During one of my recent library presentations, a grandma mentioned that she has so much more patience now than she did when she was a mom. We all agreed with her and wondered why that is. Of course we all know that age and experience have a lot to do with helping to put things in perspective. Plus, knowing we’ll be able to go home at the end of the day helps, too. But the librarian had another theory and she ran off to grab a book from the shelves: The Female Brain. “It has a lot to do with our brains,” she explained. “They’re different now than when we were moms.”
I was intrigued and brought the book home. Author Louann Brizendine, M.D. has written an entertaining, non-technical book about the development of women’s brains from birth through the teen years, to courting, pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing, and on to menopause and beyond. Using her experience as a UCSF neuropsychiatrist and the founder of the Women’s and Teen Girls’ Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco, she cites case histories to illustrate the differences between the brains of young women and mature women. Brizendine explains that she wrote the book to help women understand that shifts in brain activity can affect a woman’s perception of reality, her values, and what she pays attention to. “I know it would have helped me to know more about what my brain was doing during many of the craziest times in my life,” she says.
After reading the chapters titled “The Mommy Brain” and “The Mature Female Brain,” I understood what the librarian was talking about. Reading about the mature brain made me smile with recognition: “If we took an MRI scanner of the mature brain,” says Brizendine, “we’d see a landscape quite different from earlier years. A constancy in the flow of impulses through her brain circuits has replaced the surges and plunges of estrogen and progesterone caused by the menstrual cycle. Her brain is now a more certain and steady machine. We do not see the hair-trigger circuits in the amygdala that rapidly altered her reality right before her period, sometimes pushing her to see bleakness that wasn’t there or to hear an insult that wasn’t intended.”
As grandmas, we have to remember back to those years when our brains were “overamped” at certain times of the month, like our daughters’ and daughters-in-law are now, and have more compassion for young moms. According to Brizendine, our mature brains are less likely to be confused or agitated by impulses and helping others and being engaged in the world can energize us. “The special, supportive role that grandmothers play may be one of the reasons that evolution engineered women to live for decades after they can no longer bear children.” According to anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, in the Stone Age post-menopausal women increased the survival rate of young grandchildren by gathering food while the younger women produced more children.
Today’s grandmas may not have to go out and hunt for food for our grandchildren but if we can just show empathy for their tired and sometimes moody mothers, we’ll no doubt contribute to the next generation’s future well-being.