It didn’t take long to realise that one year of maternity leave was far too long for me. I had assumed those would be the best days of my life when, in fact, I was broke, lonely and, quite frankly, bored. I felt like I didn’t even know who I was anymore.
I didn’t know it at the time but my brain was changing. A computer algorithm can tell from a brain scan whether a person has been pregnant or not with 100% accuracy.
Understanding the brain — and especially female brains — is an emerging field. Many still think of ‘baby brain’ as bad, or a myth to keep women in the kitchen. Popular culture overstates pregnancy-related cognitive and memory decline.
But when I took a closer look, I found fascinating and sometimes positive neural side effects of becoming a mother. It’s possible the changes that happened in my brain made me better at parenting and also better at business. While research is in its infancy, 75% of mothers think parenthood has made them better leaders in the workplace, and their colleagues agree.
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Here are a few of the brain upgrades I noticed
A newborn baby’s sleep cycle is only 45 minutes, so I learned to be incredibly efficient. It’s a miracle I got anything done with constant interruptions and little sleep, yet I did! And I brought this efficiency into my paid work too. I’ve also noticed that I’m more understanding and respectful of the time and boundaries of my co-workers.
It makes sense that oxytocin — the hormone that increases during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding — improves our parenting skills, and I’ve found it improves professional relationship skills too. Here’s an example: oxytocin increases speed and sensitivity in reading facial expressions, an essential skill when parenting non-verbal infants. It also improves compassion and empathy. Back in the office and high emotional intelligence is associated with effective leadership and professional success.
Staying calm under pressure
Now that I’ve managed toddler meltdowns in the supermarket and soothed a crying baby for hours, managing stress and conflict at work feels like a breeze by comparison. The practice of caregiving (and that oxytocin boost) develops stress management, negotiation and mediation skills that I also put to good use in the workplace.
These changes are partly biological, resulting from being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding. But they are also partly environmental, learned through the act of parenting. Men and non-birthing parents can also benefit from a baby-boosted brain, provided they are given the opportunity by their workplace to be involved in family life.
After my first baby, I returned to my office job as a different person. I quit just a few months later for all the usual reasons, including a long commute, inflexible hours and lack of quality childcare. Like many mothers, I couldn’t find what I needed in employment, so I started my own business. I worked around 10-20 hours a week with no capital investment and no idea what I was doing.
Two more babies and 10 years later, I now run an international online education business that provides me with more income and flexibility than I ever could have dreamed of in employment. And I reckon my efficiency, emotional intelligence and stress management skills make me a pretty good business owner, too.
Stereotypes and myths about mothers, lack of role models, and systemic barriers mean we are still underrepresented in leadership and business.
It’s time to give parents equal opportunities, both at work and also at home.