The Brains Behind the Operation

December 9, 2009 | NeW Staff

A fascinating article in The City Journal by Kay Hymowitz explores the complex intersection of women: motherhood and career. What will win the battle? And what are working women with no “time” for motherhood actually fighting against?

Here are the highlights:

“In the struggle for equality between the sexes, it keeps coming down to motherhood, doesn’t it? Consider a recent article by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic. Rosin finds that nursing her infant is holding her back from the work she enjoys, despite her plan for a fully egalitarian marriage.

 “We were raised to expect that co-parenting was an attainable goal,” she laments, yet breast-feeding ties her, and not her husband, to their baby. She combs through research on the health benefits of breast-feeding for babies and makes a convincing case that they aren’t as strong as experts have insisted. So does she quit nursing? She does not—even though, she admits, “I’m not really sure why.”

Among the most troubling for women like Rosin is that their inner conflict between child rearing and independence may be a battle between two powerful evolutionary forces.

The profound female connection to her offspring is the Rosetta stone of female sexual behavior.

The notion that females are more highly invested in their children than males is being confirmed by findings in biochemistry and neuroscience, as these disciplines clarify the role of hormones—particularly testosterone and oxytocin—in sexual and reproductive behavior.

Women have many more oxytocin receptors in their brains than men do, and those receptors rev up during orgasm, childbirth, and breast-feeding—signaling that at a biological level, the boundaries most of us take as axiomatic between sexual pleasure, reproduction, and mothering are not all that clear.

In fact, as neuroscientists and geneticists piece together the human brain’s evolution, it’s becoming clear that, if it’s natural for a woman to go crazy over her babies, it’s also natural for a woman to run the State Department.

But you could call it problematic, as new mothers like Rosin and Roiphe are rediscovering. The contemporary woman is in a bind. Her brain (crudely put, her hypothalamus) is at war with her brain (equally crudely, her frontal cortex). She wants two things at once, and they are often contradictory.

And here’s another bitter pill for women: more complex societies like our own require a more highly developed frontal cortex. To thrive in today’s complex economy, children have to undergo many years of intensive training. The final irony for Femina sapiens is that she may well find herself sacrificing some potential achievements to raise the child who goes on to invent a device that makes life richer for future generations of women.

So, in the end is it actually a sacrifice?

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