The problem with the "hormonal mother" trope
In one word: Sexism
I remember talking to a friend (and fellow psychological researcher) about some of my postpartum mood swings and offhandedly making a joke about how hormonal I was. As any psychology researcher would, my friend asked me whether I believed my emotional experiences were directly attributable to actual hormonal changes or whether other factors, such as stress, lack of sleep, physical pain, or the fact that my life had completely changed forever by becoming a parent, may have been contributing to my mood swings. She wanted to know whether there was any empirical truth to this idea that pregnant and postpartum people are “super hormonal,” and she knew I was a good person to answer this question as both a recently-pregnant person and an emotion researcher. My answer, unhelpfully, was, “Probably all of the above!”
I’ve already written a bit about hormones, including oxytocin in mothers and fathers and how difficult it is to relate hormones to specific experiences or behaviors. We also scientifically know that pregnancy and postpartum are times where big hormonal shifts have to occur, in order for a placenta and fetus to develop as well as for milk production to start after birth, among other changes. However, the notion that being “hormonal” is specific to your gender or whether or not you’ve ever been pregnant is just false. Everyone’s experiences and behaviors are affected by hormones. Men have estrogen, just as women have testosterone, despite the belief that these are “female” and “male” hormones, respectively. While it seems to be common knowledge that hormonal shifts in women might be related to changes in emotions and behaviors (such as during their periods or pregnancy), we only really talk about men and hormones when we discuss things like ‘roid rage despite the fact that men experience various shifts, too. For example, there’s evidence that changes in testosterone and cortisol are correlated with things like financial risk-taking, yet we don’t call our friend from high school “hormonal” when he loses $100 at a poker game1.
This is because viewing pregnant women and new mothers as having out-of-control emotional swings is just a heightened version of the stereotype that women are “more emotional” than men. Research generally does not suggest that women report more intense emotional experiences compared to men, such as during laboratory tasks where participants report on how positive and negative they feel while watching evocative movies2. Additionally, the prevalence of mental health concerns associated with big emotional shifts, such as bipolar disorder, is fairly equivalent between men and women3.
We also know that women are treated differently than men when they express emotions. One of my favorite studies by Barrett & Bliss-Moreau (2009)4 showed participants photographs of masculine and feminine faces expressing various negative emotions. They also paired each face with a possible rationale for why that person might be experiencing a specific emotion (see image below).
All of the descriptions were situations that could reasonably explain why a specific person looked angry or afraid, for example. Participants were then asked to state whether or not they felt like the person they saw was “emotional” or whether they were just “having a bad day.” In other words, participants made quick judgments about whether someone was an emotional person in general or whether maybe they were expressing a negative emotion just because that situation warranted it. Across two separate groups of participants, the researchers found that participants time and again rated more feminine faces as being “emotional” and more masculine faces as “having a bad day.” This is despite the fact that masculine and feminine faces all had explanations that were situational in nature and no other information was provided to participants about that person’s personality. The authors of this study describe their results succinctly:
“These two studies demonstrate that the stereotype of the overly emotional female is linked to the belief that women express emotion because they are emotional creatures, but men express emotion because the situation warrants it.”
My hunch is that pregnancy and motherhood make this stereotype even more pronounced. Of course people who are pregnant or give birth have different experiences compared to those who don’t. Of course there are big hormonal shifts that happen during these life phases that affect one’s emotions. And yes, I felt particularly emotionally volatile after having a baby, and some of it was probably attributable to the big hormonal changes I was experiencing. But, as my friend pointed out, I had a lot of other stuff going on, too! To boil it all down to, “Yeah, pregnant women are so hormonal,” or to dismiss the experiences of mothers as just “part of their biology,” is incredibly sexist and reductive. It is another way our society trivializes the experiences of women to the detriment of everyone.
Apicella, C. L., Dreber, A., & Mollerstrom, J. (2014). Salivary testosterone change following monetary wins and losses predicts future financial risk-taking. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 39, 58-64. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.09.025; Cueva, C., Roberts, R. E., Spencer, T., Rani, N., Tempest, M., Tobler, P. N., ... & Rustichini, A. (2015). Cortisol and testosterone increase financial risk taking and may destabilize markets. Scientific Reports, 5(1), 1-16. https://www.nature.com/articles/srep11206
Barrett, L. F., Robin, L., Pietromonaco, P. R., & Eyssell, K. M. (1998). Are women the “more emotional” sex? Evidence from emotional experiences in social context. Cognition & Emotion, 12(4), 555-578. https://doi.org/10.1080/026999398379565; Brody, L. R. & Hall, J. A. (2008). Gender and emotion in context. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland Jones, & Barrett, L. F. (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (3rd ed.) (pp. 395-408). New York: Guilford Press.
Diflorio, A., & Jones, I. (2010). Is sex important? Gender differences in bipolar disorder. International review of psychiatry, 22(5), 437-452. https://doi.org/10.3109/09540261.2010.514601