Excerpt from her article.
…[W]hile fatherhood is seen as a steadying influence in a man’s life, something that makes a man if anything more reliable, motherhood is still too often assumed to be the point at which women lose the plot. For those who have never felt comfortable with women in positions of influence, motherhood in all its squishy and stained glory presents a golden opportunity to argue women are too soft to cut it.
Yet there is fascinatingly little evidence for the foggy, soggy maternal mind of popular myth. On the contrary, there is a growing body of neuroscientific evidence suggesting that while surviving on two hours’ sleep a night initially does little for one’s ability to string a sentence together, maternity actually builds the brain up. Which when you think about it, makes perfect evolutionary sense: if procreation really made mothers dumber and more erratic, you wouldn’t pin much faith on the survival of the species.
Rat mothers have been shown to become both bolder at navigating their way through mazes, and better than childless female rats at searching for food: while pregnant, they seem to forge extra connections in areas of the brain linked to memory, learning, problem solving and stress reduction. The brain is being biologically primed to handle demanding new experiences and to acquire necessary new skills.
And while pregnant women may themselves believe they’re losing their mental edge, according to the American writer Katherine Ellison’s groundbreaking book The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter tests tend to show this isn’t the case: they may simply be absorbing the stereotype of the ditzy new mother, and acting accordingly. While there is some evidence that new mothers’ memory does suffer, the damage is probably down to sleep deprivation and it passes – unlike the enhanced brain capacity built up in pregnancy, which in rats at least seems to be permanent.
And that’s not the only way in which motherhood is empowering. Last year, the TV presenter Claudia Winkleman memorably declared that she wasn’t daunted about taking over Film 2010 from Jonathan Ross because: “Once you’ve had an episiotomy, you don’t give a toss about anything… I’ll be saying to myself as we go live, ‘At least this isn’t going to end in stitches.’” Motherhood brings with it the constant nagging fear of something happening to your children, but the upside is that everything else seems surprisingly petty in comparison: the result can be a heady rush of fearlessness. In an odd sense, having children can liberate a woman to think more like a man — bolder, more willing to take risks, less hung up on what other people think of you. There’s no time to sweat the small stuff, and the knowledge that you absolutely have to leave the office on time does at least help develop a laserlike sense of focus.
There is a darker kind of self-knowledge that comes from motherhood, too. Children can push one to the limit and beyond: beneath the intense love for them often bubbles a surprisingly raw anger, and few mothers emerge from the early years without a chastening knowledge of how close to the edge they came. But rather like surviving a near death experience, there is something liberating about having faced the worst of oneself and come through. It would be silly to pretend that motherhood didn’t bring endless guilty baggage with it, above all when it comes to the question of work.
Polling released this weekend by the market researchers TNS suggests we remain confused and conflicted: fewer than a third of working parents felt young children fared better when their mothers held down a job, and seven in 10 thought women shouldn’t work full time if they could afford not to while their children are young. (Nobody was asked what the fathers should do, although it’s intriguing to speculate on how that might have changed the answers.)
Yet as the Office of National Statistics pointed out, almost as many mothers as childless women are now in work, albeit often part-time. Stay-at-home motherhood is becoming relatively rare, which suggests we may finally be able to move on from the endless self-defeating slanging match between mothers to a more nuanced debate about how and when parents would feel comfortable choosing to work. After years in which women felt forced to suppress any feelings of anger or disillusionment about motherhood, it’s healthy that we can admit to its dark side. But the public conversation about motherhood risks becoming obsessed with what we have lost, at the expense of what is gained, to the point where it feels naive or even reactionary to admit you enjoy having children. So happy Mothering Sunday: it’s not a contradiction in terms.
What do you think? Has motherhood made you smarter? Can you relate to the dark side of parenting? I know that I can, but like the author, I am clear that the positives way outweigh the negatives.