I have always considered myself a pretty competent multitasker. Being a parent requires it. I feel accomplished when I can pack mega-volumes of work, chores, and fun into every day. I do it because I want to – and because if I don’t, things simply won’t get done. Is it exhausting? Sometimes. I’m not going to lie – I often wish I could trick time and eek out a few more hours in each day…or convince my to-do list to run on auto-pilot and take care of itself. Thankfully, as parents, we seem to be pre-wired to function and recharge on minimal sleep and constant overdrive.
But how do we do it? What makes parents – especially moms – so adept at juggling multiple tasks simultaneously? Mommy multitasking is more than cooking dinner and talking on the telephone – it requires the ability to focus on critically important tasks and ignore the unimportant ones, in order to get everything done in a finite amount of time. Moms, it seems, have to be everywhere at once with a “plan-B” waiting in the wings in case it’s needed to keep things running smoothly. There are no parenting classes that teach us about juggling life with children – there are no secret formulas or special tricks. In multitasking, our parental survival resources are simply forced to expand to meet the challenges of each day to keep our children healthy and safe.
There is some debate as to the efficiency of multitasking. Some studies argue that taking on more than one task at a time compromises cognitive performance and diminishes memory as our attention amplifies one neural signal while suppressing others; in other words, when we devote more attention to one activity, we must take attention away from another. Contrasting research claims that mothers may become used to operating as multitaskers, and this training may actually sharpen and enhance the ability to pay attention to many tasks at once.
In her book “The Mommy Brain”, journalist Katherine Ellison discusses recent neurological research on multitasking and she challenges long-held opinions that multitasking decreases brain power. Newer studies, says Ellison, believe that raising children may in fact make moms smarter. “From the enhanced senses in pregnancy and early motherhood to the alertness and memory skills necessary to manage like a pro, to a greater aptitude for risk-taking and a talent for empathy and negotiation, these advantages not only help mothers in raising their children, but are assets in their work and social lives as well.”
Here are some of the ways Ellison believes motherhood improves your mind:
- Perception: A mother’s sensory-rich life with her newborn actually remaps part of her brain—improving her ability to interpret new information.
- Efficiency: Pregnancy and early motherhood enrich the brain, improving memory and setting a mother up for a lifetime of multitasking.
- Resilience: Oxytocin, a hormone abundant in mothers, effectively combats stress, clearing the way for improved learning; scientists are studying its potential as an anti-depressant and even as a therapy for Alzheimer’s.
- Motivation: The biological urge to defend their children, bolstered by mind-altering hormones, helps mothers become more creative and competitive.
- Emotional Intelligence: Mothers get basic training in this important kind of smarts as they tone their brain’s “empathy muscles” by instinctively imitating their babies’ facial expressions.
As hectic as your days may seem, parenting and multitasking can actually boost your brain power and help you manage your crazy-busy life. Our children continually pull us and stretch us to our intellectual and social limits. But be encouraged; by focusing on multiple tasks simultaneously, we are better able to allocate attention to the important tasks at hand as we disregard the irrelevant and distracting information. The good news is, your multitasking skills are good for you and your children, and will help you become a more present, available, focused, organized and perhaps even smarter parent.
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