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Busting the Mommy-Brain Myth
Busting the Mommy-Brain Myth
Sure, motherhood demands never-ending sacrifice and service. Sleep deprivation is par for the course, with the only viable option being to suck it up. But does it really make us dumber, as so many moms are quick to claim? Or is this so-called “mommy brain” one of those lingering vestiges of sexism that has somehow managed to remain acceptable to uphold?
Contrary to the common wisdom, women don’t get dumber when they procreate. In fact, many studies published in the last several years suggest that having a baby actually makes women smarter. “The brain changes when you become a mother,” says Katherine Ellison, author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes us Smarter. “It becomes more efficient, perceptive, motivated and empathetic—all useful skills in the workplace. Rather than a deficiency, as our culture emphasizes, it’s actually an asset.”
Tell that to a mother who has just had her full cart of groceries bagged by the cashier only to find out she forgot her wallet at home, and you might get some incredulous snorts. But what many women blithely attribute to a lack of brainpower may merely be a lack of sleep.
Your brain on motherhood
According to Craig Kinsley, one of the leading scientists studying the maternal brain, research links motherhood to enhanced cognition, improved resistance to stress and certain kinds of sharpened memory. Kinsley’s 2011 study, published in Comparative Medicine, showed stronger memory consolidation in rats who had been pregnant. Neurologically, having a child sparks a revolution within the brain. At first, because the maternal brain emerges slowly, says Kinsley, the brain feels more like a hazardous construction site than sleek renovation. In pregnancy and early postpartum, fogginess—dare it be called ditziness?—comes with the territory. Yet given the scale of the transformation, this is chump change—and only temporary. The brain is transformed from a self-centered organism to an other-focused caregiver—a huge, hormone-powered transition that claims lots of its time and capacity. The tradeoff? “More efficiency and focus later on,” says Kinsley.
Tell that to the snarky checkout person.
The brain’s vast reorganization includes the olfactory system—the keener sense of smell that begins in pregnancy—that sprouts colonies of new neurons. For mothers, the olfactory makeover makes the smell of their baby, poopy diaper notwithstanding, more attractive. “Anything connected to the baby’s survival, which means mother’s ability to read her baby’s cues, gets strengthened,” says Kinsley. One of the many perks of bonding is how it teaches the brain new tricks, such as big advances in spatial memory and other forms of learning.
Another Kinsley study, published in 2005 in Physiology & Behavior, showed enhanced foraging behavior in mother rats, and recent work is examining enhanced future planning in mother rats, called prospective memory. And unlike the fleeting brain disorientation, the benefits of the maternal brain appear to persist long into old age, amounting to permanent change.
Maximize your mommy brain
“The myth of mommy brain becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Kinsley. Of course, some cognitive areas don’t improve with motherhood, but nor do they decrease. “You become your own worst enemy when you succumb to the idea of impaired function,” Ellison says. “Think about motherhood as having to learn a whole new curriculum, while still having to do the same things as before.” A few things are bound to get lost in the shuffle. If you understand these changes, you can use them to your advantage, Ellison says. “You’ll also understand your pitfalls better and not be defeated by them.” Here are several tips from Ellison on what you can do to boost your bandwidth.
- Try something new. See motherhood as a time of potential, for you as much as your child. Take advantage of this window, marked by dynamic change and plasticity, to try new endeavors. Instead of wondering where your former self went, embrace your latest incarnation as a glorious tabula rasa.
- Recognize new priorities. The strong attentional focus, bordering on obsession, is typically trained on your babe, but nothing says you can’t siphon some off for your work. While it’s healthy to feel like the baby is your sole raison d’etre, you may have work obligations to maintain. It will be much easier to stay on task if your child is in a safe, loving environment.
- To trade off, perchance to sleep. Never underestimate the power of sleep to restore sanity and functionality. It’s the most elusive part of those early years, and the best way to get more of it is to share the lack. Set up different sleep shifts that make sense in your family’s context and try to eke out some kind of rhythm.
- Nourish with brain food. Turn that laser-like focus on your child’s sustenance onto yourself. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants that can help prevent decline in brain function. Cruciferous vegetables can minimize memory loss, so load up on broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. An impressive body of research shows that omega 3s, a type of fat found in fish, nuts and seeds (and many supplements), are critical for optimal brain function.
Next time you find yourself apologizing for mommy brain, pause. Give yourself credit for all you are doing, learning, tracking and juggling. Remember how hard it is to function optimally on minimal sleep. Take into account that, by expanding your family, you have expanded your heart exponentially. Your brain just may need to go through some growing pains of its own as it develops amazing new capacities to function—and love.
Elizabeth is an award-winning journalist who has written about everything from agave syrup to placebos to zero waste. She writes for the magazines Natural Health, Backpacker and FitPregnancy, among others, as well as a handful of websites, including Gaiam and Natural Medicine Journal. She also has coauthored a 52-card oracle deck with guidebook called The Mother’s Wisdom Deck (Sterling Publishers).
April 5th, 2012