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Ep. 59- Mom Genes: Interview with Abigail Tucker, New York Times Best Selling Author

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This is Maureen Farrell and Heather O’Neal. And this is The Milk Minute. We’re midwives and lactation professionals bringing you the most up-to-date evidence for all things lactation. So you can feel more confident about feeding your baby, body positivity, relationships, and mental health. Plus, we laugh a little or a lot along the way.

So join us for another episode.

Heather O’Neal: Welcome back to The Milk Minute Podcast everybody. We have a very special guest today named Abigail Tucker. She is a New York Times bestselling author and her latest book is Mom Genes. And she, with Mom Genes explores the ancient maternal instincts inside of all of us. And it’s fascinating.

She does a deep dive into research, both animal and human, and she peppers in along the way, some personal stories, which I always love.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah. It’s a really easy read. It’s not super, super technical heavy or anything like that. You guys will love it.

Heather O’Neal: She is so funny. This one part, I’m just going to read this a little bit to you.

She says, “I’m enjoying the Momcation. It’s been ages since I’ve cleared an airport without decanting bottles of breast milk for security line explosives tests or disassembling my stroller, like a Marine during rifle inspection.” Who hasn’t been there as a breastfeeding mom? Are you serious? So she’s hilarious.

She’s brilliant. She went to Harvard, she was a journalist turned novelist. So not to mention she has four children of her own and she had the last one while writing this book. So amazing. Amazing. Big pats on the back for her. And we really hope you all enjoy this episode as much as we did recording it with Ms. Abigail Tucker.

Maureen Farrell: Before we hop in to talking to Abigail, we’re going to answer a listener question and then stick around at the end for an award in the alcove.

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Maureen Farrell: Today, our listener question is from Lindsay P and she asks, do you know of a baby sling or wrap that I can breastfeed in? I would really, it would be really convenient to have both hands.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah, Maureen is feeding her baby in a ring sling. So the ring sling, I witnessed myself works.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah, the ring sling is nice for little babies, but really feeding any newborn in a carrier is not going to be hands-free. Usually you use at least one hand, but your mobile. Typically when we see babies have a little bit more head and neck control, then you can kind of finagle some hands free nursing, depending on what you’re wearing. But I have nursed in slings, wraps, buckle carriers. I mean, literally anything where my baby could be on the front of my body.

So I can’t really say one that’s going to be the best for you. It kind of comes down to, what are you comfortable in? What do you know how to use well? You know, like with the buckle carriers, often you have to like reach back and loosen a strap and kind of wiggle baby around. But we did an episode on this didn’t we?

Heather O’Neal: Yep. We sure did. It’s episode 40 Breastfeeding and Baby Wearing. And that episode dives a little bit deeper into not just the how, but the why and benefits. So that’s a great one to go back and check out. So we’ll put a link to that one in the show notes for you.

We have Ms. Abigail Tucker, thank you so much for being here and talking about your brand new book, Mom Genes which came out in April and I couldn’t put it down. So thank you so much, first of all, for writing this book and then also for coming on the show.

Abigail Tucker: Thank you for having me guys. This is a real thrill.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah, we’re super excited to talk to you about this book. We both love it. And we’ve been talking about it all morning nonstop. That’s great.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. I need to tell you though my experience reading this book, you kind of took me through a little bit of a journey and there were some surprises that I did not expect along the way. Like first of all, do you consider yourself a comedian?

Abigail Tucker: I feel like I definitely like to pepper in a little bit of humor to deal with some of these like stark, existential realities that we’re confronting. So I like the tension between both of the things, you know, and thank you for thinking it was funny. I thought it was funny at times. And then I would read and say, wait a minute, am I making light of something I shouldn’t be making light of?

Maureen Farrell:  No, I think it was good. Like you hit the, hit the line of funny/ dreadful things in the same sentence. That makes sense. Yeah.

Heather O’Neal: Brilliant, brilliant writing. And such is motherhood. And then you also walk this really delicate balance of pushing every single hot button, almost like a Stephen Colbert vibe where you, you literally go for every single group that could possibly be offended, but you do it in the most beautiful, professional, scientific way that like nobody could possibly be mad.

And it’s stuff that we all need to hear about like politics, maternity leave, race, gender, LGBTQ, like every single thing. Moms versus non moms. Like, oh my gosh. If there was ever a topic that I stayed away from, it was that one. So I’m so impressed that you really went for it and it was awesome and refreshing. So thank you for that.

Abigail Tucker: Thank you for, for saying so.

Heather O’Neal: So, how did you navigate those touchy subjects? You know, as you’re writing, like before you started even, were you like, should I go there? Do I not go there? Ah, you know, it all needs to be said. So like, were you nervous to write about these things, knowing that some people might feel like personally attacked while reading it, despite the fact that it’s like objective science that’s speaking?

Abigail Tucker: Yeah. I mean, I definitely wanted to be sure in, in writing the book to talk about how, you know, all people, mothers and non-mothers and dads, too have this kind of maternal potential inside of them. This seed, this latent identity that with the right kinds of exposures can grow. At the same time, I do think that there is something, especially through those of us who’ve gone through it that’s both jarring and extremely important about the experience of motherhood.

And I wanted to explore the biology of the sort of most common route that, I think it’s something like 90% of women at some point, become moms. And to navigate some of the things that I wish that I had been told about what was happening to my brain during this time. I basically had become so distracted by the kookiness of what had happened to my body and to my social life and to every other aspect of my world that I kind of had not looked into sort of this idea of what was going on in my brain and this idea that the brain is actually, arguably the most important organ of childbirth. And so I guess I, I was, I wanted to be respectful of people, but I also wanted to pursue certain truths that scientists were looking at in the lab.

And to always say, always offer context, never say that we have gotten to the bottom of everything, but to bring up questions and ideas that I hope that new moms will be able to think about. And old moms and non-moms and dads.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah, I think that’s really important. I mean, I think most first-time parents are caught off guard by that mom brain, you know, first three to six months where you’re like, wow, I’m basically a non-functional human now. I, you know, I can’t think straight, you know, Heather sent me these questions. I swear, I read them three times. Can’t remember any of them, you know, and, and this is my second time around. It still surprises me.

Heather O’Neal: It’s really hard not to see yourself in the book. You know, I have to say that I’ve done my fair amount of, of work on myself. I have a therapist who I’ve known for quite a while now. And she tells me that my superpower is being very self-aware. Which you know, can be good, but also can be kind of annoying sometimes. But, you know, even though I’m very aware of my downfalls and you know, the positives about me, when I was reading certain chapters of the book, I was definitely wincing at some points where I was like, Ooh, that’s me.

Oh, gosh, that’s really me too. As you were writing this, I mean, you had your fourth baby during this whole process. And did you find yourself wincing while you were going through these mountains of research and, and writing?

Abigail Tucker:  I mean, I, what I thought was so interesting and writing the book as a third, going on fourth time, mom was how much plasticity there still is in every mom as they’re going through life. You don’t just like pop on the mom button or go into mom mode. You’re still kind of constantly in flux. And one of my favorite things that I got to do in the book was to kind of identify and probe these hidden forces that make us the moms that we are.

And I guess that’s another thing that I thought was really important in going there with some of these topics, is that I feel like moms for whatever reason, often don’t get along with each other. And we think, well, I’m this kind of mom and you’re that kind of mom, or, you know, I read this parenting book and you follow that one. And I just feel like, if you look under the layers of research, we’re all kind of the same inside.

We have this motive that is common across not just human moms, but animal, mammalian moms too. And you know, I think that that kind of gives you a certain kind of like freedom to look at yourself and, and to say like this given thing that I did or said, or this paper that I read this, isn’t some kind of you know, indictment of me as a mom. This is just kind of like a, a factor to consider.

And so I kind of felt freer as I went along to share stories about myself and my parenting downfalls and the stuff that I learned, because I think it does help to show that somebody can be an intelligent person who can read like 10,000 scientific papers and then still be the hugest idiot in so many situations when it comes to being a mom and to be honest about the fact that we are all products of our environments in a way that I never, I never had had guessed.

I guess I just sort of thought like, I have a maternal nature. But that nature is always changing. And by examining yourself and how you changed over four pregnancies is a really profound way to kind of get at that. I think.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah, well, let’s, let’s roll with that theme of change there. Let’s talk about some of the craziest changes that happen as our body reconstructs, while pregnant and how, you know, fetal cells influence that. You know, I remember in your book, you mentioned that we lose 7% of the gray matter in our brains. What the hell? Yeah. Can you tell us about some of the other startling things that you learned?

Abigail Tucker: Yeah, we should talk about both of those things. The tools that scientists have are getting better and better. And I should say, you know, before anybody gets too depressed about mommy brain and losing our brains volume, like so many of these studies are done by young mothers and pregnant women who are, you know, at the very forefront of this science.

And so obviously nobody’s actually like losing their intellectual capacities here. But these brain scans that they’re getting better and better at, where they take women before and after pregnancy and map how the volume in their brain, the gray matter volume in their brain, changes. They see a shrinkage in areas related to like social processing and responding to social cues and also the hippocampus, which is related to memory.

And there’s an idea that this shrinkage could actually be like an enhancing kind of thing in neuroscience. There’s this idea that you can like prune your brain kind of, and make it meaner and meaner. And so there’s an idea that this is actually a weird kind of growth, even though your brain is getting smaller.

It may actually be getting better at reading your baby’s cues. However, it may also be getting worse at things like verbal recall, which is that’s sort of the area of mommy brain, that scientists kind of, I don’t want to say agree on. There’s still a lot of controversy, but new moms do have trouble retrieving words, and those troubles seem to deepen across pregnancy.

So like third time, fourth time moms may have more trouble than first-timers and first-timers may have more trouble than people who haven’t had, babies yet. You know, of course there’s a lot of individual variability. The other interesting thing about this brain shrinking studies is that not all moms brains shrink the same amount.

And the ones who showed the greatest degree of change in one measure that this lab used reported closer relationships with their babies. So that’s the kind of thing where it’s like, oh my God who said that? You know, that’s, that’s, that’s scary. That sounds judgmental. I mean, I think it’s really interesting. I don’t think we understand why certain women’s brains change more than others.

These are small studies. They’re really hard to do because it’s hard to find women who say I’m going to have a baby and then follow them successfully for like three years, which is what these people did. But I think it’s certainly worth our while to, to think about. The other thing that Maureen mentioned was these fetal micro chimerism studies, and this is the perfect example of how I think women’s health kind of gets ignored sometimes.

There’s just a couple of labs around the world that study these cells of the fetus that cross over the placenta into the mother’s body during pregnancy. And some of them get kind of flushed out during birth, but some of them stay in your body for your whole life. And scientists don’t know what they do, exactly.

They become part of your tissue, eventually. They can integrate with like your, your thyroid or your breast or your heart. And they’ve even been found, I think after autopsy in, in the brains of mothers, these fetal cells that just sort of grow into your body. And there’s, I visited a fascinating lab that was trying to figure out like, what exactly are these cells in our bodies that stay there forever do to us?

And there are some really interesting theories, but of course this is the kind of thing that we can’t really study if we don’t acknowledge that it exists.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah. I was really fascinated when you were mentioning how fetal cells help to heal the heart after cardiomyopathy and all kinds of stuff. And, and, you know, as midwives were like, wow, that’s really interesting. Of course nobody’s studied it. It was the story of everything we find interesting.

Abigail Tucker: Exactly. Right. There’s this lab at Mount Sinai where the woman, the main researcher there is a practicing cardiologist and in her rounds she became really interested in this idea of peri heart failure and why these moms have such a high rate of recovery when adult heart failure is usually really, really bad.

 And there’s different theories, but she’s into this idea of micro chimerism and she has done things in her lab, like given artificial heart attacks to mice, and seeing how their bodies respond. And she’s noted that these fetal cells seem to flock to the heart as though they’re like sensing the inflammation of it somehow.

And that’s when they’re becoming heart cells and, and basically becoming regenerative tissue. And they’re looking into like, can we take these cells and inject them into male mice and have, you know, promising effects? And they, they have published that they have had some good effects. There’s a, that was maybe two years ago that their paper on that came out.

But it’s something they’re still looking into and it’s not all good stuff. Like there’s other labs that study, you know, do these cells, you know, have you know, associations with certain forms of cancer or are they always protective? We don’t know. There’s not a lot of labs studying this, but I just think it’s so interesting that you carry your children’s cells in your body forever until you die. Until your baby is like, you know, 60 years old and you’re 90 years old, like they’re inside of you and they are becoming literally a part of your body.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah, I do believe that, you know, almost on a like a superhuman power level, I feel my children sometimes, you know? That mommy spidey sense where you’re in one room and your kid’s in another room and you know something’s about to happen. And you walk in just in time to grab them before they escape the house?

Maureen Farrell: Or before they take a nose, dive off the top of the fridge? Yeah. This is so fascinating because Western medicine as a whole focuses on pathologies of pregnancy, right? What, what really hurts us about pregnancy and pathology? So the placenta and how we can get sick, but you know, a lot of the research you mentioned at least hints at the fact that pregnancy can be healing or protective.

And you know, it’s not just one thing. And it’s, it’s something that then I’m like, okay, where’s the sequel? Now I want to hear part two of all the research.

Heather O’Neal:  You know, sorry, I’ll interrupt you. But we’ve actually found research that breastfeeding is healing. So pregnancy wrecks your body in so many ways, and it makes sense that breastfeeding could be used in a protective way against type two diabetes and all kinds of other things. So I would not be surprised at all to find the fetal cells circulating in your body served a restorative purpose.

Abigail Tucker: Yeah, the breastfeeding stuff. I mean, that was one of the things that, again, as somebody who was kind of like offered the, the option or whatever, breastfeeding, when I had my first kid. You know, and they say, oh, you know, it’s really good for the baby.

And it can confer immunity and stuff. Nobody really talks that much about the health benefits for the mother, which are physical. But in the rats studies that different labs have done, you know, there’s also like, when you breastfeed your brain grows. There’s a, like in rats, if you, the part of the rat’s brain that is associated with like the chest, the pectoral area, it actually increases in size and there’s changes.

And there’s other studies that, you know, again, like they’re controversial in a way, but they show impacts of breastfeeding that sort of change your sensitivity to your child, not just like an infancy, but like leading up until like fourth and fifth grade, that people who breastfeed have enhanced sensitivity in certain ways.

And I thought that was kind of interesting, you know, these are just a couple of studies and I don’t think that they’re the Bible and I don’t think that anybody should like live or die by them, but I certainly think that women should know that they exist.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah. And, and we had a fun episode around the new year where we just like reviewed new papers that were published in 2020. And we read a great one that was I was saying that lactation was healing to the insulin sensitivity issues that we develop in pregnancy, which was really fun. Like, I mean, it’s just so cool to read, you know, a small study, it needs follow up, whatever, but you know, that that first kernel of information is there. And it’s another thing we can add in when we do talk to parents about why lactation is good for them too, and not just their baby.

Abigail Tucker: Yeah, no, it’s fascinating. I loved the learning about lactation in animals. That was one of my favorite things like that these like species of bats that have so much milk that they like can’t fly and they have to find a baby bat so they’ll even borrow someone else’s to like, basically pump and dump so then they can fly away.

And also the cost of it, like in sea otters, there’s this thing called end-lactation syndrome. And it’s this kind of mystery where the sea otters in the Pacific are known to sort of like die at a certain point of their, of their reproductive cycle when they have larger pups that are nursing.

And it’s because they’re these little animals in the frigid Pacific, and they’ve got these big babies that are dependent on them for food. They have to eat a quarter of their body weight every day in food. They need to work so hard. And because of this energetic drain, they become more vulnerable to infection.

They become more you know, exposed to predators and that’s because it’s a lot of work to make milk for your baby. And so I, I love learning about that stuff because it just shows that, you know, moms are, are expending so much of themselves during this critical period of transformation into motherhood, physically and mentally.

And we really need to sort of protect them and guide them as well as we can and give them all the tools that they need to succeed. Because it’s a serious business, especially if your neighbor is a great white shark or something like for the poor little sea otters.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. One of the undercurrents of your book is how we treat mothers, you know, in our cultures and on a governmental level. And I appreciated that so much because you know, like you said, we really don’t talk about the benefits of breastfeeding or even having children really for women. And we also don’t think of lactation as work. I mean, you have to turn blood into milk for another human. That’s actual work. And all the studies that you put especially towards the end of the book were just fascinating to me comparing the United States to other countries.

And I mean, that alone right there, poor America. I mean, we just really need to get it together. I think that was it the Finnish people that got like 91 weeks off for maternity leave?

Abigail Tucker:  And they get a really cool box full of baby stuff. Like a cute little tasteful felt mittens and things like that. You know, every mom gets all of them.

Maureen Farrell: Do they have free childcare too? Maybe, maybe a child stipend every month? Like these are really great things.

Abigail Tucker: And that’s actually, that’s one, interesting about breastfeeding is that I feel like there so many, it’s hard to quantify the effects of something like 12 weeks of paid maternity leave on maternal wellbeing. Like, because it’s so subtle. And because something like sensitivity to an infant is so subjective and there are so many facets to the relationship.

 But there is work that shows that, you know, paid maternity leave does correlate with breastfeeding success. And that makes sense because we’re talking about all the work that it takes and the dedication and the time and the space.

And then there’s also, you know, work that shows that if you’re forced to, you know, go back to the workplace, you know, after like only a couple of weeks, then there can be like a jump in postpartum depression and stuff like that, which also makes sense. So I, I do think that, you know, it’s important not to say if you breastfeed, you’re going to be a great mom.

And if you don’t, you’re going to be a rotten mom. I think that’s crazy. And nobody would ever say that. Human moms are so flexible. They can get the job done in so many different ways. But I also think it’s important to at the same time acknowledge the science behind giving certain people, certain opportunities to, you know, be the mom that they want to be and to sort of explore the avenues they want to explore. It’s really important. Then there’s benefits for the baby, but also for the mom’s body and brain.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. You know, what’s coming to mind is the study of the, was it the voles? Where they, you know, they made for life and then they, you know, encourage this couple to get together, which I love a little vole of story.

And then they had their pups and then they removed the dad and they were surprised that the mom went on and just did her thing and raised the babies. But then there right underneath of her fire, I think you said something like, “right underneath her fire to keep her babies alive was this fragility where she kind of lost her will to live outside of caring for her children.”

And I think there are so many single moms in the United States, especially right now who can completely relate to that vole.

Abigail Tucker: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that experiment really struck me and what was so interesting about that is that in the animal world paternal care is so rare in mammals. It’s only like 5% of mammals where the dad has anything to do with the offspring.

And so voles are this really cool model because it is this pair bond that you don’t get in lab rats or mice, or even really monkey, other animal models, it’s this very rare thing. And so they were able to see what happened to the mom when the dad was abruptly plucked from the cage. And of course the poor vole mom didn’t know where he’d gone.

And they were able, the scientists were able to kind of see that she stayed as a very competent and dedicated mother, but then they kind of, they were able to look at her brain after death and see that part of her brain had kind of changed in ways that were unusual for, for a mother vole. And that’s not to say that anybody who’s listening, who’s a single mom is going to have some kind of like brain mutation or something like that.

But it is to say that moms are, you know, we are, we respond to our environments. And if there is somebody who’s gone through the loss of a partner, whether through, you know, a deliberate choice or through death, or didn’t have a partner to begin with, that that’s somebody who, you know, we should be solicitous towards.

And that our gestures towards her as fellow human beings can actually matter to her kind of physical wellbeing. So I thought that that was super interesting. And again, yeah, there just, haven’t been that many studies on single moms and using animal models because it’s a hard thing to model, but that’s just the case.

There’s just so much unexplored territory. Like scientists are trying to trace what exactly is the relationship between having babies, biological motherhood, and Alzheimer’s disease. And this is something that they’re really trying to tease apart. There’s a lot of conflicting evidence, but scientists think that there is some kind of relationship there.

And same thing with like, you know, because Alzheimer’s disease is more common in women. They think it has something to do with motherhood and they’re trying to figure out, well, if you have three babies and two miscarriages, does that change your relationship with this disease? Same thing for mood disorders. Women suffer them at much higher rates and scientists want to know, you know, is there something about this exposure to all these neurochemicals that changes our mind in these ways forever?

So it’s just like this whole world. And I think Maureen’s right. Really. There should be, I should have written a 10 part book, but since I have four kids, I could only write one part.

Maureen Farrell: We appreciate the part that you wrote.

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Heather O’Neal: Well, you know, I think, and I feel this very much. And I think a lot of our group members in our Facebook support group feel almost like this sense of shame if we feel like we haven’t met this standard of bonding that we feel should be there. Or if, you know, like, for example, if you don’t baby wear, is that going to get in the way of your bonding?

You know, we’re always comparing ourselves to each other and that’s good and bad. It’s good because we can ask each other for advice, but then kind of bad because we’re like, oh, are we not doing it right? Are we not achieving our maximum bonding? So what, and there were several things in the book that you wrote talking about things that do get in the way of bonding.

So what are some of those things that we might be on the lookout for as humans that really might interrupt our bonding and like, what can we do to mitigate that?

Abigail Tucker: So I feel like for people who have the sort of presence of mind and the education and the time to think about like, okay, I read this study about like, you know, kangaroo care and, and wearing the baby. And, but I can’t do that all the time. Cause I have to go to the gym or whatever. Like I feel like that all it’s, it’s fine. People are going to be fine.

You know, it sort of, to me, the kind of people who are going to be most influenced by these things are like the very, the people who need our help and care the most would be like a really young, really poor single mom who didn’t have access. Who never thought about baby wearing, who didn’t have any access to any of these resources. Who had to have an emergency C-section. Who didn’t have her mother with her, who didn’t have a partner with her, who had all these risk factors, who had been exposed to grinding poverty since childhood.

That’s somebody I feel like who should really benefit from this research. That’s somebody who, you know, a lactation consultant should really be able to go and meet in the middle and say, you know, even though you’re somebody who’s probably at a risk for not, you know, being able to initiate breastfeeding for a variety of reasons. Here’s why it’s important that you do, and we can help you. And this is something that can like really tip the scales in your favor.

I think for like many, many middle-class or privileged women who have like all the choices and opportunities, that can be its own punishment. You know, it’s like, oh, should I, should ,I do this? Should I, you know, should I buy the clear Magna-Tiles or the colored ones? Should I, you know, should I have plastic toys or only wooden ones? And I’ve had all of those dilemmas and I feel like they’re almost like more trouble than they’re worth.

But I think what the research does seem to, what stares me in the face when I look at it is that like, it’s the women who aren’t even able to ask themselves these questions who can benefit the most from the research. And who should be like identified in the, and I make an argument in the book about how the hospital is actually this really, or the, you know, the birth center is like a really key place where we can connect with women who don’t even have the opportunity to formulate and ask these questions.

Cause I think for those, the thing that you learn about maternal behavior is that the behavior itself is kind of irrelevant. Like there’s no one way or one right path. If you look at maternal behavior across the globe, which I love to do. So interesting, like the culture of like, you know, some cultures have cradle boards and some cultures have these things where in Papa New Guinea, you like have basically like a bag that you suspend from your forehead and your baby’s hanging down your back for the first two years of life.

And you know, all these different ways, the ways are all fine. The thing that is the key and the important things is that maternal motivation. That drive. That core probably behavior. And that’s the thing that has to be kind of like kindled and cultivated and that we can help with. And I believe that breastfeeding is a part of that, but if you’re somebody who can’t breastfeed or doesn’t want to, just for whatever reason, you know, you, you have so many other tools at your disposal and you’re going to be fine. But I think it’s that person who hasn’t even contemplated these things who is an at-risk person, who’s had a lot of hardship in their life who could be most helped by something like breastfeeding.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. That almost makes me think we need a, a screening tool prenatally to just let people know. Because honestly, my first pregnancy, I was probably very much at risk for many issues. Bonding issues, breastfeeding issues, postpartum depression. I mean, I kind of got hit with a bunch of things and it was a giant surprise to me when it was happening. And I would’ve really appreciated somebody being like, Hey, just so you know.

Abigail Tucker: Exactly, exactly. And I feel like there, you know, I did see this one study that you know, women of color and especially black women in the hospital for whatever reason are less like cheer-lead to breastfeed for different, like cultural reasons and different, you know, basically racist reasons. And I thought that was, that was fascinating too. Because I feel like sometimes the people who are like beating themselves up the most about these decisions are kind of the people who have all the options to weigh, but then some people, the people who could benefit the most aren’t even necessarily given the opportunity to weigh the evidence or ask the questions.

So I do think that as some, a prenatal tool to identify at-risk mothers and to advise them about not just the benefits to their baby of breastfeeding, but the benefits to themselves is just like, would be such a gift, but that’s okay. Yeah.

Maureen Farrell: Maybe, maybe somebody made that and they’ll send us an email after this episode.

Heather O’Neal: If you have the tool, tell us.

Maureen Farrell:  Yes.

Heather O’Neal: Well, you know, I think a lot of these people, much like me with my first pregnancy and delivery, they go home and it slowly starts to unravel. And by the time, I mean, I read your book. I know you’ve been there.

Maureen Farrell: It’s okay. I’m just like starting to see the light on the other side of the unravel.

Heather O’Neal: I mean, I’m talking like beyond, unmet expectations. Like truly unraveling as a human being. Then, you know, I’m in a unique position where people call me at their peak unraveling and it’s a big responsibility and you want to make sure that you’re respectful of it and that you can give them actual tools.

And I have to say I was so thankful that I actually had the tool that is your book to help a couple of private lactation consults that I did. Because they called me and they were just bawling their eyes out, telling me things like I’m crazy. I know I’m crazy.

Maureen Farrell: And really, and that’s like half the consults we do. There’s not a breastfeeding problem, but they call us because of this mental state they’re in. Not, not some physical problem that’s happening.

Heather O’Neal: And I was, I was able to say, well, let me explain to you some studies that were done, and this is probably what’s going on with your brain. And it’s like a light bulb went off for them. And they were like, first of all, I’m not crazy. This is normal. And you know, first time moms, you don’t know. Those are the ones that give me the most joy to help because, after reading your book to be able to say, you are literally being neurologically reconstructed, can we maybe work in some grace for yourself?

Abigail Tucker: Oh yes, that’s exactly right. And you know, to go back to my, you know, favorite slash unfavorite idea of dealing with, you know, touchy issues. I do think, well I do believe, I know since I’m married to somebody, who’s a great male parent, a great dad, you know, I know that dads can be as good as moms and better than moms in certain ways, but I don’t think they’re exactly the same.

And I think that this great gust of mental health issues we see in new mothers is just a good example of how actually there are particular challenges. They’re not better. They’re not worse. They’re just different things that biological moms go through this, this torrent of mental health issues that we see, like one in five women getting postpartum depression.

This is a, this is related to this poorly understood brain change that’s happening. And we need to study it because people’s lives are actually at stake and the maternal transformation. It’s not just like a cute discussion about, you know, oh, I’m so forgetful now. Or, gosh, I love my baby so much. All that stuff I also like to talk about, but at its core, this is this can be a life or death matter for people because these mental health issues are so common and people feel like, oh, why wasn’t I switched into mommy mode?

And you know, one of the things like I said that I liked to do was to look back and pinpoint in my own life some of the things that I think, you know, I have had four children. I had postpartum depression once, and I felt like I was able to use the tools of science and kind of look back and see, these are some of the things that were going on in my life that caused me to feel this way.

And some of them were out of my control. Some of them were in my control and for my fourth pregnancy, I’m going to do what I can to kind of take the bull by the horns and, you know, make my life the best it can be as I go through this transformation one last time, which I shouldn’t have said last time. Cause I’m jinxing myself, but probably the last time.

Heather O’Neal: We’ll see you in a year.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah, no, I, I really, really can relate to that. You know, my postpartum experience with my first child was wildly different and most of it was just because my expectations weren’t set up in the right place, you know, and I’m like, oh wow now I see the things in my life that trigger postpartum depression. And now I see also where my expectations were that made then where reality was just much more difficult to handle. Even though this time, you know, I’m sleeping the same amount of crappy two to three hours a night, you know, I’m still breastfeeding like every half an hour, all the time, but just because I know that, okay, that’s normal, this is what I need to expect I need to, you know, make sure that I’m paying attention to this, this and this. And I’ve changed these things that I can, it’s so much better.

Abigail Tucker: Exactly. And your brain has, I mean, one scientist said to me, you know, motherhood is basically a one-way trip and you’re, once you become a mom, your ticket has been punched and becoming a second time or fifth time is not the same as becoming a first time mom.

Your brain is there, it just needs a little like, you know, axle grease or something to get going again. And there’s comfort in that. Like this, I was fascinated. They call it the study of parity. Like how many kids you’ve had and the implications for like, does this modulate how you hear baby’s cries or see baby’s faces.

And it does to a degree. And I love these experiments in rats where they pit the, they call them the virgins, the non-mothers, versus the first time mothers versus the multi-time mothers. And the multi-time mothers are really good at lots of things. Like they’re awesome at finding fruit loops in a maze and at killing crickets.

And they have, you know, you could say that they’re sort of emboldened in certain ways that go with being a new mom and a lactating mom. This idea of lactational aggression that I didn’t know if you guys, I didn’t know if you’ve experienced many lactationally aggressive folks in your long careers, but I loved learning about that adaptive, we can’t say reasons, but the adaptive forces behind that.

Like why are lactating creatures naturally aggressive and why are they emboldened to find fruit loops in a maze? And why does this, and the fact that more so in their third litter versus their first means, again, that there’s this cumulative, permanent change that’s happened to them.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. They’re like, I’ve been here before. And they’re like listen bitches, don’t touch my pups. I’ve been here before. I think that, you know, it makes me feel good to know that. And you know, if I were to have, sometimes I think I could have a third one because, my God, I’d be so good at it. You know, but then like, do I need to prove that to myself? But this is an important message for the people that are struggling, like truly struggling with their first baby.

And they’re like, I don’t think I’m a good mom and I don’t want to do it again because what happens if the next baby I get is even worse? And I’m, I think the majority of those people are really sensitized. Like you talk about this in your book a lot about this sensitization towards your baby. Speaking of babies, Maureen’s baby is making an appearance here in the podcast recording. Hi, her name’s Lyra. Hi, Lyra.

So this sensitization I think is great, obviously unnecessary, but oh my God, how annoying? Like it keeps you up at night. So how can we, you know, appreciate this sensitization process that’s happening in our bodies?

Abigail Tucker: So sensitization is this kind of emergence of an awareness to baby cues and this eagerness to respond. And it’s really kind of the essence of what the maternal instinct is. And there are a lot of downsides. Like mom’s hear baby cries slightly differently than, than non-moms do. And they see baby faces slightly differently and we’re sort of in a weird way, attracted to cries of pain and sadness.

We want to, we’re motivated to, to not to run away from the baby, but to persist. There’s these great experiments in again, in our favorite sisters, the lab rats. Where they’ll show like before a rat, they’re not like we are maternal. Like a woman, a human woman who hasn’t had a baby is not usually gonna hate babies.

And they like them a lot and they want to hang out with them. Rat mom’s not, I mean, rat virgins are not like that. They do not want anything to do with rat pups. They will run away from them. Sometimes they’ll attack them. But just a couple of hours before they give birth for the first time they go through this, like basically a 180 and they start to prefer pups to what was previously their favorite thing.

And many of us can relate and that’s food. So they’ll start, they’ll start to press a pup lever instead of a food lever. And they’ll even start choosing pups over cocaine, which is kind of fascinating. Yeah. And they’ll do bad things too. Like they’ll, they’ll risk crossing an electric grid to get to pups.

And then one experiment, this rat mom, pushed the pup lever, like 650 times over four hours. Each time she pushed it, she got a new puppy.

Heather O’Neal: That was after the cocaine.

Abigail Tucker:  Right? She was strung out. No, she hadn’t had any. She got the choice of pup or food and she just chose pup time and time again. And basically like this kept going on for four hours until the scientist’s just kind of up and quit the experiment.

Cause he was like I’ve had enough of you and your pups. And it’s interesting too, because this one rat pushed the lever more than some other rats, which shows this idea that there is variation among mothers. And we don’t know why that is. Scientists in the lab have tried to see what is driving the sensitization.

And so I went to this interesting lab at New York University where they were able to infuse the brains of virgin rats with oxytocin, which as you guys well know is this swift birth hormone, which is associated with contractions and also with breastfeeding and bonding, but also has you know, lots of interesting effects in the brain.

And so by exposing the virgin brains to oxytocin and then letting them listen to the cries of rat pups, they were able to watch over three hours, the virgin brain getting more sensitive over time. So we know that some of the neurochemicals of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation are involved in facilitating the sensitization.

And that’s not to say that oxytocin is like the only smoking gun here. There’s lots of other chemicals involved and stress hormones and stuff like that. But, you can actually see this transpire in the lab, which I thought was really, really interesting. It was like somebody, this virgin undergoing this transformation over three hours without actually becoming a mom physically.

And there’s other ways you can do it too. So far, we’ve been talking about how other people who are not biological moms have the seed inside of them, and you can also make a mom, you can make a mother behaviorally by injecting her, a rat mother, a virgin rat with a cocktail of hormones. But you can also do it by taking a virgin rat mom and basically, I don’t want to say trapping her, but putting her and environment with pups for about a week, so she can’t run away from them. And if you do that, over that week, the virgin starts to change. Her brain actually starts to change. She starts to become more maternal in her behaviors. And instead of fleeing away from the pups, she’ll do stuff like when they cry, she’ll fluff up a nest or come and pick them up and put them back in the nest, these core maternal behaviors.

And she’s become sensitized to it’s a different process though. And that might be with the same results. And that might be a little bit like what adoptive moms experience or maybe even biological dads. So there’s more than one route to get to this goal of parental or maternal motivation and which is sensitization.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah, that, that makes sense to me. I, so I raise sheep, so I was really excited to hear about them in your book and you know, when I have a first time mother, it’s usually the first timers who have some bonding trouble. I basically just shut them up in a tiny box with their babies for 24 hours. So small that they can’t turn around to butt them away from the utter and then, voila in the morning, they’re like perfect moms.

Abigail Tucker: That’s a great, yeah. I, one of the things I did for the story was volunteer a watcher at this sheep farm near my house, which is so much fun, except a little scary, because I didn’t realize that the breed of sheep at this farm was a kind that had like four and five babies instead of two.

And I was like, that’s a whole lot. And I really hope that the farm manager has a fast car and can get here quickly. But they talked about, you know, the things that you sometimes have to do to get a mom, to take a baby. And one of those things is vaginocervical stimulation. Like you actually need to sort of like stimulate the cervix and kind of like get those hormones flowing.

And I thought that was fascinating. The other thing I thought was fascinating was that how some livestock scientists and even farmers try to breed for good mothering characteristics. And I had no idea about that. And the genetic component of maternal sensitivity was also fascinating to me, but it’s also really poorly understood and then a relief in a way that you can’t really get tested to see if you have a good mom gene or a bad mom gene, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The environment is hugely important, but it’s still interesting that there are certain breeds of sheep, which are better moms than others.

Maureen Farrell: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, when I started out with sheep, my friend who sold them to me was like, okay, you know, if they do a crappy job the first time, you know, you see how they do the second time. And if they don’t, you know, you should call them from the herd. And I was like, okay, well, I guess that makes sense because I don’t want to be bottle feeding lambs every single year.

Abigail Tucker: No. And I just thought that was so amazing and like, diving into the literature, there’s these papers that are like, can we breed a super sow? And that’s like a supermom sow that’s you know, extra receptive to her babies, which means in theory that she’s less likely to crush them when she sleeps.

And, but of course it’s not as easy as it seems, because one of the things that goes with being a quote unquote, good mom in the animal world is this idea of lactational aggression and sometimes the best, most protective most on top of their game, mothers are the most aggressive. Which is not what you want to have in your herd, especially if you’re dealing with something really big, like cows.

Dairy cows are considered to be the most dangerous large animals in Britain partially because of bulls, which are big and scary, but also in large part because mother dairy cows are very prone to attack walkers and people are kind of like trampling through their fields, because they’re just, especially walkers with dogs. And there’s a lot of fatal cow attacks from these cattle mothers.

So maternal aggression is something that goes hand in hand with, you know, maternal sensitivity. And it’s not a good thing necessarily to have on your farm, but just the idea that they breed for, for supermoms is fascinating.

Heather O’Neal: Money, money, money. You know, it’s what’s driving all of us, even the cows.

Abigail Tucker: The cash cow.

Heather O’Neal: The cash cow. Right? Exactly. Well, you also mentioned catastrophes. You know, like the sensitization that we have that enables us to somehow pull it together and rescue our babies from burning buildings and sacrifice ourselves. And, you know, the, an earthquake happens and our brainwaves barely blip. We’re just like, yeah, just another Monday.

But then things like diaper insecurity can cause huge problems when it comes to how we feel, quote unquote crazy, you know, and stuff that we just can’t deal with. And the minutia of everyday life like that is what gets me. I mean, does that, is that what gets you?

Maureen Farrell: It’s like, I haven’t put laundry away in three weeks and that feels like that’s going to break me, you know?

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. I think I’d take an earthquake over 15 loads of laundry too. What is going on with that?

Abigail Tucker: Exactly. So this is something that really took me a while to sort out in reading all this literature. It’s like moms are so tough and, you know, and, and aggressive. But wait, no moms are, are delicate and fragile and very susceptible to stress and stuff like that.

And I was kind of trying to figure out what was going on and really the story is that moms are built to be very tough and aggressive in these acute stress, acutely stressful moments. Like if you expose a rat mom to an intruder, which is often just a male rat, and it’s not like a burglar or anything, she’s going to attack the rat and fight to the death if she has to, for her babies.

But if you, so that’s an acute stress. That’s like, you know, the earthquake, the, you know, the, the, the mountain lion who grabs your kid, like the pit bull, who’s walking across the street, you know, these, these kind of very short fused moments that moms are really good at rising to the occasion. And part of that is because of lactation.

 Lactation you know, it induces this like dampening of stress responses. And another way to say that is that moms who are nursing are also bulls. Were like a little bit fearless. But that’s not to be confused with exposure to chronic stress.

So when researchers want to simulate chronic stress in the lab, they don’t put in a male rat and have like a, you know, a fight to the finish or whatever. They take the mother rat and harmlessly insert her into like a clear plexiglass tube, which is scary for her, but totally harmless. And they’ll do that like day after day, after day, after day. So it’s not just a one-time like freak event in her life.

It’s something that is part of her world constantly. And those mother rats don’t rise to the challenge as much. They start to sort of like degrade in certain areas of their, of their maternal growth. And that’s because, you know, these are two very different forces, like fighting off an intruder versus like dealing chronically with shortage materials, material shortages.

Like famously this diaper study from Yale that showed this big correlation between women’s access to diapers, which seems like such a small problem to fix in the course of the world and maternal depression rates. And there was a big link between those two things, even though you think, well, if mama bear can like, you know, go toe to toe with anything out there, you know, why is she undone by diapers?

And it’s because these are completely different forms of stress. And we’re buffered well against the first one, but not so much against the second one. And there’s even a theory that says that postpartum depression, and this is just a theory, but I thought it was interesting, is the, so there’s this natural dampening that happens with childbirth and lactation and it sort of permits you to be emboldened.

And it also helps you like sit still and be quiet and engage with this very arduous task of breastfeeding. There’s some people who think that that dampening also has like an evaluative aspect to it that like the mother isn’t bonding quite yet with her baby and that, that dampening can under the wrong environmental conditions sort of snowball into postpartum depression, which could become sort of like a distancing from the baby.

Just because you’re in an environment where maybe, you know, you feel like you, you are so stressed, you can’t care for the baby. So what starts out as being like an advantage can become a problem, you know. Although, evolutionary biologist wouldn’t say it’s a problem. They’d say this is a natural defense mechanism of the mother, but it’s not something that we necessarily want to feel.

So I, I think that, you know, the relationship that moms have to stress is sort of impossible to grapple with. It’s distinct stressors.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. I mean, the stress piece in the book was one of the wincers for me that made me go like, ooh and evaluate my pregnancies, you know, gender, you talk about gender. So like my pregnancy with my son, incredibly stressful, I was in nursing school at the time.

And it was like a fast track program. Cause I’m a glutton for punishment. And just how stress affects you. But then on the flip side of that, another thing that you talk about is that choice that you make, especially as a privileged person, who’s like, no, I refuse to accept this as my life, as my status right now.

And I am choosing to seek help or, you know, demand that I get what I need. And I, I did that too. You know, when my life post-partum, wasn’t cutting the mustard, I left. You know, and I just don’t think under other circumstances I would have, maybe. So I think that’s really interesting that, you know, the choices that we make can also solidify our bonding, you know, like maybe it puts a pin in that evaluation period.

Like, do I want to care for this baby or not? And then you make the choice too. And it’s like, all right, I’ve chosen. Okay.

Abigail Tucker: Exactly. No, there’s so many different variables in play. And you know, one thing I liked to do was ask some of these young women and young mothers who are running these studies, these PhDs, like what are some things that you would recommend that you could do for yourself or women in your life and in terms of national policy?

And this one researcher said that one of the things she would strongly recommend is not just the 12 weeks minimum paid maternity leave, but a maternity leave that starts one month before the due date and that’s just because there’s just this increasing awareness that being able to kind of get your arms around your environment and kind of eliminate the stressors that you can eliminate actually can have a measurable effect on your, on your capacities as a new mom.

And that it’s a good way that you can kind of like buffer yourself a little bit. Of course you can’t protect yourself from every single stress. But yeah, and I, you know, you mentioned the boys and the girls I thought that was all really interesting having had both.

I didn’t realize that boys in general, their moms are more at risk for like C-sections, hypertension and all kinds of stuff. I didn’t realize that they were, two studies that I saw showed that they were at increased risk for postpartum depression, which I had never heard about. And that these differences subtly continue.

And I loved this one study that showed that moms, it was a study of moms in Massachusetts of, of their milk. And again, milk is this amazing scientific tool that we can only use to study certain people, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it. They analyzed the breast milk of these 25 moms and found that they made higher, I’m not sure I’m saying it right. Higher calorie milk for boys.

And that’s a very common thing in the mammal world that moms are often kind of like waiting the, the dice between boys and girls and certain species will make more milk or higher calcium milk or milk with different stress hormones in it for baby by gender.

Which I just, I don’t know. I don’t think it would have changed anything that I necessarily did, but I certainly wanted to hear that information because I just love that behind the scenes insight into like, what the heck I’m doing.

Heather O’Neal: Honestly, there’s so much good stuff in there that blew my mind. And I can’t wait because there’s just going to be more. Like the more interesting the research, it just begets more interesting research. So I’m, I’m going to be like ready for your next book, but I would love to know what was the thing that was the hardest for you to cut out? So if you had an editor that was like, oh, Abigail, we can’t get all of this in here. We got to remove this part. Was there any part that you were like, no, I’m really attached to that bit?

Abigail Tucker: So for, for this book, it was like, it was almost like she wanted, my editor, who at Simon and Schuster, who’s great, wanted me to put more of my own story in the book. And I was nervous about that because I didn’t want the book to become just about me. I wanted it to be kind of an interesting guiding star for all kinds of people, but I sort of gradually began to realize that by doing it a semi diagnostic, take on my own self, that it could just be an interesting example for people.

And to show people how I changed multiple times over the course of the last 10 years is illustrative because it’s not like you’re born one type of mom or another. You’re always growing and changing. So I felt like I could offer myself as an example. And I was reluctant to put stuff about my own children in the book because of feeling, you know, maternal. And I didn’t want to like throw anybody under the bus or anything or make them ever feel bad.

But I felt like I was able to put in like glimpses of them that showed that I’m a real person who is grappling with real problems while also introducing the body of research in a professional way that other people from all different walks of life can hopefully use and make sense of.

Heather O’Neal: I have to tell you that even though we have this giant Facebook support group and I have a very good family and my mother lives across the street, and I’m pretty, I’m pretty well set as far as your research goes. Like I would probably be the one that you’d want to bet on to have a good maternal experience. I have never felt so seen as when I was reading your stories and how you were relating to the research, too.

Abigail Tucker: Okay. That is so good to hear. Thank you.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah. Thank you for seeing me and for seeing all of us who are imperfectly perfect, and, you know, muddling through and making our choices and mitigating our risks, the best we can and just highlighting all the ways that we can do that is fascinating and wonderful to hear.

So thank you again so much for doing that. So what’s next for you, Abigail Tucker? Are we going to do a breastfeeding pop science book, Dad Genes?

Abigail Tucker: I would love that. So for now I am I, after having squirreled myself away in my attic for the last two years to write about the maternal instinct, I’m going to spend that summer with my four kids. Hang out with them for a little while, and then, you know, I’m looking for, you know, the next cool story.

So I’d love to talk to anybody about ideas. I’d love to write another book.

Heather O’Neal: Oh, be careful what you wish for.

Maureen Farrell:  Well, thank you so much, Abigail. We love your book. We’ve really loved our time talking to you and I hope this is not the end.

Heather O’Neal: Yes, I hope so, too. And for everybody listening out there who has not already read Mom Genes, please grab your copy.

We’re going to put a link in our show notes for you as to make it super easy. We’ll just link it right from Amazon. And you know, it’ll show up in a couple of days.

Abigail Tucker: Thank you so much, guys. This was such a pleasure.

Heather O’Neal: Before we go into our award in the alcove, we wanted to thank a couple of our new patrons.

Maureen Farrell: I’d like to thank Lauren from Grafton, West Virginia for being one of our patrons are really excited to have you.

Heather O’Neal: Yeah, Lauren’s actually one of our Dairy Queens. She’s the top tier of our patrons. So we get to hang out with her monthly at our live Q and A’s and we love sending her all of our merchandise and all of our behind the scenes stuff.

So thank you, Lauren T. We really appreciate you.

Maureen Farrell: And then let’s think Caitlin from Iowa.

Yeah, Kaitlin, she’s been so active in our Patreon, our membership area and the Facebook group. And we couldn’t appreciate you more. Thank you so much for being a Lactivist. And if you would like to be a patron, just go to and check it out.

Heather O’Neal: Yes, please do. We’d love to hang out with you at our live Q and A’s. All right, so let’s get into our award. Today’s award goes to Katie S. She wrote in her breastfeeding win to our Patreon membership area, and she says, I’m nursing my second baby girl and I’ve had a hell of an experience. My first was just problem after problem.

And I wanted nothing more than for this baby to be the easy breastfeeder, oh girl. Don’t we all. I think we’ve all been there. She says at one and a half to two weeks, we realized we had a colicky baby and I was struggling hard to even want to breastfeed her. I felt disgusting for even considering formula when I am passionate about helping others breastfeed.

My amazing husband and breastfeeding support pushed me through every single day, reminding me how wonderful breast milk is. Around two months. I suspected a dairy allergy and no providers felt the need to help us, so I completely cut dairy out of my diet alone and have officially hit six months dairy free for my baby girl.

And this time I have unwillingly lost 50 pounds and dealt with a vitamin D deficiency. She says, thank you for bringing it to my attention. That must be from our vitamin D episode that we did. She says I’m so proud of my hard work, checking every single food label, avoiding restaurants and eating the same meals every week.

Just wanted to share so maybe it can motivate another parent going through this. It gets better.

Maureen Farrell: Oh, I have an award for you, Katie. I’m dubbing you, the Non-Dairy Queen.

Heather O’Neal: Oh, the a non-dairy queen. How lovely is that? Absolutely good job, Katie. We’re proud of you. We’re here for you and we are so glad that you have been able to push through and that you have good support at home.

Maureen Farrell: All right. Right. We’ll see you next time, folks.

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