Do pregnancy and motherhood make you smarter?
The most likely answer to this question that one would get from conducting an informal poll in the streets or browsing through the Internet would be "no." Most people would probably say that becoming a mom just makes you tired and forgetful. Phrases like “pregnancy brain,” “mommy brain,” and “momnesia” have become a part of our modern lexicon when talking about the effects of childbearing on a mom’s mind.
But science offers a different story.
As The Wall Street Journal reports, a newly published study from the Netherlands found that pregnancy markedly changed the brain of a woman for the better. According to the Journal’s summary:
Women who became pregnant between the scanning sessions showed neural changes so distinct that a computer could distinguish between pregnant and nonpregnant women based on their brain scans alone. The heightened estrogen and progesterone hormones of pregnancy trimmed back some “gray matter”—the cell branches that connect neurons to each other—which has the effect of sharpening, not diminishing, mental capacities. The neural pathways that remain are streamlined and strengthened in the process.
The study comes just a couple of years after a different study on pregnant and lactating rats that found that pregnancy and motherhood enhanced the mammal’s brain functioning to make them more efficient at things like running mazes and other complex tasks than their non-mother rat counterparts. As with the Netherlands study, the findings suggest that motherhood sharpens a woman’s brain on a deeply neurological level. As Megan Gambino wrote in her summary of the study for Smithsonian magazine, “Being a mom does more than just change her body, it may maximize her brain power too.”
That motherhood essentially streamlines a mother’s brain corresponds with yet another study by economists that found that having children does not make women less effective in their work. Rather, the study found that mothers outperformed childless women in almost every single performance metric the study used. As one article for Quartz put it, “Kids, it seems, are the ultimate efficiency hack.”
Motherhood, from the earliest moments, begins reshaping our brains—trimming away the fat and boosting the most productive and useful parts of our minds.
Indeed, as research continues to show, the statement bears true even on the most microscopic level. It’s not that becoming a mother boosts a woman’s IQ or somehow becomes a substitute for continuing to learn through reading and intellectual engagement. But motherhood, from the earliest moments, begins reshaping our brains—trimming away the fat and boosting the most productive and useful parts of our minds. This, in turn, manifests in our daily lives, making us quicker and sharper thinkers and more agile for what life throws at us. This helps us to mother, but its benefits can clearly spill over into our professional lives, should we choose to continue those pursuits.
This is not to say that motherhood comes without challenges, perhaps greatest among them being the sleepless nights during the newborn stage. But women are constantly being told to delay childbearing because motherhood will make us dumber and less efficient, holding us back from our other dreams. My own experience contradicts this and backs the science. My most productive years have been my childbearing years: in between my second and imminently-due third child, I wrote a book. And a key to writing the book was an intense focus and efficiency in my writing that I attribute almost 100 percent to being in a certain mental shape conditioned by juggling two children, a home, and my job.
With all the buzz about science these days, it’s high time we start retiring the unscientific labels like “mommy track” and “pregnancy brain” that frighten women into thinking that somehow their bodies and brains are not capable of working together to accomplish many good things at once. Or, let’s at least be scientifically accurate when we use the phrase “mommy brain.”
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies, and the founder and editor-in-chief of AltCatholicah. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).