May 5, 2005
The New York Times
Katherine Ellison

ANYONE shopping for a Mother’s Day card today might reasonably linger in the Sympathy section. We can’t seem to stop mourning the state of modern motherhood. “Madness” is our new metaphor. “Desperate Housewives” are our new cultural icons. And a mother’s brain, as commonly envisioned, is impaired by a supposed full-scale assault on sanity and smarts.

So strong is this last stereotype that when a satirical Web site posted a “study” saying that parents lose an average of 20 I.Q. points on the birth of their first child, MSNBC broadcast it as if it were true. The danger of this perception is clearest for working mothers, who besides bearing children spend more time with them, or doing things for them, than fathers, according to a recent Department of Labor survey.

In addition, the more visibly “encumbered” we are, the more bias we attract: When volunteer groups were shown images of a woman doing various types of work, but in some cases wearing a pillow to make her look pregnant, most judged the “pregnant” woman less competent. Even in liberal San Francisco, a hearing last month to consider a pregnant woman’s bid to be named acting director of the Department of Building Inspection featured four speakers commenting on her condition, with one asking if the city truly meant to hire a “pregnancy brain.”

But what if just the opposite is true? What if parenting really isn’t a zero-sum, children-take-all game? What if raising children is actually mentally enriching for mothers – and fathers?

This is, in fact, what some leading brain scientists, like Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco, now believe. Becoming a parent, they say, can power up the mind with uniquely motivated learning. Having a baby is “a revolution for the brain,” Dr. Merzenich says.

The human brain, we now know, creates cells throughout life, cells more likely to survive if they’re used. Emotional, challenging and novel experiences provide particularly helpful use of these new neurons, and what adjectives better describe raising a child? Children constantly drag their parents into challenging, novel situations, be it talking a 4-year-old out of a backseat meltdown on the Interstate or figuring out a third-grade homework assignment to make a model of a black hole in space.

Often, we’d rather be doing almost anything else. Aging makes us cling ever more fiercely to our mental ruts. But for most of us, our unique bond with our children yanks us out of them.

And there are other ways that being a dedicated parent strengthens our minds. Research shows that learning and memory skills can be improved by bearing and nurturing offspring. A team of neuroscientists in Virginia found that mother lab rats, just like working mothers, demonstrably excel at time-management and efficiency, racing around mazes to find rewards and get back to the pups in record time. Other research is showing how hormones elevated in parenting can help buffer mothers from anxiety and stress – a timely gift from a sometimes compassionate Mother Nature. Oxytocin, produced by mammals in labor and breast-feeding, has been linked to the ability to learn in lab animals.

Rethinking the mental state of motherhood is reasonable after recent years of evolution of our notion of just what it means to be smart. With our economy newly weighted with people-to-people jobs, and with many professions, including the sciences, becoming more multidisciplinary and collaborative, the people skills we’ve come to think of as “emotional intelligence” are increasingly prized by many wise employers. An ability to tailor your message to your audience, for instance – a skill that engaged parents practice constantly – can mean the difference between failure and success, at home and at work, as Harvard’s president, Lawrence Summers, may now realize.

To be sure, sleep deprivation, overwork and too much “Teletubbies” can sap any parent’s synapses. And to be sure, our society needs to do much more – starting with more affordable, high-quality child care and paid parental leaves – to catch up with other industrialized nations and support mothers and fathers in using their newly acquired smarts to best advantage. That’s why some of the recent “mommy lit” complaints are justified, and probably needed to rouse society to action – if only because nobody will be able to stand our whining for much longer.

Still, it’s worth considering that the torrent of negativity about motherhood comes as part of an era in which intimacy of all sorts is on the decline in this country. Geographically close extended families have long been passé. The marriage rate has declined. And a record percentage of women of child-bearing age today are childless, many by choice.

It’s common these days to hear people say they don’t have time to maintain friendships. Real relationships take a lot of time and work – it’s much more convenient to keep in touch by e-mail. But children insist on face time. They fail to thrive unless we anticipate their needs, work our empathy muscles, adjust our schedules and endure their relentless testing. In the process, if we’re lucky, we may realize that just this kind of grueling work – with our children, or even with others who could simply use some help – is precisely what makes us grow, acquire wisdom and become more fully human. Perhaps then we can start to re-imagine a mother’s brain as less a handicap than a keen asset in the lifelong task of getting smart.