One blurry summer day about a decade ago, I drank beers and sunbathed on a friend’s dock with a boy I had a crush on. We talked and laughed and sang loudly to music blasting from the speakers next to our heads. We drank too much and both a hangover and a sunburn followed. So did a relationship. The boy became the father of my children and, for eight years, my husband.
After “the day on the dock,” my ex-husband and I were inseparable. He was easy-going and carefree and, at the time, I valued those traits above most others. We fell in love, had a baby, got married, and had another baby (in that order). In the span of a few years, our lives changed in just about every way possible. We had more responsibilities and less personal freedom.
In many ways, we rose to the challenges. My husband and I worked hard as both parents and partners. But something fundamental had also changed. For reasons I didn’t always understand even though I knew I was struggling with anxiety and managing marital tensions, I began falling out of love. I didn’t know how to fall back in.
During the toughest years of my marriage, I came to resent my husband for the very traits I’d fallen in love with. He was not just wild and fun, he was late and distracted. He wasn’t just dynamic, he was failing to hold up his end of the co-parenting bargain. I never hated my husband and our divorce wasn’t bitter — I had flaws too and he was understanding. The problem was, in a sense, simple: As a married mother of two, I no longer felt attracted to my husband. We separated.
When I began dating again, I had no defined idea of what I was looking for in a partner. Sexually and socially, I was a new person with new concerns. To my shock — though maybe not the shock of others — I found myself drawn to an older man who had joint custody of his child. I was head over heels for a man who claimed his adult responsibilities. He cooked and cleaned and went on field trips with his daughter. He valued his own mental health and took great care in managing it. He was not carefree, but being with him helped me relax. I wondered if this jarring experience was unique to me or if I had made a common transition.
I started speaking to my female friends, listening to single mothers talk about dating and married mothers discuss seeing their partners in a new light. Many said that the bloom had come off the rose in the wake of birth. They had fallen in love. They had given birth. They had become mothers. They had reconsidered their romantic choices.
I emailed Dr. Brian Jory, relationship researcher and author of Cupid on Trial: What We Learn About Love When Loving Gets Tough. He told me that I was right to suspect that motherhood had changed me. “You can’t predict the Mama Bear experience, the ‘don’t mess with my baby feeling,’ until you actually experience it,” he wrote back. “It is quite predictable that if the ‘what kind of father is he going to be’ question wasn’t on your radar (or was a secondary consideration) when you made your choice of a life partner, it will be front and center once you have a child.”
This sort of thing happens.
Melinda Bussard, a single mother of two living in Baltimore, told me that who she found herself attracted to after the end of her marriage in 2017 shocked her as well. “One of the major areas of stress in my marriage was money. Neither of us were good money managers or savers,” she explained before waxing poetic about her new boyfriend. “He monitors his credit score. He has a warranty on everything. He is just so good at adulting and it makes me work harder to adult.”
I understood completely. The biggest turn-ons in my new relationship were things I hadn’t even considered when I was 23 and newly in love. If these traits had presented themselves, I think younger me would’ve run in the opposite direction. Laundry? Dishes? Bill paying? Being on time? Swoon.
It’s weird to see the world through fresh eyes, but my shift in priorities isn’t a total mystery. I didn’t just change in a metaphorical or psychological sense. I changed in a very literal sense. The pregnant brain undergoes a restructuring process that affects mothers for years post birth. According to a 2017 study published in Nature Neuroscience, pregnancy shrinks the gray matter of the brain and, specifically, alters the size and structure of the anterior and posterior midline, the bilateral lateral prefrontal cortex, and the bilateral temporal cortex. These are parts of the brain associated with empathy and social cognition. The changes were so profound that the women could be correctly classified as having undergone pregnancy or not by using measures of average gray matter volume change. What this means for married couples is unclear. But one thing is for sure, a woman’s post-pregnancy brain is simply different.
And then there are the hormones.
“As we mature, the lustful hormones — estrogen, testosterone, and adrenaline, are less in the forefront, and (especially for women) the connection hormones — oxytocin, serotonin and the transmitter, dopamine — become more important,” explained Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist specializing in love and romance and the author of 15 books on the subject. Tessina pointed out that hormonal shifts tend to align with behavioral shifts (life changes after you have a kid) and this leads some women to realign their romantic priorities post-childbirth.
I understand why the love in my marriage dissolved, and even why I ultimately sought out a partner so drastically different from the one I once loved and shared a life with. But the experience of it still felt shocking. I thought I had had a deep comprehension of what was important to me for quite a long time. Realizing how deep the shifts in my wants, needs, and desires ran made me see myself differently, too. It made me grasp that the changes I observed in myself, derived from life experience, two pregnancies, and world-rattling transitions of motherhood, were more immense than I’d thought. The things that changed are at the very core of my being. I am not who I was. I do not want what I wanted before motherhood.
Of course, not all relationships are doomed as soon as the first hint of morning sickness strikes. And in some marriages, having children can bond a couple even further, maybe even for life. But the truth is that for many women, the physical, emotional, and chemical impacts of motherhood are profound, and often largely overlooked by society as a whole. We have long understood that becoming a parent will change our bodies and our schedules. What we need to start talking about is the fact that becoming a parent can change who and what we love and how we choose to spend our lives.
I didn’t realize what was at play at the time, but a few months ago, I sat on my new boyfriend’s counter watching him cook me breakfast for the first time. I smiled and sipped coffee while he chopped and sauteed. I didn’t feel as free as I had when I was younger, but my love for him was no more reserved than the love I offered my ex-husband. It was more mature, maybe, but still overwhelming. It was exactly what it was supposed to be.