So in May this year, I attained the distinction of becoming a mother to an adorable munchkin and with that, I now feel obligated to fulfil my duty of occupying the niche intersection of being a mother and a behavioral scientist. What does that mean?
At some point during the first few days of becoming Mom, surrounded by the daze of sleeplessness, pumped up on hormones which didn’t know where to go, with emotions all over the place and suddenly faced with the responsibility of a helpless, little pink breathing mass, I found myself struggling to answer three questions:
The warm glow of pregnancy vanished before I could blink. Pregnancy was glamorous. Motherhood didn’t seem to be. The mood swings, the sleeplessness, the guilt, the confusion, the uncertainty, the lack of even the semblance of a schedule. I wondered, why don’t women share how hard the initial few days of motherhood really are?
Most mothers I spoke to before my delivery would share some snippets of their experiences, but always ended with “it’s all worth it in the end”. Why? I mean, I am sure it’s worth it, but why not just say it does not feel like that in the beginning?
And finally, why, after going through all this, do women have more children?
So, during the numerous sleepless nights feeding the baby and mechanically changing diapers, I let my behavioural science mind take over and tried to come up with an explanation. Two theories sprung up on command. Both of these are fairly common in the world of behavioural science, and especially common in the world of gamification.
Peak End Rule: “We remember a memory or judge an experience based on how they felt at the peak moments, as well as how they felt at the end.” In other words, when you recall an experience, you don’t remember the details. You remember how it ended and you remember peak moments from the experience.
Flow Theory: “A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. Graphically, this is represented as a combination of challenge level and skill level. Imagine a game. Each level of the game poses a higher challenge than the previous level and requires a higher level of skill than the previous level. When you are new to the level and are below the skill level, the game feels challenging. When you cross the required skill, you get bored playing that level. Somewhere in between is a perfect match - the flow state when you are skilled and the challenge is appropriate. In other words, as challenge level increases, people skill up and meet the challenge and feel like they are in the flow.
Typically, in any game, these two effects work in tandem. Every level of the game becomes harder. You improve up your skills at each level and feel like you are getting the hang of it. That’s the flow state. And as you conquer each level, the end result - the reward or the feeling of winning gets better and better. The Peak End Rule makes you remember only the feeling of achievement and not the difficult process of learning.
How are these related to motherhood, you ask? Stay with me on this.
Motherhood is the ultimate gamification that combines both these theories. Take every stage of motherhood from conception, to the first trimester to delivery to the newborn stage, to infant stage to toddler, then terrible twos - the list just goes on. Every levels feels difficult at first, but at each level, you master it. And the reward at each stage gets better and better. Theoretically speaking, imagine a series of the above graphs put together, which get steeper and steeper.
So new mothers are mastering each level and enjoying a reward that gets bigger and better. A +ve pregnancy test is the Level 1 reward. It brings a lot of happiness, but it's nothing compared to the Level 3 reward of holding the baby in your hand. And that's nothing compared to the first time the baby smiles. Or crawls. Or walks. Or says "I love you" to you. Sure, it was more and more hard work, but the reward, ooof.
So, to answer my 3 questions:
1. Why don’t women share how hard the initial few days of motherhood really are? Because when you play a video game, you never talk about the initial levels, do you? Those stages have been mastered and mothers have moved on to the next harder challenge. All they remember is the reward or the end. Which is why, these dialogues are not uncommon:
A women in 3rd trimester:
Oh, 1st trimester was a breeze. 3rd trimester is the real hard one.
A women with a newborn:
You think delivery is hard? Wait for the sleepless nights of month 1.
A women with a toddler:
I miss my immobile newborn. Terrible twos are the worst!
A women with a tween:
I thought holding a newborn was the biggest challenge. How wrong was I?
2. Why do women say it’s all worth it? Because the reward gets better and better with each stage and it actually does become worth the effort.
3. Why, after going through all this, do women have more children? Because all they remember is that it was difficult, they conquered it and the end reward was worth it. Who doesn’t want that feeling again? Ask anyone who is addicted to playing games!
To be clear, the peaks are also remembered. A woman who had a hard time conceiving would also remember those difficult moments. A woman who had an unbelievably hard labour would definitely be talking about that for a while. Till the reward becomes better and worth it.
As a behavioural scientist and a proponent of intelligently applied gamification, I approve of this ultimate game of motherhood. After having personally crossed a few levels in this game, unsurprisingly, I find myself happily telling others its all worth it!
And now if you will excuse me, I must gear up to play the next level with my baby. 💪