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5 Reasons Why Motherhood Makes Us Better Workers

Written by Amy Henderson of Tend Lab

Photography by Monica Paolini, Photographed by BELATHÉE PHOTOGRAPHY

I panicked when I accidentally became pregnant with my third child. I was already tired of fighting against the perception—in my own head and in the world around me—that being a mom undermined my work performance. And I dreaded how much more difficult this would become after my third child was born. While I was out on maternity leave, in a state of desperation, I called the working moms I admired to ask, “How are you doing it?” These calls, which eventually became a database of over 150 formal interviews with high performing moms and dads, led to some shocking revelations.

First, the majority of the moms I spoke with realized, while they were talking to me, that they were performing better in their careers because of their kids, not in spite of them. Before our conversation, however, most of these women had been too inundated with negative messaging to even consider the possibility that motherhood might have had a positive impact on their careers.

Second, when I coded the interviews. I found that most parents developed the same enhanced abilities. I looked to other fields of research—including neuroscience, evolutionary biology, game theory, primate patterns, leadership studies, management theory, artificial intelligence, computer science, and more—to help me understand what I was unearthing in these interviews. I discovered that parenthood neurologically primes us to develop specific skills which are not only relevant, but necessary, for success in the workplace of the rapidly approaching future. Below is a summary of these five main skills.

1. Emotional Intelligence. To show up for parenting, you must increase your emotional intelligence. Or, as Amy Pressman, the president of Medallia, a 1,000-employee company she co-founded with her husband while raising three small children, said, “You can’t fire your kids, so you must grow and evolve as a person to adapt to their needs and wants. As a result, parenthood has increased my capacity to nurture the best in others, a skill I strive to integrate into our company.”

Neurobiologist Ruth Feldman, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel and an adjunct faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine, has spent the last twenty years studying the impact of parenting on the brains of both men and women. In a 2014 review of all of the research conducted on this subject, she cited that engaged parents are likely to develop, among other things, an enhanced capacity to anchor feelings in the present moment, resonate with others’ pain and emotions, simulate others’ goals and actions in one’s own brain, and collaborate well with others.

2. Courage. Oxytocin is one of the main hormones involved in parenting. It’s often called the “love hormone” because it’s released during childbirth and breastfeeding and plays a role in bonding a mom and her baby. Recent research conducted by Feldman shows that dads (even non-biological dads) who play a primary role in care-taking can produce as much oxytocin as breastfeeding birth mothers.

In 2014, University of Bonn psychologist Monika Eckstein found that oxytocin is linked with reduced activity in the fear center of the brain (the amygdala) in response to frightening stimuli. In other words, the love we feel for our children makes us less susceptible to fear.

Or, as a senior level computer programmer who built and managed the teams at several successful tech companies shared with me: “Since becoming a mom, I no longer tolerate when a coder does a half-ass job and then fights when I tell him that I’m not going to merge his code into the system. Before, I would hesitate and worry about it escalating into a team conflict. Now, I’m not afraid to take a stand and say no.” When asked if it was just experience that allowed her to be more assertive with her colleagues, she replied: “No. Because my daughter is a higher priority to me than my work, I now glean more of my value from my role as a mom, and whether I’m doing right by her.” And her newly developed courage, she realized when she was talking with me, allows her to be much more effective at work.

3. Resilience. Almost every parent I interviewed talked about building a community of support. For instance, Julie Miller-Phipps, the regional president for Southern California Kaiser, told me: “When you become a parent, it’s not doable to have everything fall on you. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t do it all myself, and I didn’t need to. Others couldn’t do it by themselves either, and I could help them. I built a network of people in my child’s life and in my work life who help me ebb and flow and be resilient.”

When oxytocin is present, according to research conducted by Shelley E. Taylor at UCLA, people are more likely to respond to stress with the impulse to “tend and befriend,” rather than to fight or flight. “When it is operating during times of low stress, oxytocin physiologically rewards those who maintain good social bonds with feelings of well-being. But,” Taylor told Science Watch, “when it comes on board during times of high social stress or pain, it may lead people to seek out more and better social contacts.”

Engaged working parents are familiar with stress. This stress, combined with the love we feel for our kids and the oxytocin it floods through our systems, neurologically encourages us to develop stronger social networks. And this allows us to be more resilient.

4. Productivity & Efficiency. Neuroscientist Craig Kinsley of the University of Richmond found that female rats who have at least one litter exhibit less fear, have higher performances on maze tests due to better memory recall, and are up to five times more efficient in catching prey. These changes were true even for mice who didn’t actually carry and birth the litter, but who took responsibility for caring for the babies. Kinsley believes that the biological impulse to provide for one’s babies rewires the brain to increase its efficiency. And these changes lasted a lifetime.

“The findings almost certainly apply to humans,” Kinsey told CNN in 2003. “People share most of their genes with rats and such basic behaviors are very likely to be similar among mammals.”

Liz Wiseman, President of the Wiseman Group and author of three best-selling books, had four children while working as an executive at Oracle. She believes having kids has greatly enhanced her career: “Holding life in your arms gives you the perspective to sort out what matters and what doesn’t. It gave me a filter to get through all of the fluff and the chaos so that I could be laser focused on what really mattered.”

5. Ambition & Motivation. Many of the mothers I interviewed were surprised to discover how difficult it was to return to work after maternity leave. “I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom,” said a woman who is now a partner at a major law firm, “but it nearly killed me to separate from my baby when she was only 12 weeks old. For almost a year, every time I stepped out the door I asked myself: ‘Is this worth it?’”

Ultimately, any parent who leaves their child to go to work—whether it’s a choice or a financial necessity—must grapple with the distance it creates. There are times when we want to be with them and we can’t be. And this forces us to question what we are doing, and why we are doing it.

Answering this question forges us, like steel in molten fire, into stronger, more motivated versions of our former selves. Leah Mc-Gowan Hare was working as a computer programmer at PeopleSoft when her first child was born. When she came back from maternity leave, she decided: “If I’m going to be away from my child, I’m going to do something that I enjoy.” As a result, she pursued a different position within PeopleSoft, one that allowed her to bring her gifts and passions to work, and within two years, while acquiring promotions and an increased salary, Leah became the top-rated technical trainer at PeopleSoft. And Leah is not alone, a 2017 study conducted by Accenture found that women with children are just as likely as women without children to aspire to senior leadership positions and they are more likely to change jobs for a promotion or higher pay.

From an evolutionary standpoint, according to anthropologist Susan Hardy, a mother’s ambition was “an integral part of producing offspring who survived and prospered.
Striving for clout was genetically programmed into the psyches of female primates.”

Eventually, I left my job to focus on researching parenthood’s impact on career performance. Soon after making this bold move I met Janet Van Huysse, who had been the original VP of HR and then Diversity at Twitter. While at Twitter, Janet implemented programs designed to support new moms, new dads, and the managers who worked with them. She believes that, “the companies who will succeed in the 21st century will be the ones who encourage and foster the development of skills acquired in parenting.” Together, Janet and I founded a business, called Tend Lab, designed to unlock the power and potential of parenthood in the workplace.

Because technology is ushering us into a new era of work. The internet is changing the way we operate. In our increasingly networked and interconnected world, we are moving away from the old model of leadership—which is hierarchical, directive, top-down, and transactional—to a type of leadership which is collective, distributed, bottom-up, facilitative, and emergent. In other words, we are entering an era where parenthood is the ultimate leadership and development training program. Soon, the ability to collaborate well with others in a focused, courageous, resilient, and productive manner will be recognized as the most effective form of engagement. And engaged parents will be seen as assets in the workplace.

For more on Tend Lab, click here. And for more Mother articles like this, check out our pieces on 20+ Moms On Balancing Motherhood and Work, 10 Ways To Work Yourself Out Of The Overwhelm, and 10 Simplicity Parenting Tips.

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