Monday, March 3, 2014

Do Toddlers and Pregnant Women Have Anything in Common?

Our most recent snowfall, although it did not live up to the hype, was reminding me of Snowmageddon. I was newly pregnant with Cadence during that event and had started to notice some odd effects. For example, while out shoveling snow, I yelled at a guy who didn't clean up after his dog after the dog did its business in front of our house. At first I was friendly and offered to run inside for a plastic bag, but when the guy ignored me and kept walking, I quickly became filled with rage and called the guy an asshole. Loudly - as if I had suddenly lost my internal filter. Then I cried.

I came to think of these outbursts as my "pregnancy rage," which I've written about briefly.

When I was pregnant with Laurel, something occurred to me. I was doing a lot of reading about toddlers, seeking to understand how best to support Cadence as she dealt with her own powerful emotions. I came to understand how toddlers are largely ruled by their limbic systems while higher, executive functions of the brain, like impulse control, develop more slowly. I saw how my own, sweet toddler would be smiling one minute and completely melting into a ball of raw emotion the next and I would think, "Man, that's how I feel." I wondered if our brains looked anything alike at those moments.

I must confess, I was employing some 'bad science' tactics as I prepared to write this post. I spent many hours searching through research papers in the hopes of finding a scientific paper that supported my pre-conceived conclusions: MRI study shows that pregnant women and toddlers have identical brain activity! I did not find anything like that. In fact, I did not find any satisfying answers at all.

And I wondered, what I was really out to prove or understand? Any time someone is stressed, - and pregnancy is certainly one of those times - higher functions, again, like impulse control, are going to be compromised. When we go into "fight or flight" mode, that's the limbic system coming on line in a big way, and, yes, we feel an awful lot like toddlers at those moments.

What was helpful for me was recognizing how scary it was for my daughter to experience such intense emotions. In the aftermath of her raging or crying, I held and hugged her to let her know that she was safe and loved. I recognized how disturbing it was for me, as well, to feel like my emotions were similarly out of control at times. And caring for Cadence, I was able to also extend more compassion to myself and my own needs to feel loved and safe after emotional outbursts.

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Photo credit: Jason did a photo shoot with Cadence and I when I was two weeks away from giving birth to Laurel. This was among my favorites. :)

I revisited The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D. when thinking about this post. I love science, especially when it gives me insight to my own experience and behavior.

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