Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Sivan 5765 - July 6, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Home and Family

The Mental and Emotional Benefits of Motherhood
by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Raising children is mentally enriching for mothers and fathers, according to some leading brain scientists, like Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco. 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.

Contrary to the image that is often given, parenting really is not a zero-sum, children-take-all game. Raising children is actually mentally enriching for mothers and fathers.

The human brain creates cells throughout life. The cells are more likely to survive if they're used. Emotional, challenging and novel experiences use these new neurons, and what better describes raising a child?

Children constantly drag their parents into challenging, novel situations, as every parent can testify.

Aging can make us cling to our mental ruts. But for most of us, our bond with our children yanks us out of them.

Research shows that learning and memory skills can be improved by bearing and nurturing offspring, according to Katherine Ellison, author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, writing in the New York Times on May 8, 2005. A team of neuroscientists in Virginia found that mother lab rats, just like busy 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. Oxytocin, produced by mammals in labor and breast-feeding, has been linked to the ability to learn in lab animals.

There are other notions of intelligence that do not fit the classical mode, as well. The social skills some describe as "emotional intelligence" are increasingly prized by many in the modern world. 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 in many situations, whether at home or at work.

To be sure, sleep deprivation, overwork and too much stress generally is not good for anyone's thinking. And unfortunately, modern society provides very few opportunities to use the skills gained in parenting in any other context.

Ellison notes that torrent of negativity about motherhood comes together with a drastic decline in its popularity. The marriage rate has declined, and a record percentage of women of child-bearing age today are childless, many by choice.

Real relationships with people take a lot of time and work. 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.

If we're lucky, Ellison says, 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 society will start to re-imagine a mother's brain as less a handicap than a keen asset in the lifelong task of getting smart.


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