The light that is promising!
No doubt you’ve heard the unflattering (but not uncommon) mothering stereotype that babies suck as much energy from your brain as they do from your body. Ouch. Sure, childrearing takes a toll — as evidenced by the time you squeezed nipple cream onto your toothbrush. But giving birth is hardly the equivalent of a frontal lobotomy. In fact, motherhood may be the ticket to boosting your brainpower.
So says Katherine Ellison, the author of the new book The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. In her book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, veteran foreign correspondent, and working mother of two young boys presents compelling evidence that having babies can make you smarter.
To get the scoop on how motherhood expands the mind, we went straight to Ellison:
Were you afraid your brain would suffer after you had children?
Yes, I was concerned I’d lose my mind to a world of diapers and baby bottles. In fact, a few weeks after my first son was born (while I was on leave from my job as a foreign correspondent), I had a troubling dream: Space aliens had landed in Brazil’s capital, but I chose to stay home because I wasn’t sure the story was worth pursuing. In the dream, I completely lost my reporter’s instincts. It hit me that this nightmare epitomized my fear that I’d traded in my brain for a new baby.
But sometime later, I read an article about two researchers who discovered that mother rats were smarter — specifically in learning and memory capacity — than rats that never had babies.
And it got me thinking maybe there’s more to motherhood than I’d thought.
How does motherhood make women smarter?
Because smart is such a vague term, I broke the brain-boosting benefits of motherhood down into five attributes in the book: perception, efficiency, resiliency, motivation, and emotional intelligence. Each category is supported by many animal studies as well as some human studies showing ways in which mothers have an edge.
The first category, perception, deals primarily with the five senses. One of the most interesting studies showed pregnant women had sharper “visual acuity” than women who weren’t expecting. By that I don’t mean they suddenly had 20/20 vision but they did notice a lot more.
Studies show that pregnant women also have an enhanced sense of smell, which theoretically serves to protect the unborn baby from foods that are potentially harmful.
Other findings show that mothers can experience a boost in motivation, fearlessness, and the ability to multitask and cope with stress. There’s also exciting new research suggesting that oxytocin — a hormone important to labor and breastfeeding — improves moms’ capacity for learning and memory.
Emotional intelligence is probably the clearest category in which mothers benefit, though. One of the biggest brain boosts for moms is the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes. In so many relationships, if you don’t agree with a person you can just walk away. But you can’t walk away from your child. At least, not if you want to be a good parent. Instead, you’ve got to stretch your mind to understand his point of view.
Did you find that people expected you to be “less smart” after you had children?
Yes. For instance I’d be sitting around with a group of women and someone would say something silly and then laugh it off as “mommy brain.” Those kinds of experiences, trivial as they may seem, can make you feel as though you’re going to accomplish less in life as a mother than you otherwise might as a childless woman.
Perhaps more important, I got a new editor after my second son was born who let me know that he thought I was going to be less productive and that I wouldn’t be able to keep my mind in two places at once. He was wrong, of course, but his distrust shook my confidence for a while.
In what ways did motherhood make you smarter?
I found motherhood tremendously stimulating, like getting a crash course in human nature. I also got much better at time management. Because I’d been a newspaper reporter, I thought I was good with deadlines. But when I had a baby, the deadlines got a lot less flexible. I was forced to manage my days in a whole new way.
As a mother, the notion of having less time to waste informs your whole life. I became smarter about networking with other women, handling chaos, and dealing with difficult people. I know if I returned to the daily newsroom today, I’d be more savvy in dealing with editors having temper tantrums! Apparently former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shares my viewpoint. When asked which part of parenting helped most in her subsequent diplomatic career, she answered, “Getting people to play well together!”
More generally, motherhood helped me focus on the future. I became determined to prioritize things, like environmental issues, that will matter more in my children’s life than my own. At the same time, I found the motivation to accomplish other ambitions I’d had for many years. For instance, I’d always wanted to have a close-knit group of friends, more creativity in my work, and a lifestyle that would give me the leeway to write longer articles and books. All those things came true after I had children. It wasn’t simply the act of being a mother, it was thinking about what I wanted to accomplish for myself and for my kids.
Several women in the book talk about making the same type of change. It’s sort of like a midlife crisis. Once you have children, you reorganize your priorities. You think about your legacy and take your life more seriously when you realize your children will examine it later.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching the book?
My research was full of surprises. One thing that jumps to mind is a series of studies done by scientists in Switzerland, who compared the brain scans of parents to those of childless people. They found parents’ brains were more active when listening to a baby’s cry. On the flip side, brains of people who didn’t have children were more active when they heard a baby’s laugh.
This suggests that a rewiring of the human brain occurs once you have children. Some researchers see it as evidence that motherhood makes women more empathetic. One scientist I interviewed says that moms learn empathy skills with their babies that they can later take out into the world at large.
Another surprising study showed that mothers react even to the annoying sound of a baby’s cry with parts of the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities like eating a good meal or winning money. By equating the nurturing of a child with great food or sex, nature is ensuring that you’ll bond with your baby, and stay engaged with the mental challenges your child will present you with for years to come. It’s a pretty great system!
Some interesting recent studies show that new fathers mimic in many ways the hormonal changes their wives go through, although on a much lower level. For instance, expectant fathers experience a surge of prolactin, a hormone typically associated with nurturing and breastfeeding, as well as increased levels of estrogen, the “female” hormone. Experts aren’t sure why men experience these changes, but they think the higher hormone levels may help dads bond with their offspring. And the changes aren’t all chemical. I interviewed many fathers who told me they had become more patient and empathetic after spending a lot of time taking care of their kids.
How do mothers make each other smarter?
As a mother, you learn to strategize. When you see mothers exchanging information on the playground, for instance, it may look casual — but they’re often earnestly collecting information that will ensure the well-being of their offspring, such as the name of the best teacher at the local school and whether strep throat is going around. Swapping this kind of information isn’t rocket science, but it’s important in an evolutionary sense.
Are the mind-boosting benefits of motherhood temporary or permanent?
That’s hard to measure with humans, but in rat studies the benefits of mothering last until the animals reach an age equivalent to age 80 in humans, which I find very encouraging. And, when it comes to people, we know that seniors who are more connected to the outside world, especially through their children and grandchildren, are often healthier — mentally and physically — than those who are isolated. So motherhood continues to pay off late in life.
The mental demands on mothers are greater than ever. To do a good job of helping our children thrive, mothers today have to be information analysts. We’re constantly bombarded with information from television, parenting books, and talk shows — not to mention, constant news reports about increasing rates of childhood asthma, autism, and ADHD. We have reason to worry and be up-to-date on everything from mercury in tuna to arsenic in playground equipment.
At the same time, to truly protect our kids, moms must often confront a culture that in many ways is harmful to children. Advertisers now spend fortunes marketing directly to kids — encouraging rampant consumerism and unhealthy diets. A surprising number of moms step up to the plate and become more assertive.
What advice do you have for new mothers?
Just appreciate how much you’re learning and how much your brain is being challenged and enriched by your baby instead of turned to mush. You may feel exhausted, but if you pay attention to how much you’re learning in an incredibly short time, the sheer enormity of it is energizing.
Oh, and don’t underestimate the importance of sleep! If you and your partner share the responsibility of getting up at night with your baby, it’ll make both of you better parents in the long run.
Take Back Motherhood: If you lost interest in world affairs when your baby was born, don’t fret. Your brain hasn’t shrunk — it’s just otherwise occupied. New moms become super-attentive learning machines, says Ellison. Your baby is challenging your brain on every level, every minute of the day. You probably haven’t absorbed so much new information this quickly since you were a baby yourself, so give credit where credit is due.
Sleep: Sleep deprivation is inevitable, but no one should shoulder the burden single-handedly. In the first year of your baby’s life, his primary caregiver stands to lose 700 hours of sleep. Numerous studies have shown that lack of sleep can mess with brain function. In fact the brain’s frontal cortex, responsible for keeping you alert, innovative, and flexible, is the first to falter during extended sleep loss. So don’t surrender your Z’s without question. Instead, sit down with your partner and make a sleep plan. Then stick to it. For each of you to stay as rested as possible, Ellison suggests trading off in three-night shifts. If you’re breastfeeding, have your partner bring the baby to you, and pump milk ahead of time so he can bottle-feed the baby when it’s your night off. (For more ways to get the rest you need while breastfeeding, check out this article).
Breastfeed: Oxytocin, a hormone released during childbirth and breastfeeding, promotes feelings of calm and cements the mother-child bond. And recent research suggests that this natural mellowing agent may boost your capacity for learning and memory. For a continuous supply of this hormone breastfeed your baby. Experiments show that nursing moms feel more relaxed physically and emotionally and are more sociable than mothers who don’t breastfeed.
Get social: Don’t let motherhood turn you into a lactating hermit. Being a new mother means you’re vulnerable in a whole new way and need people in a deeper sense than you ever have before, says Ellison. Seek out other mothers at the playground, the gym, even the grocery store. Other mothers empathize with what you’re going through like no one else. One large study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that belonging to a strong social network correlates with better mental functioning. Plus, social support helps ward off postpartum depression — a problem that affects 10 percent of new moms.
Don’t be a couch potato: Having a baby doesn’t mean you should trade your gym membership for Tivo. Unlike watching TV, exercise makes more blood flow to the brain and fights off the blues. Make exercise a priority rather than a luxury. Create a pact with your partner to support each other’s exercise habits by babysitting while the other goes for a walk or to a yoga class.
Eat your veggies: Your mother was pretty smart to give you this advice. Studies have found that antioxidants in fruits and vegetables can help prevent declines in brain function due to aging, and leafy green and cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce, and spinach) are particularly helpful for older women’s memories.
Don’t neglect the other parts of your brain: Even though your brain is tuned to the mommy channel most of the day, don’t forget you also have a “me brain,” a “friend brain,” and a “spouse brain.” Take time to stay connected to yourself and the people who loved you before you became a mother. If you can afford a babysitter, don’t feel guilty about spending an hour at a coffee shop staring out the window instead of running errands at full speed or working. If a babysitter is out of the question, use nap time to squeeze in a phone call to a friend and give yourself five minutes to talk about children. Then deem kid-talk off-limits so you both can connect on a different level. The same goes for your spouse. When you finally eke out a few minutes alone, whether at night or (lucky you) on a date, allow yourselves 15 minutes to chat about kid stuff, then make the topic taboo so you can remember what it was that made you decide to have a child together in the first place.