can the Path to Motherhood Crush Creativity?
Published on: September 10, 2020
Midwife Emma McNerlin reflects on the phenomenon of “baby brain” in pregnant and new mothers and explores it’s reported effects on creativity.
By Emma McNerlin
Pregnancy gets some very bad press when it comes to the effect it has on the mother’s brain. Add this to the nausea, painful joints, swollen breasts and feet and it doesn’t sound like a ton of fun at all, even for the most longed for baby. The “baby brain” phenomenon has long been discussed in maternity folklore and referred to the increased forgetfulness, inattention, and mental “fogginess” reported by four out of five pregnant women (Davies et al 2018). Advances in diagnostic imaging such as functional MRI scanning means that the existence of baby brain can now be proven in science.
A woman’s brain experiences drastic changes in pregnancy and the postpartum period, much more than even puberty. Much of the changes are driven by the huge hormonal fluctuations associated with childbearing. Estrogen level rises throughout pregnancy to reach a level 300 times higher than at any other time in her life. Animal studies in rats have proven that estrogen affects the plasticity of the brain, especially in the hippocampus, the area responsible for short term social recognition and memory. Put simply, this means that estrogen reduces the amount of grey matter of the brain. (Hoekzema, 2017). Evolutionary scientists argue that this is in order to prepare her for the huge change motherhood will bring. The new mother’s brain focuses less on storing abstract and insignificant facts, and more on bonding, nurturing and protecting her new baby. The pruning of brain connections in pregnancy leads to new growth as a mother.
Along with brain structure, brain wave patterns also change in pregnancy. Changes in brain waves are associated with differing levels of alertness and concentration. Pregnancy causes the brain to spend longer in the “Theta wave” state, associated with daydreaming, meditation and relaxation (Walia et al, 2013). This can be experienced as lack of focus, or a loss of motivation, whereas in fact it is much more primal and instinctual, biologically priming her for the changing priorities that her baby will bring.
For a woman experiencing the exhaustion and brain fog of pregnancy it can be challenging and scary, especially for those who have honed careers based on their mental sharpness, pragmatism and creativity. As well as the physical demands of pregnancy she may be emotionally dealing with how pregnancy might affect her career, fearing loss of identity and more practical concerns about childcare or financial worries. These can all increase the frustration she feels to perform highly in her job all while growing a new human being.
Behavioral experiments specifically designed to test the baby-brain hypothesis, conducted in controlled environments have shown that pregnant women perform less well at cognitive and memory-based activities than their non-pregnant counterparts (Henry, 2012). However, it should be noted that their performance is still well within the normal range (Young, 2018); and research also shows that women return to their pre pregnant capabilities by two years postpartum, coincidentally around the same time she might be enjoying a full night of sleep again! It is reassuring that the spring cleaning of the brain in pregnancy and postpartum does not permanently impair a mother’s cognition or memory and mothers themselves report a return to normal in their experience of memory and cognition.
The experience of creativity in pregnancy is a deeply personal one. For women who work in the creative arts, they face a battle with society’s outdated perception that the pregnancy will sap their creativity, illustrated perfectly in the words of literary critic Cyril Connolly in 1938 who said “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. We would like to believe that opinions might have changed over the past 80 years. In a sector where artists are self-employed and work is often commission based, women have the added pressure to prove they can excel both in their art and as a mother.
Of course the juggling of family and career responsibilities is not unique to women who work in the creative arts. Whether working outside the home or not, motherhood can be all-embracing and all-consuming. Carving out space for self-care and self-expression can be difficult and is often accompanied with guilt at taking precious time away from her baby. It can take time to come to terms with the new version of herself. Being creative does not have to involve producing a masterpiece or literary marvel. Motherhood needn’t be the enemy of creativity; it requires us to be tenacious and flexible and to think outside the box. All these skills surely are a type of creativity. The development of digital platforms has seen a rise in mummy bloggers and “mumpreneurs” finding new avenues to combine motherhood and their passion for creativity.
With medical advances, we are beginning to understand how pregnancy affects a mother’s brain, though more research is needed in this area. Science does not exist in a vacuum. Women are under increasing pressure to perform at maximum capacity on multiple fronts; in work, at home; in her relationships and friendships. It is little wonder therefore that space to just be and to create recreationally is rare. It is time society recognized the importance of not losing the woman behind the mother. Surely there can be no greater creative enterprise than creating and growing a new life, that is Creativity with the greatest of big C’s!
Davies et al (2018 Cognitive Impairment in Pregnanacy a Meta Analysis, Medical Journal of Australia available online at:
Shepperd et al 2019 Structural Plasticity of the Hippocampus in female rats in Journal of Molecular Brain. Available online at:
Hoekzema (2017) Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure, Nature Neuroscience. Available online at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nn.4458
Walia et al (2013) International Journal of Emerging Research in Management &Technology ISSN: 2278-9359 (Volume-2, Issue-12) available online at:
Henry et al (2012) Hormones and Cognitive Functioning During Late Pregnancy and Postpartum: A Longitudinal Study. Available online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4839972/
Young (2018) Pregnancy really does cause Baby Brain, The Independent. Available online at:
About the Author
Originally from Ireland, Emma is a UK-trained midwife who worked in the maternity unit at a busy NHS hospital just outside London. Emma moved to Bangkok with her husband in 2014; they have a 14-year-old son, Toby. Volunteering with BAMBI Bumps and Babies since August 2015, Emma regularly conducts sessions on pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and infant first aid. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and Muay Thai.
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