I was a first-time mother, worried and overwhelmed. Learning the parallels between new parenthood and musical training helped me find myself in this role.
- Chelsea Conaboy is a health and science journalist whose byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Mother Jones, and Politico.
- The following is adapted from "Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood."
A baby cries for a total of about 121 minutes per day in the first months of life, creating that siren song that new parents hear with their whole bodies.
Researchers have found that those cries seem to shape the parental brain in ways that are cumulative, built over time. When mothers listen to infant cries, brain regions important to caregiving are activated more strongly the longer a person has been a mother, or the older her baby, one key study found.
This makes sense, the researchers wrote. The mothers gain experience listening and reacting to their baby's cries, which shapes their neural responses, "as musical training shapes responses to music stimuli."
After my first was born, I wanted to understand my experience better
Soon after my first child was born, in 2015, I started looking to the parental brain science to make sense of my own experience, particularly the overwhelming worry I felt for my son's well-being. The more I read, the deeper the science took me, not only in reconsidering my own early postpartum experience but in reimagining how the connection between parent and child is made — how it develops and how it changes.
That connection often is portrayed as something that happens in a particular sequence, with a particular feel, and almost always with a supreme emphasis on the mother-infant dyad, to the exclusion of all others. It is a closeness or an all-knowingness, an attachment grounded in preserving what is natural or primal. A forgotten magic.
I do not doubt that's how it feels for some mothers. But that idea has never felt to me like it accurately represents the nature of family or of this stage of life, which is full of unexpected turns and hard days or months or years. Which is characterized as much by disconnect — the uncrossable chasm between one person's inner life and another's — as it is by connection. The parental brain, and not just the maternal brain, accounts for all this. Through its inherent flexibility, it expands our capacity to stretch beyond ourselves, to learn how to get a little closer, at least, to the other side.
Musical training and parenting have a lot in common
Playing music requires so many of the things that parenting does: a focus on and interpretation of nonverbal cues, high-level thinking plus intense motor control, synchronization with the minds of other performers — all skills honed over time.
I started wondering about professional musicians who are parents and whether they experience the training ground of new parenthood any differently than the rest of us. Did they see parallels between their musical mind and their developing parenting mind? Between their art and their child?
I posed these questions to Aoife O'Donovan and Eric Jacobsen, who are married with a daughter, Ivy Jo, who was three when we spoke and a big fan of the music from Sergei Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" ballet. Both parents are extremely accomplished in their musical careers, which are quite different from each other.
A cellist and conductor, Jacobsen is the music director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, so his work can involve leading dozens of musicians who have come together from around the world. Synchrony is a particular kind of challenge in orchestral music, he said, with so many people and so many factors at play. "When you feel you're in collaboration when you're truly in sync with someone, you're both leading the same way," he said. "But obviously, it's lead-follow. It's the birds in the sky. How do they stay together?"
O'Donovan is a singer and songwriter and part of the folk trio I'm With Her, with Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins. NPR's Tiny Desk series rightly described the three women as sounding like sisters, as if they've been playing together their whole lives. Onstage, O'Donovan and her bandmates move together. They breathe together. You can see it happen, watch them take off, wing tip to wing tip.
O'Donovan told me about a moment when the trio was at Tanglewood, in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. They were playing and singing an old gospel song, "Don't You Hear Jerusalem Moan," and toward the end of the song, their voices broke into a round, layered over one another. The instruments dropped off, and then the lyrics met again — "and my soul's set free" — and, in a chill-inducing moment, the strings returned. The women walked off the stage, O'Donovan recalled, and Jarosz turned to the others and said, "It was like the whole earth cracked open when we hit that one note."
It's such a powerful moment precisely because of the way the musicians, by design, sound "out of whack" and then come back together, O'Donovan explained. "That's all you're ever trying to do is get to that point," she said. You strive for the ability to get off "the path" of the music and return to it, to know where it is. "Sometimes your paths have diverged, but the goal is to be aware of really where the other person is and to be able to know that you will meet up again."
I think about what O'Donovan said and what I learned from parental brain researchers and I decide that, perhaps in place of a single parenting philosophy, I will adopt a mascot of sorts.
I see myself in Max's mom
I've read Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" to my children countless times. It is a favorite in our house, as it is in so many. In it, Max is a mischief maker who is sent to bed without dinner, then transported "through night and day and in and out of weeks" to an imaginary world in which he becomes king of the wild things.
My boys are drawn to Max's wolf suit, the yellow eyes of the creatures he meets, and the odd human feet on the one who otherwise looks most like a bull. I linger on the last page, empty but for the five words that describe the supper Max's mother left for him after all: "And it was still hot."
Max's mother is out of view. But I can feel her. My Maxes are now 6 and 4, ever in costume or launching themselves off the furniture, moving through the world half inside stories of their own making that almost always involve monsters with terrible gnashing teeth. I have never sent my boys to bed hungry, but I know the feeling of anger rising at the end of a long day and overflowing. I can feel how hers drains away to show the steady tenderness that is always there, for her boy full of vim and vigor and still in his wolf suit upstairs.
I can almost see her test the soup — still hot — cut a slice of cake, and carry a tray to her son's room. She sweeps the hair across his forehead and pulls back his hood so he doesn't get sweaty in his slumber.
This, it seems to me, is the whole point. Know their hungers. Tend to their bodies. Soften to their spirits. The work is in the reaching, not in arriving at the other side of the chasm or in pulling it closed. It's there, in knowing that we can meet in that impossible space between and feel the whole world beneath us fall away.
Adapted from "Mother Brain: How Neuroscience Is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood" by Chelsea Conaboy. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2022 by Chelsea Conaboy. All rights reserved.
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