The Atlantic

How Motherhood Affects Creativity

Cultural messages tell women that making art and having children are incompatible pursuits. But science suggests that women may become more creative after having kids.
Source: Hein Koh

Her labor begins, and she leans back on her bottom, pulling the first baby out of her body with her own hands and teeth. Within five minutes, another newborn arrives. Soon, her babies are squirming around her, squealing and desperate to suckle.

Although the mother rat has never given birth before this, she is now responsible for a dozen lives—so she hits the ground running, instinct as her compass, biology as her map. She has already stockpiled the materials for a warm nest. She uses what she can find. Strands of hair, dried grass, twigs, paper towels, furniture foam.

Her brain is closer to a human mother’s brain than that of a mouse or a dog. It has the same neurochemicals as a human’s. Her cortex is more like a person’s than it is different. She has a hippocampus, an amygdala, and the structure of her brain cells also resembles human cells, with their neurons and glia. During pregnancy, her neurological circuitry already started reprogramming itself. As a new mother, she will choose her babies over cocaine (even if she enjoyed cocaine before becoming pregnant). 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 will experience less memory decline in old age, and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes. 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.

“Rats outsmart me every day of the week,” said Kelly G. Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, who studies their maternal brains. Once, a wild rat built a nest in Lambert’s office from shredded paper from a university magazine and little pieces of sheep brains that the professor had left out for a class dissection project. “That was weird,” she said.

Whether rodent or human, a mother’s brain requires cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility. “This helps us adapt to new environments.” After all, she added, “flexibility and thinking outside of the box—isn’t

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic3 min readPolitics
A Mentor's Advice to UCLA's Campus Republicans
The sociologist Gabriel Rossman offered valuable advice to UCLA students on the responsibilities that accompany free speech—and modeled the importance of having conservative faculty on campus.
The Atlantic6 min readPolitics
The Rise of Anti-Liberalism
A man named François is a professor in Paris. He is a scholar of Joris-Karl Huysmans, an obscure 19th-century author who, in his later years, converted to Catholicism in an epiphany. François is the hero, or rather anti-hero, of French novelist Miche
The Atlantic6 min readPop Culture
The Prowess of Nina Simone’s Early Records
What the artist's early singles—made before she was famous, and newly released—reveal about the legend she'd become