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Never mind “mommy brain” … motherhood actually enhances creativity

Mother and Daughter Painting


Calah Alexander - published on 09/25/17

But creativity isn't limited to professional work.

I don’t know about you, but I love me a good long-form Atlantic essay. So I dove into this one published last week on the neurological link between motherhood and creativity — two subjects near and dear to me. And while it was a fascinating read, it was surprisingly narrow in scope, using the term “creativity” to refer almost exclusively to professional artistic output.

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The article was written by Erika Haya Saki, a writer and professor who discovered she was pregnant with twin boys when her first child was a toddler. Like all good long-form journalism, it slips in and out of narrative and exposition, weaving together personal anecdotes with maternal rat research and descriptions of artwork in an attempt to explore the question of whether motherhood kills a woman’s creativity.

According to research on maternal rat brains (which are strikingly similar to human brains), motherhood actually enhances creativity. And contrary to our cultural assumption that creating art is antithetical to motherhood, many artists featured in the article (including the author) reported dramatic increases in creative output during pregnancy and those hazy newborn days. But the lack of time in which to devote to creative work, as well as juggling the conflict of interests between brain-children and actual children, was often stressful at best.

At worst, according to Saki, the stress of motherhood can not only deprive women of their creativity, it can actually negatively effect their ability to mother.

In Lambert’s lab, researchers have been studying “low – and high – socioeconomic status” rats. They have asked: What happens in the brains and behavior of the maternal rats who can easily find food, safety, or shelter versus the maternal rats who cannot? In the best world, once her pups arrive, the mother’s “cortex will get thicker, her neurons will become more complex, with more connection points,” Lambert said. “Having offspring can be enriching.” But take away resources, and a mother rat’s world goes into disarray. “It’s not enriching, it’s incredibly stressful and traumatic,” Lambert said. Her lab found that under-resourced maternal rats were slower to respond to their pups’ needs, had less neuroplasticity (new brain connections), and were slower to learn.

This is the only mention of the way socioeconomic factors effect motherhood and creativity in the entire article. Saki makes it clear that these constraints don’t apply to her, acknowledging the privilege inherent in being able to outsource child care and carve out time alone in which to work.

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What she doesn’t acknowledge is the time, energy, and creativity required to provide for children with fewer available resources. Where the under-resourced maternal rats likely spent two, three, and four times longer than the other maternal rats hunting and gathering to try and keep their offspring alive, under-resourced human mothers spend an equally significant portion of their time and energy stretching and conserving resources.

It takes creativity to feed a family of seven on a tight budget. I spend a lot of time thinking of ways to combine ingredients and make what we have last longer — not to mention the time spent making everything myself. And while the under-resourced maternal rats might be slower to learn, I can’t believe that’s true for human mothers. It wasn’t until my first child was born that I learned to cook at all, and in a few years I went from struggling to roast a chicken to making Julia Child’s poulet au porto. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances make similarly huge leaps in learning and proficiency for the sake of their children.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some truth in the idea that artistic creativity can be dampened by the demands of motherhood. I wrote poetry before I had kids, and I don’t anymore. The noise and chaos and busyness of life makes it hard to think in iambic pentameter, and I don’t have the luxury to outsource childcare.

Woman Painting

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But I can’t agree with the implication that being lower on the socioeconomic spectrum diminishes not only maternal creativity, but maternal impulses period. My creativity, and that of women in similar circumstances, might not manifest in art during this time of life. But it is there, undiminished — manifested in the creative ways I manage to invest in my children’s health and well-being. From bartering for extracurricular lessons to creating a well-rounded (and delicious) meal from the dregs of the pantry, I’m constantly thinking outside the box. It’s practically a reflex to find a creative solution by now — a skill I developed because of my children, not despite them.

When we talk about motherhood and creativity, it’s important to remember that creativity doesn’t equal professional output. Mothers are creative in all kinds of ways, both out of necessity and out of desire. We shouldn’t limit creative expression to paid work — after all, no one pays us to have children, and that is the work most worth doing.

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