dear firstborn
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
March 2, 2024 ·  5 min read

My Dear Firstborn, You’ll Never Know: How Motherhood Changes You

Life is full of defining moments. Moments that leave an imprint on your memory and change you forever. Few moments are as life-altering, though, as the moment you become a mother for the first time.

Seemingly overnight, your life is completely turned upside down. Every minute of your day revolves around this tiny life that you are now responsible for. You go from sleeping eight hours every night to being constantly woken up.  Your nights out turn into nights in. Half your grocery cart is now filled with diapers.

Yes, having a baby changes your life in a drastic way. What is almost more significant, however, is how new motherhood changes you.

The Physical Changes of Motherhood

The changes that occur in your brain are arguably the most significant over any other part of your body. Although scientists are still unclear as to exactly what happens to a new mother’s brain, but it appears that after you give birth, the physical structure of your brain changes for at least two years [1].

After studying the brains of many new moms, researchers found that the most significant change was a reduction in grey matter in the areas of their brains associated with social connection [1]. These are the same regions of the brain that are activated when women look at photos of their babies [2].

This may sound like a bad thing, but the area that loses the most gray matter is the network responsible for theory of mind, which helps us understand what’s going on in someone else’s mind [2].

Scientists theorize that this “pruning” might be what helps mother’s specialize in responding to their baby’s needs. Getting rid of the unnecessary allows new mothers to hone in on their infant child and understand better how to help them [2].

During pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, a woman’s brain changes in a way that enables her to multitask to meet her baby’s needs, empathize with their pain and emotions, and regulates how she responds to positive stimuli, like the cooing sound her baby makes, or respond to threats [3].

Postpartum Depression

With all of these intense changes happening in your brain when you become a mother, it should come as no surprise that for many women, depression can set in. At one time, postpartum depression was a taboo topic, but more and more research is being done to gain a better understanding of how to help new moms who are struggling.

Postpartum depression is a mood disorder that affects women after pregnancy. It causes feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety, and exhaustion that make it difficult for them to care for themselves or their families [4].

Sudden hormonal changes and chemical changes in the brain are thought to be the primary cause of the condition. Constant sleep deprivation is a factor as well. Many mothers are unable to get the rest they need to recover from childbirth, and this lack of sleep can contribute to feelings of postpartum depression [4].

Typically, you are at the greatest risk for developing postpartum depression in the first few weeks or months after giving birth [5]. It affects your ability to understand and respond to your baby’s emotional queues, which can have negative long-term consequences [5].

Symptoms of postpartum depression are:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, empty, or overwhelmed
  • Crying more often than usual or for no apparent reason
  • Worrying or feeling overly anxious
  • Feeling moody, irritable, or restless
  • Oversleeping, or being unable to sleep even when her baby is asleep
  • Having trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
  • Experiencing anger or rage
  • Losing interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
  • Suffering from physical aches and pains, including frequent headaches, stomach problems, and muscle pain
  • Eating too little or too much
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding friends and family
  • Having trouble bonding or forming an emotional attachment with her baby
  • Persistently doubting her ability to care for her baby
  • Thinking about harming herself or her baby [4].

If you are struggling with this, you are not alone. It is important for you to seek help so that you don’t miss out on crucial moments with your new baby.

The Special Bond With Your First Child

Of course, you love all of your children equally, but there is a difference in your relationship with your first child from all the others simply because, well, they’re your first. Your first child is the one who made you a mother.

In their book, The Birth of a Mother: How Motherhood Changes You Forever, Daniel N. Stern and Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern describe the transition from being a daughter to a mother.

“You have always been your mother’s daughter, and this relationship, whether good or bad, has always been near the centre of your identity. When you have a child, you begin to identify yourself primarily as a mother rather than a daughter. Your life as someone’s daughter becomes your past, just as your future as a mother begins, with all its grand possibilities.” [6]

They explain that this shift can bring about a range of emotions as you experience profound loss, while at the same time wonderful gain [6].

In her essay, Dear Firstborn, You’ll Never Know, Chaunie Brusie describes the challenges of new motherhood, and the profound love she has for her first daughter.

“You’ll never know the way I watched you sleep, echoes of “you should sleep when the baby sleeps!” filling my head, but I couldn’t look away, so in awe of the simple fact that you were here, that you once resided curled up inside of me.

You’ll never know the laps I took, the weariness settling into my bones as I hushed and bounced and prayed, willing you to find peace against the pain I didn’t know was in your belly. You’ll never know the decisions that seemed so big at the time: Breastfeeding or not? Lifelong ban on french fries or give in early? Organic strawberries or save the money?

You’ll never know how my breath catches still when I catch a glimpse of you, how startling it is when you seem to grow up overnight, when you move with the grace of a woman but sleep like the baby I once held.” [7]

She goes on to describe the feelings of self-doubt, wondering if she is cut out for motherhood, and how her greatest fear is losing her child [7].

Yes, of course, as a mother you love all your children equally, but it was your first child who completely changed you.

“You’ll never know, dear daughter of mine, how you became my entire world, changed my entire world, and will always be my world [7].”