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Get Smart

Oh the heels of big name books that slam motherhood, one author's writing about some surprising benefits to having babies.

Before my husband and I had our daughter, my biggest fear was that if I became a stay-at-home mom, my brain would turn to mush. I believed it would be best for me to stay home and take care of her — after all, no love is like a mother’s. But frankly, I had never been the type who pined to marry and have children, and for much of my life I didn’t even like children all that much.

As my belly swelled and the due date loomed, I envisioned getting bored at home and resenting my husband for his opportunity to leave the house each day and go to a job. I had a college degree and a start on a career. What would happen to my brainpower? I determined that I had to do something, at least find part-time work to get me into the realm of adulthood at least a little bit each week. (See “Don’t Sell Yourself Short” to see how well that plan worked out.)

Ellison rejects old-school feminist statements that imply motherhood is detrimental to women.

It seems my fears were unfounded. Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist and mother of two, says in her book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes us Smarter, there is scientific evidence that moms’ brains actually change for the better as a result of the joys and challenges that children bring. Moms’ brains are stimulated in ways we might not have considered; hormonal changes cause potentially permanent shifts and there is actual growth at the neural level — the same kind that occurs when you learn anything new.

Fathers benefit, too: those who are hands-on in their role during pregnancy and beyond experience significant hormonal changes their childless counterparts do not. As a result, they may become more sympathetic, more responsive, more faithful and likely to be present to protect their families.

If anyone had mentioned “mommy brain” to me during my pregnancy or the first several months of my child’s life, I might have nodded knowingly and told you of the things I had done in my sleep-deprived, hormone-flooded state — forgetting what I was saying in the middle of my sentence, or attempting to “burp” a bed pillow in the middle of the night. As my midwife quipped, “didn’t you know that when the placenta comes out, your brain goes with it?” Or as my boss’ wife said, “they call it short-term memory loss, but there’s nothing ‘short-term’ about it — it’s permanent.”

It’s true, women do experience vast hormonal changes during pregnancy and after, and most of us find our memory and emotion affected in dramatic and/or humorous ways. But take heart: this does not equal the “dumbing down” of the childbearing population.

Ellison pinpoints five qualities that are enhanced in a “baby-boosted brain:” perception, efficiency, resiliency, motivation and emotional intelligence. Each is supported by numerous studies, especially in animals whose brains are most like humans. They are confirmed in human subjects through MRI scans of mothers’ brains, surveys and interviews.

Efficiency, for example, is the ultimate in multitasking: “More than a juggling of tasks,” writes Ellison, “it’s a way of life entailing an ability to focus on the essential, to ignore the irrelevant and to accomplish a lot more in a given time.” Rats that mothered a litter of pups found their way through mazes to food significantly faster than those that hadn’t had any babies; mothers of two litters were even quicker to learn the way. For survival’s sake, moms are gifted with the ability to waste no time in learning what’s important.

This brain-sharpening theory is proven daily in my life. Now that my daughter is 2 years old, I feel strong, “with it,” organized and … free. Just as there were challenges at my office job, for which I set goals, had accountability and evaluated results, there are many positive, mind-stimulating challenges in my role as Mommy. Talk about cutting-edge: I have to stay one step ahead of my child, and she changes every day.

From the first time she rolled over, through the bumpy road of learning to walk, I had to foresee what dangers she might careen into — and remove them, pad them or steer her clear of them. Now that she is adeptly running and climbing, this task remains, but I also find that I am necessarily a translator, educator and counselor. I have to figure out what she is telling me in semi-English toddler tongue, and I also have to translate my own instructions and mandates into words that are familiar enough for her to remember and obey.

Then there is the matter of discipline: it takes the equivalent of entire college courses in philosophy, theology and psychology to discern what battles to fight and which behaviors to allow; which methods to use to discourage dangerous, uncivilized or plain ugly activities and how to craft my own behavior constantly in such a way that it is a good example to her.

Rather than feeling dumb, I feel like I did in college, constantly learning and regularly being tested. Add to that stimulation the sheer pleasure of seeing our “baby” master new skills and discover wonders in the world around us that I have long taken for granted. If I overlook some detail on our calendar or in a recipe, I don’t chalk it up to brain deterioration, but the fact that I have more important things at the forefront of my mind.

Ellison rejects old-school feminist statements that imply motherhood is detrimental to women and endorse (if inadvertently) the idea that mothers who have careers outside the home are more challenged (in a positive way, due to extra responsibilities) and therefore smarter, tougher, motivated, etc. Surely it is an extra challenge to balance the demands of a job with all the activities childhood involves, but I would caution that there is a point when a woman can take on too much — for instance, when a mother has to report to the office daily, and frequently has to choose to cheat either her child or her job.

A recent poll of 1,000 mothers by ClubMom reveals that “two-thirds (66%) [of working mothers] say balancing family and work life is difficult. More than a third (36%) feel guilty [for] ‘not being able to give either their job or family 100 percent of their effort.’ One out of four say they often have to leave their child or children waiting because they can’t get away from work.” This kind of decision-making sounds more like flat-out stress than mental stimulation.

Meanwhile, the poll also finds that “at-home moms are more likely than working moms to give themselves A’s for their satisfaction in life (52% vs. 33%), marriage (59% vs. 38%), overall well being (39% vs. 26%), sex life (33% vs. 21%) and as a wife/partner (41% vs. 32%).”

The lines get blurry; plenty of women who call themselves at-home moms also have income-producing activities they perform from home. However you manage to balance your time, the bottom line is that being a parent changes you — for the better. With such important stakes, moms’ brains become more specialized, more apt at the tasks necessary to raise the next generation.

Scientists have emphasized lately that everyone would benefit from lifelong learning, and that in order to ward off possible brain diseases we should pursue such growth through continuing education, puzzles, reading and hobbies.

New experiences physically alter the brain, and people who have positive, emotionally charged and challenging experiences will reap the benefits of an “enriched” brain, one more likely to last longer and function well. Children, I dare say, are God’s prescription for just such experiences.

Copyright 2005 Laurel Robinson. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Laurel Robinson

Laurel Robinson is raising two little girls and writing in Maryland.

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