Hormones and The Female Brain
OMG.. I have read another book that you HAVE to read. It will help you underestand yourself and the hormones which influence your life.
It was part of my book-a-day holiday fest and I wish I had had it when I was a kid; but then the research has only been available in the last 20 years which is why it couldn’t have been.
It has made me feel that are hormones are not only a biological issue, but a political and relational one too.
I went to college in the mid 80s to study English Literature and as part of that course I learned about psychoanalytic, Marxist, post-structuralist and feminist ways of critiquing literature and the world. Part of what we talked about a lot was gender and the way that it was constructed through social norms and expectations. I read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and Sexual Politics by Kate Millet and so concurred with them that gender was largely a construct, that men could be emotionally vulnerable if we didn’t tell our sons to toughen up and ‘be a man’ and that women could have a career as tough as any man’s.
I don’t think it was just me who thought that way. A generation of my friends have believed that they could compete with men in the work place and that men could join them in nurturing the kids. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Most of the women I know have had careers and been the main child carers. They are the ones who are more likely to stay off work when the kids are ill and is they who have adapted and changed their work to fit in round the kids.
For a while now I have been thinking about how we need to challenge socially accepted norms about what success is. I’ve argued that the way that we define success is an old masculine paradigm and that what we need is a new paradigm which embraces what have been traditionally thought of as feminine characteristics.
I have written before about how we need to include the raising of a family as being just as productive as bringing in the cash; if not more so.
But The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine argues strongly that we are more biological than Greer et al would have accounted for. It is not that they, or I, are ignorant, it is just that the new psychological technologies such as brain scans can now show us that there are structural as well as functional differences to the female and male brains as a result of the hormones we secrete.
For example, women don’t simply ‘fuss’ more about knowing where their children are; when a woman has kids her brain changes permanently and she has an internal tracking potential where she always needs to know where the kids are…and it lasts a life time.
‘ The changes that happen in the mommy brain are the most profound and permanent of a woman’s life. For as long a child is living under her roof, her GPS system of brain circuits will be dedicated to tracking that beloved child. Long after the grown baby leaves the nest, the tracking device continues to work’. (p155)
Little girls are wired for eye to eye contact and building relationships (p40) and use language more than men to communicate. This isn’t just social conditioning; it’s down to the hormone testosterone in 8 week old foetuses which shuts down some of the communication channels in men.
‘When a relationship is threatened or lost, the bottom drops out of the level of some of the female brain’s neuro-chemicals. – such as serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine ..the stress hormones cortisol takes over. A woman starts feeling, anxious bereft and fearful of being left alone and rejected…’ (p 68)
Which is one of the reasons women are less confrontational than men and don’t like conflict.
Apparently it is quite common for men to think:
‘ Why are you crying? Please don’t make such a big deal out of nothing. Being upset is a waste of time’ (p165)
and it’s not because they are heartless, it’s because they just don’t have the same experience of emotions. Women cry 4 times as much as men and women can read the tiny non-verbal cues in faces to pick up the nuances of emotion and so they can spot when someone is upset before the tears come. Whereas men only notice emotions when they are loud and clear and are then surprised by them as they didn’t see them coming.
‘tears in a woman may invoke brain pain in men. The male brain registers helplessness in the face of pain and such a moment can be extremely difficult for them to tolerate. ..nearly impossible for him to bear because when he saw her in pain he felt powerless to do anything about it’
The mood swings of adolescence and the menopause are clearly explained and normalised, this is not women going mad or not functioning ‘properly’, this is women being women.
So it seems to be that hormones are a feminist issue!
For me it has been mind-blowing. So much of what I have felt judged for in the past (being too emotional, too worried about the kids, too sensitive, not ambitious enough, not committed to work enough) is just biology. I am a woman and I do want to see my kids, I don’t want to compete all the time, I don’t like conflict, relationships do matter to me and so do emotions.
The paradigm us women of the 70s and 80s grew up with was that we could be more like men if only we could overcome our conditioning. We could compete in the work place, we could work 4 weeks a month and feel and perform the same in every week on every day when of course we are affected by our hormones.
It turns out that the vision of success we have been aspiring too as one which does not suit us women at all, it goes against our very biology.
So maybe the next step for gender equality are moves such as that taken by this company which has introduced a period friendly policy which acknowledges the different energy levels of female staff.
We give women time off work when they are pregnant, what about during the menopause? I remember one female colleague shrieking down the corridor at another colleague, in front of 100s of kids. At the time I had no sympathy for her behaviour. Now, whilst I don’t condone the behaviour, I do understand that she was probably menopausal with furies that come out of nowhere.
The book also challenges what it means to fall in love. We all know that falling in love can lead to babies, especially when we reach our 20s building in urgency into our mid to late thirties and beyond. However, it turns out our hormones are at this stage more interested in getting us pregnant than helping us fall for Mr Right. The book spells out so clearly that we fall for hot guys because the more we fancy them, the more sex we have, the stronger our orgasms, the more sperm we suck through the cervix, the more likely we are to conceive. However, these may not be the best men to help us raise children as what we need from them is compatibility, shared values and commitment.
How radically different would the world look if it was structured on female biology?
If you’re not lucky enough to find Mr Right, great sex with the guy you fancy to conceive, then find the nice guy to help raise them.
Time off for hormones.
More part time working to allow for childcare and also for women to do each other’s child care.
Less labeling of women with PMT as being ‘moody’ or awkward but a curiosity about what the woman perceives at this time and the importance of that.
Would this be a bad thing? Already marriages are breaking down and men who are not the fathers are doing a great job of helping raise kids so maybe we should just cut the stigma of a failed marriage which should have just been a hot affair for the 30 something year old woman with her reproductive hormones pounding. Women struggle back to work after having kids only to go off with stress or leave.
It seems to me that there needed to be the pendulum swing of the 60s where women fought for equal rights; it had to happen and we have all benefited from it. But we took equal rights on male terms and it just doesn’t work for our kids, our bodies, our relationships or us.
Now I think we need to own that we are women, we do feel and think differently from men and that is not wrong or bad…just different and so we need working practices which support that, relationships which value it, and most importantly, we need to understand our own bodies and how they guide and influence us through our lives.