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
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
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.