The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

Your Brain on Parenting: The Burden of a Fearful Imagination

When I was a little kid, the movie The Wizard of Oz utterly captured my imagination. Ruby slippers. Winged monkeys. The Technicolor magic of Munchkinland, after Dorothy’s terrifying black-and-white descent into the Land of Oz. Starting around age 3, I even started asking my parents to call me “Dorothy.”

But fascination and fear were closely linked.

I can still recall some of the nightmares that the film inspired. In one, the Wicked Witch of the West crept toward my bed with a massive butterfly net in one hand; she held a captive Dorothy by one of her braids in the other. It was so vivid as to feel more like a hallucination than a dream. It sent me scrambling down the hall into the safety of my parents’ bed.

 The author as Dorothy (pictured with a blurry Toto) for Halloween, early 1980s.

The author as Dorothy (pictured with a blurry Toto) for Halloween, early 1980s.

In a way, becoming a mother has brought me back to that state of magical – and fearful – thinking. During the most mundane of tasks (taking out the recycling, jogging with my son), horrific scenarios involving my family will flash before my eyes. Although their subject matter is more gritty CSI-inspired realism than the stuff of a children’s fantasy film, the experience is similar: it has the emotional intensity and visceral quality of those childhood nightmares.


I recently found an explanation for this phenomenon in a book called Raised by Animals. Written by Dr. Jennifer Verdolin, an animal-behavior researcher and lecturer at Duke, it looks at how sundry animal species ‘parent’ their offspring, from family planning to disciplining their young.

Verdolin devotes a section of the book to the physical and mental changes that accompany early parenthood. Many of these shifts don’t just impact biological mothers; they affect everyone intimately involved in raising offspring, regardless of gender or genetic relatedness.

Aside from the more commonly discussed short-term memory loss, or the blissful hit of dopamine when nursing a baby, a spike in fear and anxiety also plagues new parents.

Take, for example, the widespread fear of falling with a newborn. Verdolin describes a graduate-school friend who, as a new father, “had a heightened sense of danger—to him, danger lurked everywhere.” In particular, he came to dread climbing the steep staircase in the building where his wife was an art student:

… whenever he used those stairs while carrying his daughter—and he had to, as there was no elevator—his mind would flood with terrible images of her falling out of his arms and plunging down to splat at the bottom.

By anticipating disaster, we exercise caution to reduce the risk that disaster will actually happen. Verdolin reassures readers that “This kind of imagining is normal and a consequence of the structural reorganization of the brain that has evolved to vividly identify and model risk to offspring.”

Specifically, Verdolin attributes her friend’s “vivid and absolutely uncontrollable” imagination to a part of the hypothalamus called the mPOA. This region of the brain provides sensory feedback in combination with pregnancy-related hormones to change the structure and activity of neurons. These neurons in turn interact with other parts of the brain to ensure parents are receptive to their new infants. Part of this receptiveness involves obsessing about the baby’s safety and cleanliness, which are crucial to its survival – and, from an evolutionary perspective – to ours.


Being a parent often feels like it saps, taxes, and at times overrides my imaginative life. Focused on the day-to-day minutia, I’ve been unable to sustain that immersive, deep thinking that has in the past led to creative ideas.

Verdolin’s book reframed the situation. It helped me to realize that, to the contrary, my imagination has been working overtime.

It’s been working, however, in ways that hinder my creative impulses and my ability to take risks. It can be draining to anticipate negative outcomes, from the mundane (of course my kid is going to have 10 bathroom accidents on this plane trip so I must carry all the underwear) to the fantastical (a cinematic, slo-mo image of the city bus I’m riding as it careens into an open construction pit). And when our nature interacts with our environment – I mean, it’s not like there aren’t plenty of real fucking things out there in this world to be fearful and anxious about – it can lead to a heady cocktail of vulnerability and exhaustion.

This Fearful Imagination reminds me of quote from The Golden Compass, which my husband and I have been re-reading aloud to each other before bed. In one chapter, the narrator disrupts the story to comment on his protagonist, twelve-year-old Lyra. He asserts that an important aspect of Lyra’s bravery was her absence of imagination.

The passage struck me because, well, it was an odd sort of thing to say about your protagonist.  But also because I had previously thought of fearfulness and imagination as opposed. Fear seemed small to me, small-minded, in a way that contrasts with the expansiveness and possibility of imagination, the ability to take control of one’s own story and so live courageously.

The inverse, though, makes sense, too. Bravery requires a closing off of one’s mind to possible negative outcomes. Subject to an overactive imagination, it is easy to spin a web of indecision and inaction.


So many parenting books focuses on developmental changes in one’s offspring. These are totally remarkable and worth being astounded by. Just today, I was watching a video of my son from one year ago. He was still using non-verbal gestures and his own rough pidgin (“uppa” for “star”) to communicate. It was hard to recognize the same kid whose tongue barely falters when reciting vocabulary like “high-flying maneuver” and “melee” in his favorite picture book. Who teasingly sings me the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” when I ask him to stop interrupting a dinner-time conversation with my husband.

But Verdolin’s book gets at something important: becoming a parent also involves being rebuilt, rewired. The mental and emotional changes we experience are not just about lack of sleep or an altered lifestyle (though these, too, play a role). They are changes at the most basic levels of existence: biochemical changes, neurological ones.

So, how do you productively harness that heightened, fear-induced imagination, especially if you don’t happen to be a thriller or crime writer?

I have no idea, other than…wait. (Verdolin consoles us that at least some of these effects fade as your children get older.)

Maybe there’s no answer here, just a nudge to extend some sympathy to ourselves. For those of us who became parents by giving birth, there are essays online that encourage us to embrace our postpartum bodies, a corrective to all of the insidious get-back-to-your-pre-baby-bod messaging. Well, sure, but shouldn’t there also be some mental equivalent of coming to terms with the muffin top or the Caesarean scar? A PSA calling on us to accept that the imaginations of new parents are woefully overtaxed?

Reading Verdolin’s book taught me many interesting things about animal behavior and brain chemistry. But it especially reminded me that we must be patient with our adapting brains, feverish with anxiety in the height of our baby fever.

They are, after all, learning a new language.

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