Has Motherhood Fried Your Brain?

Fried brain no longer has to be the plat du jour for modern moms, according to the empowering new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Katherine Ellison. In The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes us Smarter, Ellison tosses out the traditional notion that parents are more susceptible to brain drain than brain gain.

But who may well be responsible for perpetrating the prejudice? Says Ellison: "Much of the bias dates from the 1960s and 1970s, when feminist writers, rebelling against being consigned to the home, portrayed motherhood as a brain-killing profession." In fact, she maintains, motherhood "can be an extremely intellectually stimulating job."

Citing universal examples, Ellison extols not only the virtues of motherhood, but also its positive mental benefits. Peppered among the compelling scientific data, she serves up entertaining "you go, girl" anecdotes that add a rah-rah spin to the most difficult parenting responsibilities. "I had always been nervous about losing my mind if I had kids," says the author, the mother of two young boys. "So once I had them, I was excited to investigate research showing there might actually be some improvements to my brain."

Mothers can all relate to the frenzied, life-altering state that pregnancy brings — exciting and terrifying, strengthening and depleting. Ellison underlines this paradox by examining the perceived international phenomena of "pregnancy dementia", a concept that bridges the cultural gap. One London study offers physical evidence that pregnant women actually experience minor brain shrinkage. Mothers, however, should not despair — the good news is that the brain returns to normal size within six months.

“Pregnancy is a positive crisis point,” says Manhattan psychotherapist and founder of ‘The Mother’s Room’, a mothers’ support group, Laura Favin, C.S.W., M.A. ”Your body is changing internally — you’re preparing for a very challenging physical experience and also for a transition into a very different life.”

“I couldn’t afford to be ditzy,” says Washington Heights mom Abigail Rothberger, an accountant who has one-year-old twins. Rothberger toiled throughout her pregnancy to complete her projects at a large accounting firm. “I worked extra hard,” she recalls. “I didn’t want anyone saying I couldn’t handle things because I was pregnant. Now, every day as I deal with the challenges of parenthood, I become a stronger person.”

Energy taps!

This inner strength, summoned forth during motherhood, is key to realizing your full brain potential, according to Ellison. “I hope this book will empower mothers by helping them focus on all they are gaining mentally by raising children in a thoughtful and engaged way,” the author says. “If we think of ourselves more as strategists and thinkers, we can make the experience more enriching.” She breaks down the positive intellectual changes into five basic categories: perception, efficiency, resilience, motivation and emotional intelligence. In each of these categories, mothers can learn valuable skills that are not only essential in child rearing, but also can be useful in the workplace.

“Becoming a parent added an entire new layer to my life,” says Valerie Kingston, an Upper West Side actress, playwright and teacher at Talent Ventures Incorporated, who has a pre-teen son. “As a parent you are constantly learning — you can’t believe what you can do.”

"Children certainly have the potential to increase parents’ understanding of human development and interaction," says Joanna Strauss, C.S.W., a psychotherapist in Westchester and co-founder of Parents’ Workshop, a psycho-educational group for mothers. "If parents keep their hearts and minds open, they cannot avoid learning a lot — not just about children, but about themselves."

Practice makes smarter

Does motherhood actually make us smarter? Ellison hopes to spread the message that in many ways it can. "It always depends on a woman’s circumstances and outlook, but if you think about it in evolutionary terms, there’s no other time in a woman’s life when she needs to be quite as smart as when she is looking after young children," she says. Ellison’s persuasive arguments depend largely on the definition of "smart". Becoming a mother may not boost your capacity to master calculus, but it enriches the tapestry of your life, challenging you to find solutions for complex problems, inspiring you to embark on a new journey, igniting a volcano of emotional fire.

“Motherhood can transform women,” says Laurel Schwartz, Ph.D., a Manhattan psychotherapist who also runs workshops for mothers who wish to return to the workplace. “Some women flower upon giving birth. They become more courageous, more confident and possess a new openness to the world.”

Scientists are currently involved in intriguing new studies in brain plasticity that suggest that new neurons and brain connections evolve constantly, thus learned behaviors are strengthened with practice. During motherhood, the brain tends to be more "plastic", so that new skills employed during parenthood can re-map the intellect and be useful in all types of life situations. Ellison suggests that fathers and parents who adopt can also expand their gray matter.

Perception and efficiency work hand in hand during parenthood when all of the senses are aroused as you tend the child. Your hearing picks up the meekest whimper from your new baby — you run to gently cradle him in one arm, comforting him with your special mommy touch as you continue to scrawl notes about the looming project nearing deadline at work. In a flash, you drop your notes, and with heightened dexterity, balance the baby as your reflexes fly into overdrive — you successfully rescue your 2-year-old from sudden danger when he leaps from the living room couch onto a makeshift trampoline. In other words, your internal hazard alarm and multi-tasking skills are greatly enhanced with motherhood!

"Parents do have to learn to multi-task," says Strauss. "I remember attempting to play chess with my 6-year-old, while feeding my baby in a high chair and cooking dinner all at the same time. I suspect this skill, often linked genetically to women, is enhanced by the practice parenting provides."

Craig Kinsley, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Richmond in Virginia, discovered that new mother rats caught food three times faster than virgin rats — an experiment he refers to as "mom rats kicking virgin butt." These types of studies reinforce the evolutionary theory that it’s essential for mothers to develop an extra edge for her offspring to survive. Even more intriguing is the conclusion that mental advantages developed in mother rats may last up to 24 months — the equivalent of 80 human years. Kinsley and his lab partner Kelly Lambert, neuroscientist and mother of two young children, are the first researchers to proclaim on record that motherhood may actually enhance cerebral power.

Let’s hear it for hormones!

Ellison explores the impact of chemical hormones on a new mother’s ability to cope with stress, resulting in heightened resiliency. Oxytocin, known as the cuddle hormone, stimulates labor and prompts the release of milk in nursing mothers. Recent studies indicate oxytocin may actually aid memory and increase learning potential. It’s also being touted as a weapon to battle depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The presence of this hormone in new mothers may jumpstart the anti-stress system and can lead to permanent changes in the ability to cope with emotional trauma.

Most mothers agree that their emotional intelligence, or "empathy muscle", is strenuously exercised during parenthood. The ability to read nonverbal clues becomes second nature as a mother cares for her newborn.

“One of the most important skills for a mother to develop is emotional intelligence, the ability to learn how to tolerate all different feelings,” says Favin. “Children can be the greatest teachers, able to constantly challenge you to develop your emotional strength. Keying into these emotions can get you very smart, very fast. And children who grow up with emotionally balanced parents will be strong and wise as well.”

But, for some parents this skill does not come naturally. “You don’t want to get into magical thinking,” says Dr. Schwartz. “While motherhood can offer a panoply of new skills, it doesn’t necessarily offer them for every woman.”

Not going it alone

Professional intervention may help when the path to good parenting becomes obscured. Ellison discusses the benefits of that eternal fount of maternal wisdom — the mother support group. Daniel Stern, a Swiss psychology professor she interviewed, has dubbed the maternal craving to reach out to other mothers for psychological and practical advice "the motherhood mindset". “Women should not become isolated,” says Dr. Schwartz. “The company of other women can be tremendously supportive — to share experience, problem solve, and mentor one another.”

Brain scans of Buddhist monks illustrate a learned ability to turn hostile emotions into compassionate thoughts. Ellison compares this to the trial and error parents experience as they labor to convert a typically chaotic household into a temple of blissful peace. (We can dream, can’t we?)

As parents we automatically slip into spin control and self-restraint mode, a talent that can be beneficial in the professional world. Ellison claims that many of these parenting skills such as multi-tasking, conflict control, time management and emotional intelligence are becoming more valued in the U.S. workplace, where there are nearly 26 million working mothers.

“As an actress and a writer, I was able to capture the growth experience of parenthood and use it to hone my craft. I am more in tune with my actors and have a greater insight into my characters,” says Kingston. Susan Garber, a Queens mother and teacher, feels that having a child transformed her on the job. “When I returned to work after having Matthew, I was a completely different teacher,” she says. “I was much more empathetic — more conscious and sensitive to the needs of both my students and their parents.”

Ellison concludes her book with 10 tips that will help pump those mommy brain muscles. The focus is on personal wellbeing, like exercise, socializing, sleeping well, and carving out time for yourself as you navigate the often murky waters of parenthood.

So don a pair of rose-colored glasses, put on your thinking cap, and as Ellison says, "Keep in mind that a Mommy Brain … is a super-attentive learning machine, engaged in life-or-death work, and in training for skills that can be used for years to come."