The Importance of Mothers Having a Support System with Abigail Tucker [Episode #575]
This week’s topic is: The Importance of Mothers Having a Support System with Abigail Tucker
I am so excited to have my very special guest, Abigail Tucker, who is New York Times bestselling author and a longtime writer for Smithsonian Magazine. Listen in as Abigail shares the different styles of mothering, nature versus nurture, and practical research all moms should know.
How our brains are influenced by our social world…
The different styles of mom instincts and how they’re grouped…
Being a mom while running a full-time business…
Why women are choosing not to have children…
Maternity leave in the United States compared to other areas…
Nature versus nurture and how our kids develop…
Practical research all moms should know…
Mommy brain and our dulling memories…
About Abigail Tucker
A longtime writer for Smithsonian Magazine, Abigail Tucker is the New York Times bestselling author of The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, named a Best Science Book of 2016 by Library Journal and Forbes, now translated into thirteen languages. Her latest book is Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct, available wherever books are sold this spring. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with her husband and four (equally amazing) children.
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Kimberly: 00:01 Hey Beauties and welcome back to our Monday interview podcast. I absolutely adore our guests today. And I’m so excited to share this interview with you. Our guest is Abigail Tucker. She’s a longtime writer for Smithsonian Magazine. She’s a New York Times bestselling author, and she has a new, super interesting book out called Mom Jeans: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct. And let me tell you, Abigail is warm, wonderful.
Kimberly: 00:32 She’s a mama and she is smart as a whip and she has so much incredible, interesting research to share with us in our podcast today. So I cannot wait to share this one with you.
Fan of the Week
Kimberly: Before we get into it, I want to give a quick shout out to our fan of the week. Her name is Laura Hartung and she writes, “Live and love your best life with Kimberly. This podcast covers more than wellness. It’s helpful for depression, anxiety, and big life questions. I listened while I walk, clean, or just relax. Kimberly’s topics are relatable and calming with realistic practices for the everyday person.” Wow, Laura, thank you so much for your kind words for warming my heart. I send you so much love. I am so grateful that you are part of the community and just so much love to you, sister, wherever you may be. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Leave a Review on iTunes
Kimberly: 01:27 And Beauties, for your chance to also be shouted out as the fan of the week, for me to read your beautiful words, please leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, wherever you listen to our podcast. And it’s such a beautiful energy exchange. I love to do the podcast. I love to provide all of this. Of course, free of charge and reviews are just a wonderful, energetic way to support the show. And they’re also free and easy and just take a moment or two to do. So thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. And it’s also a great idea to subscribe to our podcast. You can do that at the same time, hit the subscribe button, and that way you don’t miss out on any of these interview podcasts or any of our Q&A Thursday community shows, which are also amazing and come right from you guys. All the questions come from our community. So I love it. I love it.
Kimberly: 02:24 And thank you again so much. All right. All that being said, let’s get into our interview today with the one and only Abigail Tucker.
Interview with Abigail Tucker
Kimberly: 00:01 So Abigail, it’s so nice to meet you, to look at you over at Zoom. Where are you based? Where do you live?
Abigail: 00:08 I live in New Haven, Connecticut. And I worked from home even before the pandemic, but I’m a journalist who does a lot of science stories and culture stories, and I’ve written a couple of books.
Kimberly: 00:23 So I’m actually from Ridgefield, Connecticut. I don’t know if you know where that is.
Abigail: 00:28 I actually do.
Kimberly: 01:18 Now I live in LA, so I sort of never… I don’t know. I’ve gone back to Connecticut, but my mom passed away and my dad moved.
Abigail: 01:30 Oh, I’m so sorry.
Kimberly: 01:31 He came out here. So anyways, I love the fall. I love the East Coast weather, but I don’t love the winter.
Abigail: 01:39 Yes. I hear your talk of LA and Hawaii, and it’s all sounding very wise to me. Like, you may have got the right approach here.
Abigail shares how she came to write the book,The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World
Kimberly: 01:49 So I love talking to other writers, and I was reading about your books, and one of your books is about cats. Am I right? And one them is a science book, and then one of them is about maternal instinct, which I’m so excited to really delve into. But first, tell me about the cats. How did that come in, the science, the Smithsonian, writing. It’s fascinating.
Abigail: 02:12 I had gone on a Smithsonian assignment to write about this lion scientist in Africa, and so I hung out with him for like a week and wrote about his work. And an editor approached me and said, “Can we use this lion science to understand the cats in our house?” And I was like, “Well, actually, the story of the cats in our house is a much more interesting story because it’s this idea of how did this small, invasive feline beat the odds and become this billion-strong global species at a time when the rest of cats are dying out. So African [crosstalk 00:02:54] are a terrible, sad story.”
Abigail: 02:56 So that’s how that came about. It was sort of using the tools of natural-history writing to get at the mystery of what is domestic and sort of finding the hidden stories of the stuff in our houses. And that’s what I was trying to do with the mom book too, to sort of take this kind of ordinary organism, the mom, like everyone takes her for granted, and then to peel back the layers of who and what that is. How does she become? What are these labs that study us? What happens to me if I go and volunteer for an experiment, and what’s at stake here in understanding the way our biology works in terms of how we become these organisms that we see before us basically?
Kimberly: 03:44 So interesting. Abigail, you have four children. Is that right?
Abigail: 03:48 Yes, yes.
Kimberly: 03:48 You have sons or daughters, both?
Abigail: 03:50 I have both. I have three girls and a boy. And I had my last one almost exactly a year ago at the start of the pandemic, so that was interesting.
Kimberly: 04:01 Oh, wow! I have two sons, and my younger is… Yes, he’s 11 months, so almost [crosstalk 00:04:10].
Abigail: 04:10 Oh, wow. Yeah, so you went through that whole rigamarole too, which is crazy.
Kimberly: 04:16 It was interesting. We live in this community where we’re in a little pod, and we’re in the mountains, and there’s a lot of nature around. So I think it was probably a bit easier for me being in such a community-centric place than other places.
Abigail: 04:31 Yeah.
Kimberly: 04:32 I used to live in New York and-
Abigail: 04:34 Oh, yeah.
How our brains are influenced by our social world
Kimberly: 04:35 That would feel very isolating, especially as a new mom with a young child if you don’t have the community around, if your family lives far away. I don’t have family in LA, but I did have that community, so that was nice.
Abigail: 04:46 Exactly. Yeah, and that was one of the interesting things about the research that I did. It’s not just that we go through this simple transformation where scientists can peek into the brains of maternal organisms and watching them transform. Our brains are influenced by our social world, and so something like living in a neighborhood where you have lots of social support, lots of mom friends, being around your parents, having a supportive partner, all these things are actually social buffers that kind of allow the maternal brain to be all it can be. And if you get in a stressful situation, that’s kind of one of my interests, that stress is quantifiable, and it can lead to poor maternal health outcomes, and not just like getting high blood pressure or something like that. It can influence your brain and behavior and if you get post-partum depression. That stuff is related to stress sometimes, and even stuff like miscarriage and those things.
Kimberly: 05:42 Sure, sure. Abigail, I feel like I’m so interested in your research, and again, your book is called Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct. So when I hear this, my first son, Emerson, as a first-time mom, you want to know that you’re doing it right. And I honestly… I think like a lot of first-time moms, I didn’t know what kind of mom I was going to be. I was really focused on the birth. And then when he was born, it turned out that instinctually I was a, quote-unquote, attachment parent. He was always on my body. I didn’t use a stroller until he was past two years old.
Abigail: 06:20 Oh, gosh, you must be strong.
Kimberly: 06:24 He wouldn’t nap in the crib. He would nap on me. I would do the podcast, and I would write. And then I have mom friends who are the opposite, who… One of my mom friends puts her newborn in the crib. She says, “I don’t want to be… I need times when I’m not being touched.” She likes the separation. So I would say both of us are tuning into our instincts, but they’re very different.
Abigail: 06:48 Definitely.
We discuss the different styles of mom behaviors and how they’re grouped
Kimberly: 06:49 So your research, it’s not one mom gene fits all, so to speak, but there’s many different styles of instincts. Do you group them-
Abigail: 06:59 Exactly, exactly. So I guess what I’ve learned the hard way through conversations with these researchers is that the things that we talk about when… This is how you do this as a mom. I do attachment stuff. I do sleep training. I do formula. I’m breastfeeding. All these things aren’t really instincts. They’re behaviors. So there’s tons of different behaviors that we can do as moms, and there’s hardly any common trends across the world. I’m kind of fascinated by different styles of baby carriers that different cultures use. Some of them have… Like, in Papua New Guinea, they have these ones that hang like a headband off your head, and the baby just kind of like dangles down your back in a sack. You can actually order these on Etsy, I learned. I was like, “I might want to try that.” But-
Kimberly: 07:51 With your fifth, Abigail, you can try that.
Abigail: 07:53 Exactly. I’m just going to sling it, and I’ll say, “Well, what baby? I’m hands free here.” But the instinct that I’m trying to describe in the book is… It’s more like the drive or the motive that’s behind all these caring behaviors. It’s this kindling and sudden desire to care for babies, in our case, or in the case of other animals, like lab rats or monkeys, pups or infant monkeys. And that is the across-the-boards change, and that’s a sort of primal, simple switch, where if you take lab rats that have not had babies yet and you offer them a choice between Charleston Chew or circus peanuts and babies, they’re always going to choose the candy over the babies, always across the boards.
Abigail: 08:44 But once they have infants, they become what’s called sensitized to infants, and they suddenly start choosing the infants over the candy, and they become really, really motivated in that way, so that almost this drive to be around and care for infants is overriding this other drive that they used to have, which was the food drive. And it’s actually… Some of these experiments are really hilarious, where you can give a mom rat a chance to press a lever to get as many babies as she wants, and she’ll press it like 700 times over the course of a few hours and would literally be buried under an avalanche of babies if you let her.
Kimberly: 09:24 Wow!
Abigail: 09:25 So that’s this light-switch, kind of 180-degree-turn instinct that all… Well, I mean, I shouldn’t say all, but that so many of us share. It’s like there’s a lot of ways to work the problem, and that’s kind of what’s frustrating. We’re born with this strong drive… We develop this strong drive, but we don’t know what to do. There’s no encyclopedia that gets uploaded into us when we have a child. But we are so motivated to do what’s right that we’re going to try out all these strategies that you and your friends have and my friends have too.
The dynamic of being a mom and running a full-time career
Kimberly: 10:01 Right, right, interesting. So to complicate things now, Abigail, we have this instinct, and I’ve felt it myself. But then we also have this other part of us as women. Many of us want to have careers, and we want to create things in the world and do things for myself and running a company. So what that’s looked like for me is… I think we’re influenced as well by our background. My mom went to work because they needed the money, quite frankly, like very early on when I was just a few weeks old. So for me, I’ve sort of had this driving energy almost. Like, I’m the one that’s going to take care of my kids. So I’ve never had a nanny. I’ll get a babysitter if they’re in bed and we go out afterwards. But I always want to be there when my kids are awake, and my team can speak to this. But then it means that I’m working all night and in the morning and doing-
Abigail: 10:53 Oh, my gosh.
Kimberly: 10:54 So I’m really overloading, but it’s just really hard for me to turn my kids over to other people.
Abigail: 11:03 Yes.
Kimberly: 11:03 And at the same time, I want to work. So it can be a lot for working moms today. Does any of your research address that or is that…
Abigail: 11:12 Yeah. And I think just hearing you speak, you have a passion for your work, and it’s something that really helps complete you. You have, it sounds like, a social network of people who are involved in your job. And I think that all of that sounds like it could be enriching for you as a mom. So even though you’re making these sacrifices, you might actually be becoming a stronger mom because you are also tapping into the self where you are part of a hierarchy and you feel empowered. And all of these things… Studies in stuff like monkeys show that that kind of social life is really good. It’s not good for a mom to always be isolated just with your kids and not have something else in life. That said, I think that it’s hard to make any kind of across-the-boards call for moms and work because there’s some moms who might not want to work and, as we say, are forced to work, and some jobs are not as cool as other jobs.
Kimberly: 12:12 That is so true.
Abigail: 12:13 And especially the thing that stood out in the research that’s really kind of poisonous for moms is when they have a lot of unpredictability in their lives. So, let’s say you’re working a job where there’s swing shifts or really variable hours, or you never know what kind of mood your boss is going to be in and he or she is cruel to you. All those things can really be detrimental to maternal mental health and behavior. So I think that, for me, I completely agree. I obviously spent part of the last two years being like, “Quiet, kids. I have to go the attic and write my book about maternal instinct.”
Abigail: 12:57 So I am with you. I know that it helps me be a better person and a better mom. But I do think that culturally we need to provide outlets for women who might not feel the same way or have the same relationship with work basically. And some people they don’t want it. Maybe you don’t want to go back to your job as being a waitress working nights until 2:00 AM, and I think that’s okay too.
Whether it’s genetic versus cultural on why women are choosing not to have children
Kimberly: 13:27 So Abigail, I think it was the Wall Street Journal. I read an article recently about the birth rates continuing to drop in the United States. So we’re talking about mom genes. Is it genetic and now it’s okay to choose not having kids, or is it cultural that so many women now… And I have so many friends, and you probably do too, that are choosing not to have kids. They just say, “You know what? I’m happy in my life, and I don’t actually want to be a mom.” What do you think?
Abigail: 13:57 Yes. Yeah, right. Those are sort of separate things. The instinct is something that is born and facilitated through the chemicals of birth and pregnancy and lactation, and it’s something that’s sort of more or less… I don’t want to use the word automatically, but it’s something that sort of like organically occurs to you over nine months. Like, I didn’t really personally care that much when we had kids either. I was just like, “Fine.” And then when I had them, it was like this epiphany, and that’s part of what drove me to write this book. Like, how do we study what happened?
Abigail: 14:34 Now, the thing that you mentioned about the birth rate is an interesting other question, and I became really curious about other countries which are doing things to try to incentivize women to have more babies. And it’s like if you have four kids, I’m going to give you 20 acres of land or a lifetime pension or tax-free living, all of these things. And that all sounds fine, but I think we’re not going to see a change in the birth rate until we take care of the mothers that we have and do just the very barest, basic things like paid maternity leave and better Medicaid coverage and better hospital care for women. Then we can talk about the birth rate. I feel like we’re disappointing the moms that we have.
Abigail: 15:26 The other thing is that the birth rate dropping is to an extent a natural process, I think, because back 100 years ago when people had more kids, so many kids still died. I was thinking… I guess I didn’t realize that still one in 10 kids was dying in infancy in 1900. And so we’ve actually been able to change the way mothers mother by all of these policy changes that we’ve made that have improved health and sanitation for people and just medical advances that have helped children live longer. That has catalyzed in us this maternal strategy of hyper-investment, where we have fewer kids, but we invest more in them. And that’s also partially because the world is requiring that of them. You can’t just have 10 kids and not send them… I mean, you can not send them to college, but there’s this emphasis on really kind of armoring up your kid because it’s a cruel world out there and it’s a very intellectually based economy, where if you want your kid to have success, they’re going to need a lot of expensive tools.
Abigail: 16:43 So it’s both a natural trend and something that I think speaks to the certain level of maternal neglect that we’ve got going on here, and that I’m really excited. I hear that there’s a lot of Biden White House-led initiatives to really, finally have 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. And really, we should be talking about paid paternity leave too because-
Kimberly: 17:09 Totally.
Abigail: 17:10 … that actually is… Dads, they have lots of different roles, but there’s this fascinating study of a Swedish paid-paternity-leave policy that showed that giving dads extra time off correlated with a drop in the amount of anti-anxiety medication that moms in Sweden filled, because like what we were talking about, the supportive presence. You’re not just left high and dry as a mom. You have somebody who’s there to help shoulder the burden and just kind of make you feel like you’ve got this. And I just thought it was so cool that it’s not just a hunch that researchers had. They were actually able to show we can make these women feel less anxious by taking these steps. And it’s really not… If you think in the grand scheme, it’s not that much money to pay for ensuring maternal mental health, which is related to child mental health and all these things.
Maternity leave in the United States compared to other areas
Kimberly: 18:12 So interesting, Abigail. When you were speaking about Sweden, what would you theorize about… Because obviously in the United States maternity leave is pretty abysmal compared to certain countries in Europe, right?
Abigail: 18:24 Yes.
Kimberly: 18:25 I think in Germany, it’s one year paid or-
Abigail: 18:27 Yes.
Kimberly: 18:28 … other countries. But still, they’re having a decline in their birth rate.
Abigail: 18:32 Exactly.
Kimberly: 18:32 So they’re still being [crosstalk 00:18:33]. What do you think is going on there? Would you like to theorize?
Abigail: 18:39 That’s a really interesting question. I think that there’s still, even though these countries do have all the bells and whistles for new moms, I think that there’s still kind of like a fragmentation of social fabric that happens, and people are just kind of… Sometimes it’s like they wait till too long. My understanding is that there’s a mismatch between the amount of kids, at least in America, that people want to have and the amount that they actually end up having.
Kimberly: 19:15 Huh?
Abigail: 19:15 Yeah. There’s like a-
Kimberly: 19:18 It’s less kids than they want?
Abigail: 19:20 Exactly.
Kimberly: 19:20 Interesting.
Abigail: 19:22 So I don’t know if that might be the case in the Nordic countries. But you’re right. It is interesting. I mean, what they do have going for them there is… I talked to a researcher who studies infant temperament, and we’ve all heard about the happiest baby on the block. Kids in these Nordic countries tend to… When I say kids, I mean like infants are happier than American infants. And that may be because their moms are able to take a deep breath and get off of the hamster wheel a little bit and spend not just months, but in some cases, years at home knowing they have their jobs to go back to. Those babies are… They have a sunnier temperament than our babies, and that creates a feedback loop, because I don’t know if you’ve had a spread of temperaments in your kids, but I have. And it’s like a child that’s hard to soothe stresses the mom, which stresses the kid, which stresses the mom. And I just was stunned that there’s trans-national differences in infant temperament.
Abigail: 20:36 There’s also global differences in stuff like post-partum depression rates, and it’s not always the countries that you’d think that would have the highest rates that do. Like, Nepal has really low rates of post-partum depression, and they think that that might have something to do with low rates of income inequality and also with the amount of women who are in their child-bearing years who are needing to work more than 40 hours a week. So those are the two things that they flagged in the study that I read.
Abigail: 21:09 But there’s other weird factors in play, like stuff that have to do with diet and stuff. Like, the amount of fish that people eat is sort of correlated with post-partum depression levels, but that tends to be more minor compared to these stronger social signals that people are sending each other in these countries all over the world.
Kimberly: 21:28 Well, I think with the fish, it’s probably related to the omega-3 fatty acids, which can come from algae. Not to go on a tangent, but now we have micro-plastics in the ocean. There’s some crazy statistic how much fish you eat, it’s like having a credit card, eating a credit card of plastic.
Abigail: 21:43 Oh, my gosh. Well, I did go to a lab in Texas where they’re studying the impacts of these hidden plastics on maternal behavior. And I was like, “What?” I knew that plastics, endocrine disruptors are harmful to child development and harmful, like related with cancer. But I didn’t realize that they can change the way that animals mother. And in lab rats and mice, they’re a little bit less attentive to their pup sometimes, and they think it’s because the whole maternal instinct is based on these neuro-chemicals like estrogen, and plastics mimic these chemicals. In some unseen way, they get in there and kind of gum up the works. And that’s something that’s being unpacked in labs now. So what is in your diet and your exposure to toxins actually does have some marginal effect on maternal behavior.
Kimberly: 22:43 And certainly on fertility.
Abigail: 22:45 Yes.
Kimberly: 22:45 We have a fertility course coming up, so there’s some crazy research, interesting research. I shouldn’t say the word crazy, but very interesting research, Abigail.
Abigail: 22:54 That sounds cool.
Nature versus nurture and how our kids develop
Kimberly: 22:55 So going back to that, it’s so interesting because my sons are very different. I feel like I came with the same mothering and saved a place, but my older one is an Aries. He was two weeks late. He crossed into Aries. He’s just more fiery. And Moses, my younger, is so chill. So it’s interesting the patterns across countries. But also what’s your take on nature versus nurture, the fact that these little souls come in and they sort of have their own personalities regardless of how we mother?
Abigail: 23:28 Yeah. In the book, I have a whole chapter on how our children are, in some way, our mothers.
Kimberly: 23:36 Yes.
Abigail: 23:36 If we’re beginning moms, they influence us in profound ways, and those differences have to do with temperament. And it starts in the womb too. There’s this really cool lab at Johns Hopkins University, where they study the different ways that fetuses move in the womb. And some of them are a lot more active. Some are less active. Boys and girls seem to move a little bit differently. And the idea is that, even before they’re born, these babies are sending signals to their mom, and the mom’s kind of absorbing them, however many kicks a minute however many minutes a day, and that she is sort of being programmed in some way to become not just a mother, but the mother for that child. And the differences persist. Like, I was totally floored to learn that animals, mammals I should say, across the boards make differently chemically composed milk for girls versus boys.
Kimberly: 24:36 Wow!
Abigail: 24:36 And there’s some studies in humans that show… Yeah, there’s a Massachusetts study that showed that the milk that moms make for boys is… There’s something like 25% more energy content in it. And there’s a lot of evolutionary theory about why that might be. I mean, boys are, on average, larger when they’re born. There’s also a lot of things that… I had no idea, having had both girls and boys, nobody ever mentioned to me the fact that moms of boys are more at risk for a lot of health conditions, like pre-term diabetes, premature delivery, late-term miscarriage, post-partum depression. All of these things are amped up for boys. And I had no… I just feel like that’s just something that a doctor might want to just slip in there. Like, “Oh, there are…”
Abigail: 25:31 And the boys themselves, when they’re born, are slightly more vulnerable to different birth complications, and they’re also more vulnerable to stress-related miscarriage, which I didn’t realize too. That there’s these studies that show, in the wake of events like, say, 9/11 or other national traumas, that nine months later the number of boys born is lower than you would expect.
Kimberly: 26:03 Wow!
Abigail: 26:04 Yeah. They’re called fetal culls. I was like, “I don’t know if I like those words,” but…
Kimberly: 26:11 Well, I have heard, Abigail, that between the X and the Y chromosome that determines the sex, that the Y chromosomes are far more delicate and sensitive to heat.
Abigail: 26:20 Yep.
Kimberly: 26:21 But then you would think once it’s implanted, I didn’t know there would be such a big difference.
Abigail: 26:26 Yeah. There’s even studies that show slight differences that living in a polluted area or being pregnant in a heat wave or an unusually cold spell, that these can also cause these boy culls. And the evolutionary logic is complicated, but basically the idea is that when moms’ bodies subconsciously sense that there’s some kind of trouble going on in the environment, that it’s sort of like a safer play to have a girl. And if you’re going to have a boy, it should be an unusually big and strong boy. I think it’s called the frail male hypothesis, something like that. But the idea that boys are especially vulnerable to stress-related miscarriages is very established. It’s not a one-paper type idea.
Kimberly: 27:19 Wow! Interesting. So going back to the instinct, Abigail, sometimes I feel like we have all this pressure as moms to be like, when someone says, “Enjoy every moment.” I remember someone said that to me when Moses was a few weeks old, and it’s like, “I’m doing my best. I love my baby, but it’s hard.”
Abigail: 27:42 Yeah.
Kimberly: 27:42 And you don’t have the sleep. And sometimes I’ve heard about moms… I didn’t experience this, but sometimes moms have the baby come out, the baby is born, and they don’t feel a connection for a little while. And dads can take longer. It wasn’t inside of him.
Abigail: 27:57 Exactly.
Kimberly: 27:58 Sometimes, what you were explaining about the gene or the instinct doesn’t kick in right away.
Abigail: 28:05 Yep, yeah.
The possible causes for mothers who don’t feel connected to their child for the first week
Kimberly: 28:06 If mom’s listening to this, she’s like, “Wait a minute. I didn’t really feel connected to my child for a week or so. There’s something wrong with me,” what would you say to that?
Abigail: 28:13 No, there’s not. I think that there’s a lot of factors that can come into play, and I keep hammering home this idea, like if you had a really painful delivery or something traumatic happened to you during the birth, then that can impact with your bonding with the baby. What’s fascinating is that stuff from long, long ago, like childhood trauma or your relationship with your own mom, these things can subtly impact how you first bond with your baby. But the thing is, is that… And also things like C-sections just in general, I had them, but there is some literature that shows-
Kimberly: 28:57 Me too.
Abigail: 28:57 … yeah, that shows that the bond can be a little bit delayed, which makes sense, because they didn’t pass through the birth canal. It’s not just like a highway down there. There’s a lot of chemicals involved in uterine contractions, and bypassing that… Like, monkeys if you give them C-sections, they don’t do well with their babies. So there’s all kinds of things that can happen. But the great news is that human moms are super adaptable, and we know things that can help. Like, you were talking about skin-to-skin contact and kangaroo care and stuff. These things can kind of rescue those traumas. And stuff with long-buried childhood trauma, there’s evidence that therapies and stuff like that can help too.
Practical research all moms should know
Kimberly: 29:50 From your research, Abigail, to all the moms listening to this, what are some of the practical ways the research can be applied? Or what are some of the things that you found and you were like, “Oh, I wish all moms knew this, or this is something moms should know. They could incorporate it”?
Abigail: 30:06 Oh, gosh, I keep meaning to write down a list of these things. Did we already talk about the left-sided stuff?
Kimberly: 30:13 No, no.
Abigail: 30:14 Yeah. So we were talking about maternal behavior is globally super-varied, and even within a neighborhood, two moms could be on different planets as far as parenting philosophy is concerned. But one of the very few, maybe the only global constant in mothering behaviors is there’s this unconscious desire to cradle young babies on the left side. And before I researched this, I guess I kind of thought that it was because I was right-handed, and so I needed my other hand for other stuff. But my husband is right-handed as well, and he always carries the babies always on the right. It turns out that it’s something like 90% of moms, whether or not they’re left or right-handed, so regardless of hand dominance, do this left… It’s called left-sided cradling bias.
Abigail: 31:12 And it’s not just us. If you look at our mammalian sisters, things like flying foxes and walruses, they have a tendency to keep their babies on the left too, which I thought was so interesting. And it apparently has something to do with that left-right layout of the brain. And by keeping the baby in the left visual field, you’re sort of more optimally analyzing its emotional states. And there’s some research… And I, of course… Of course, it would happen to me that one of my friends is one of these one-in-10 women who’s a right-handed woman who holds the baby on the right, and she’s like, “What’s wrong with me?” I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with her, but there is some… Like, some labs are investigating whether right-sided cradling behaviors correlate with depressive behaviors. And there is a little bit of science that shows that kids who grow up right-cradled have a different way… They grow up with a slightly diminished ability to read faces.
Abigail: 32:12 So I thought that that was fascinating. It’s just like one of these bleary sleep conversations that you have, a new parent has. Like, “Why are you holding on the right? Why are you holding on the left?” No idea that there were labs across the world that were studying this. And one way that they study it, which I thought was hilarious, is they look at family photo albums and tabulate left/right-
Kimberly: 32:35 Wow.
Abigail: 32:36 Yeah. It’s kind of interesting. What else is interesting?
Kimberly: 32:41 I can’t even imagine holding Moses on my right, as you’re saying that. He’s always here.
Abigail: 32:45 It’s almost like you’re blind on that side.
Kimberly: 32:49 Yeah.
Abigail: 32:50 I can’t even change… Like, if my husband is changing the baby’s diaper and I go in, he’s always got the head on the right, and I cannot deal. I’ll pick the baby up and put it the other way. And it’s not because I’m a… It’s not the hand-dominance thing. It’s like an emotional processing phenomenon, which I just thought was so wild.
Kimberly: 33:12 Interesting. It’s so interesting. When I go to get, which I haven’t been going as much, but if I go to a chiropractor or if I get a massage, it influences your body alignment.
Abigail: 33:23 Yeah, yeah.
Kimberly: 33:24 [crosstalk 00:33:24]. “Do you hold your baby on the same side?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I do because it’s so awkward.”
Abigail: 33:29 Oh, I’ve been getting injuries on that side. As they get heavier, I feel like my core is pulling over there or something. And the effect is apparently strongest in the first three months, but I still find that with my older kids that they gravitate towards my left side, like if we’re sitting, reading, or things like that. I don’t know. I just thought that was really neat. Other stuff… In terms of practical life skills, I think that this idea of being sure to… I think sometimes new moms think, and especially during the pandemic, that you’re going to kind of huddle down in a burrow or a cave or a hole with your baby, and it’s just you and the baby against the world. I kind of thought that way myself at times, but I think that approach can be dangerous and that the smart thing to do when you’re planning your life as a mom is to make sure that you live in a place where you do have connections to other people.
Kimberly: 34:38 Yes.
Abigail: 34:39 I really think that living in communities with sidewalks is kind of neat because then you can go outside and walk around and just kind of run into other people. Moms are super socially sensitive. I think it’s fascinating; there’s differences in the way that dads and moms do things. One fun fact is that dads are like… Moms, this is a terrible indictment, but we gravitate towards cute infant faces. We are very sensitive to what they call baby releasers, these cute baby cues, these big eyes, the snub nose, the big cheeks. We love it. Dads are more, they’re more stimulated by infants that look like them, which is so typical.
Kimberly: 35:31 [inaudible 00:35:31].
Abigail: 35:31 But there’s even a guy who studied this in adoption scenarios. So even if you’re going to adopt a kid, you kind of want a kid who’s… He wants a kid who looks like him, while the mom’s like, “I want the cutest kid.” I just thought that was a funny little filter into the way that people do things. And then… Oh, God, I could go on all day.
Whether babies are meant to look like the fathers
Kimberly: 35:59 No, I love this. Along those lines, it’s really interesting because when our baby… When Moses was born, he looked a lot like my husband, but now that he’s… Over time, his face has changed. He starts to look more Asian like me. And I read from an evolutionary perspective, you know it’s your baby, right? It’s coming out of the mother. But babies are meant to look like the father so they know it’s his. Have you heard that?
Abigail: 36:26 I’ve heard that too, and I don’t know that I can confirm or deny. It sounds very plausible to me. I did read a study that said that relatives on the mom’s side tend to make more comments about how the child looks like the father, and-
Kimberly: 36:48 [inaudible 00:36:48]. And my in-laws, oh my God.
Abigail: 36:50 And I think that’s fun to highlight. We are kind of looking for a guidebook or a lodestar in this little kid’s face. Like, what are we going to do? But the other funny thing is, of course, looking back at pictures of your newborns, like they’re really just not quite as cute as you thought. I mean, at the time, they’re so beautiful. But then when you look back at baby pictures, you see that they just get cuter and cuter until they’re like one years old. But at the time, you couldn’t imagine anything cuter than the one-day-old red or wrinkly, squashed head. To me, the fact that we find these creatures to be so attractive is just a testament to this instinct that’s awakened and that is kind of independent of common sense in certain ways.
Research around the different way mothers are with a female baby versus a male baby
Kimberly: 37:48 Going back, the cultural influence, Abigail, too. There are certain cultures all around the world that… When we were talking about boy babies, there are certain cultures that have a high rate of adoption for girl babies. There are certain cultures that really favor boy babies. Have you found anything in your research with the instinct with mothers, like there’s a different way mothers are with, across the globe, with a female baby versus a male baby?
Abigail: 38:18 Yeah. That stuff is really deep-seated, and my understanding is that while there’s cultures like America today, we kind of are indifferent where it’s like boy or girl. Most people are fine either way. There’s a slight girl preference, I think, now.
Kimberly: 38:40 With girls?
Abigail: 38:40 But overwhelmingly, in the cultures… Well, I mean, I don’t know. It’s at least like we used to have a boy preference.
Kimberly: 38:49 Yeah.
Abigail: 38:49 But now it’s more of a toss-up. But that’s unusual. In most cultures where there’s a preference, it’s a boy preference, like you’re saying. And the girls are… They can be given up for adoption, or things can happen, like they’ll be mistreated. And I think a lot of it has to do with just the particular anatomy in that culture. There are certain religions where you have to have a boy to say certain funeral prayers, or you have to have the land only as passed down to the boy, the male-
Kimberly: 39:37 Right, male heirs.
Abigail: 39:38 Exactly. But even in things like… It’s little things. It just kind of sticks. Like, my best friend got married to a Lebanese man, and her in-laws are… They’re from Lebanon, but they’re very much people who I would just chat with. I don’t think of us as having profound cultural differences. But she said that she had her first daughter, and then she had her second daughter, and her in-laws just called her Emily. But then when she had her son, her in-laws started calling her Mother of Dean. That was just like a funny… I mean, she doesn’t see them all the time. They just talk on the phone, but it was just so funny to us that just this… We don’t think about things like that because we’re very privileged, modern women. But the way that her status literally changed because she had a boy.
Abigail: 40:38 And there’s also research that shows that these boy preference patterns do persist at least for a few… maybe for the first generation. When people come to America, that there is evidence for female selective abortion, basically. That people, if you’re not going to have an unlimited number of kids and you find out the baby’s gender, that for certain groups that they would be more predisposed to abort a girl.
Kimberly: 41:13 You mean from certain cultures around the world?
Abigail: 41:16 Yeah, exactly, even if they immigrate to America. But then I think those behaviors sort of change once they become part of American culture, and we’re a pretty gender-blind place or we try to be.
Kimberly: 41:39 Yeah, hopefully, that’s changing.
Abigail: 41:41 Yeah, yeah.
Kimberly: 41:43 It’s really like equal as time goes on, as we go on to more and more generations. But yeah. Well, I just wondered, because girls, like you said, tend to be smaller, if there was a more protective instinct that came out in women. I don’t know. I just wondered if when the baby’s born there’s actually a difference in motherly instinct, although I guess that would fall into the behavioral, you were saying.
Abigail: 42:06 Yeah. I mean, there’s a small literature on the fact that women who have girls are very slightly but still, I guess, measurably less likely to have their romantic partner stay around. And for a while people thought that was because men like sons, and they were, even in America, more prone to stick it out if they had a boy. But there’s also a theory that says that actually, no, the birth of a baby girl is… Again, we’re talking about tiny, little differences, but just a slight little nudge showing that maybe there were stress issues in the relationship before and that, in fact, the baby is… Having a girl is just marginally more likely to be born in a stressful environment, and it’s kind of a reflection of stress that might cause the couple to break up anyways.
Abigail: 43:17 So I was just really interested in all these ripple effects and how parental behavior is kind of yanked this way and that way by things that we really don’t think about in the ordinary course of just buying diapers and making peanut butter and jelly.
Kimberly: 43:35 Well, Abigail, since doing all this research, and I love how you can just pull all these studies from the corners of your brain.
Mommy brain and our dulling memories
Abigail: 43:41 Well, hopefully, I’m remembering them all right. I think I am, but we haven’t even talked about mommy brain and our dulling memories, but…
Kimberly: 43:50 Oh, yeah. Let’s talk about that.
Abigail: 43:52 You’re like, “Oh, yeah, let’s…”
Kimberly: 43:54 Is that true? Does your brain actually shrink and shift when you’re pregnant?
Abigail: 43:59 Yeah. So there are these now kind of famous studies that came out a couple years ago that were brain scans of women’s brains before they got pregnant and then afterwards, and they followed them for a couple of years. And there was this shrinkage in gray matter that happened. And basically, the scientists were able to kind of like diagnose the mom brain just by looking at these images. But it’s not as simple as that. It’s not that the brain is withering away or getting stupid. They think that it may just… It’s just changing. I think that’s the best way to say it, that there’s a… They say that there might be a neural pruning that goes on and that the brain may somehow be leaner and meaner and ready to focus on new things.
Abigail: 44:50 But to me, I’m struck by the fact that there is change. And the idea of women are going to lose their memory, it’s a very, as you would imagine, a controversial idea because a lot of the scientists in this field are very smart moms. They don’t want to say that their brains are turning into tumbleweeds and blowing away. But there’s a lot of controversy, but there’s kind of almost a consensus that moms do suffer in terms of their verbal recall skills, so that ability to pull a word up that is rattling around in there somewhere. And the idea, the basic theory is that your ancient brain is strengthening, and you’re becoming more aware of sights and smells and sounds and strangers and all of these things. And then your higher-order capacities are not in use as much, so they may get a little rusty.
Abigail: 45:51 But I still think that moms can do whatever they want, and the brain is… The story of the mom brain is that it is arguably the most important organ of childbirth, but it’s also just like plastic throughout your maternal period, and you are always growing and changing. And the best that you can do is to kind of put yourself in the best environment to grow and change. So that’s like what we were talking about, socially supportive, good relationships. Don’t move, if you can help it, three days before you have a baby to a new state, like these things, because things like communities… Sometimes you can’t help it, and that’s okay. But there are things that you can… practical things that I think you can do to kind of prepare.
Kimberly: 46:36 And if you look at all these cultures… When I was backpacking for years, you could see that in Fiji and the Philippines, just how close-knit the village is that comes together to support that child’s upbringing. And it’s not this isolation that we see so much of today. So it’s no wonder there’s so much post-partum depression and stress.
Abigail: 46:56 Exactly. And people don’t… In other cultures, they don’t feel pressured to do like playing with their kids for hours, because they’re busy and they have work that they’re doing. And some researchers see our compulsion to play a lot as a symptom of modern moms’ isolation, that really we’re doing this and maybe it’s not so much for them. It’s for us, I guess. And of course, this idea of hyper-investment that we talked about, that we’re propelled to kind of double down on every kid that we have and having less kids.
Kimberly: 47:38 Yeah, so you believe, Abigail, that some people, or many moms actually, they want more kids, but they just think, “We just can’t afford it because we have to pay for all these private schools and all the college”?
Abigail: 47:53 Yeah. And I think the support isn’t there for them to do that. I feel like they don’t think that the country has their back so much. But I also think… It’s also the case that moms are having kids later and later, and that may both lead to not having as many kids as you want, but it also leads to this people spend three or four decades having this awesome life, and they want to go back to that life too and cultivate that. So it’s sort of more options than there used to be. Yeah.
Kimberly: 48:29 I hear your little one. So Abigail, after all this research, is another mom book on the horizon? Are you going to [inaudible 00:48:38]?
Abigail: 48:39 I’m vowing to spend the summer just momming it up. We joined a pool. It’s like the post-pandemic splash-out. We’re all going to be cannonballing in. And after that, I’m hoping to just kind of continue in this vein of writing about the mystery of familiar stuff that we live with every day and just kind of learning the hidden stories of what’s ordinary to us.
Kimberly: 49:03 Oh, I love it. I love it, Abigail. You are fascinating, and I am so appreciative of you coming on here and sharing all your wisdom. Again, beauties, Abigail’s book is called Mom Genes: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct, sold wherever books are available.
Abigail: 49:23 Thank you so much, Kim. This was fun.
Kimberly: 49:25 Thank you, Abigail. And before we hop off, where can people learn more about your work, your research?
Abigail: 49:31 Well, I have a website, www.abigailtucker.com. And there’s links to my other book and magazine work and bio and stuff.
Kimberly: 49:40 Amazing. Thank you so much, Abigail.
Abigail: 49:42 Thank you, Kim. Bye.
All right. My loves, I hope you enjoyed our interview today as much as I enjoyed having this conversation with Abigail. Please check out the show notes for more information on Abigail and how to learn more about her work. But again, I highly encourage you to check out her new book, to pick it up. It’s called Mom Jeans: Inside the New Science of Our Ancient Maternal Instinct. So show notes over again in mysolluna.com. Check out our new app in the app store, the Solluna by Kimberly Snyder app, which is free. We will be back here as always Thursday for our next Q&A podcast. So until then, take great care of yourself, your unique, amazing, whole beautiful self. And I will see you back here in just a few days, sending you lots and lots of love.