“There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” English literary critic Cyril Connolly declared seventy something years ago. Creative women have been haunted by his warning ever since.
While some women with creative careers happily choose not to have children, those who wish to become mothers are often nagged by worries about how having kids will affect their work. Will I have any time to focus after the baby comes? How will I make the finances work? Will I even have the same drive to create? Will my baby-addled brain let me down?
While there are good reasons to worry about combining kids and creative work in the modern world — kids are indeed expensive and bosses demonstrably discriminate against mothers – there’s at least good news for creative moms when it comes to the last question. According to an utterly fascinating Atlantic article by journalist (and mother of three) Erika Hayasaki, your brain is likely to become even more creative after you have kids.
The long article is a deep dive into the anxieties of the creative mother and the steps women artists and writers take to manage their dual role as mothers and creators. If this sounds at all familiar to you, it’s well worth a read. But perhaps the most heartening part of the piece is the beginning, which kicks off with a look at recent science of what giving birth does to the brains of female rats. In short, it hones and sharpens their creativity into a fearsome survival tool:
During pregnancy, her neurological circuitry already started reprogramming itself… She is bolder than before. She will hunt during the day now, even though it is more dangerous–because her babies need her at night.
Prior to becoming a mother, she might have chased a cricket for food, “hither and thither, a haphazard pattern,” attracting predators, according to one study. Even after catching the cricket, it might have clumsily slipped from her grasp. But as a lactating mom, her method is “more direct and lethal.” She captures the cricket in 70 seconds–four times faster than non-mom rats–and does not let it go. She does not have time to waste. Her brain’s motor and sensory systems have sharpened.
Even as her offspring grow and learn to fend for themselves, the neurological changes of motherhood persist… She is more efficient, making fewer errors. She finds new and unusual ways to get tasks done–problem-solving approaches she had not considered before giving birth.
For obvious reasons, no one has run human mothers through mazes or timed them running down prey to compare their pre- and post-birth performance. But given the similarities between rat and human brains, there is every reason to believe human mothers benefit from a similar sharpening of perception, motivation, and problem-solving skills after giving birth. On a biological level, having kids is likely to spur creativity.
That doesn’t mean logistics can’t get in the way though. It’s no good to your career if your brain is on fire with ideas, but you are too exhausted from changing diapers to work on them. This too is reflected in the rat studies. The cognitive benefits of motherhood only accrue to rats provided with ample food and other resources. “Poor” rats, who have to struggle for survival, are another case entirely.
“Take away resources, and a mother rat’s world goes into disarray. ‘It’s not enriching, it’s incredibly stressful and traumatic,’ [neuroscience professor Kelly] Lambert said,” tells Hayasaki.
The good news, then, is that motherhood will not in any way make your brain work less well or cause you to be less creative. That’s a myth. But the bad news is there are still lots of economic and social reasons combining motherhood and creativity can be hard. But at least if you know your brain is more than up to the task, those structural issues can be overcome with support and, yes, creativity.
Originally published at www.inc.com