by Elise Ellsworth
“FATSO.” With indignation, I poke my head out the door. Again, “fatso.” “He shouldn’t be calling him a fatso,” I tell my husband. “I know,” says my husband, completely nonplussed. It is hard to sit and write at the computer – kids keep wandering through the room. “They should be in bed,” I think. My daughter needs my help funding a tea set purchase. Can I spare any change? Three older boys arrive back from an activity and start bouncing balls and checking a smartphone. I can barely concentrate. I have an agonizing feeling that the night is falling apart. Late bedtime. Grumpy kids tomorrow. My kindergartner now thinks of himself as a “fatso.” This will make a tough year even tougher for him. My oldest son needs to turn in his phone. All these thoughts rush through my female brain. Do they flow through my husband’s? I doubt it. He had a fun evening playing outside with the kids. He is now putting them to bed. Check. Check. All the little details that drive me crazy don’t seem to annoy him at all.
My experience as a mother has left me with little doubt that somehow women and men are different, and that somehow women think more of the implications of day-to-day decisions for children than men. But is there science behind my hunch? I wanted to find out.
A number of studies point to the fact that women’s brains are more sensitive to their children and to their needs. From being more likely to be awakened by an infant cry (did not even make the list for men) to being more distracted by other people in a space (hence, my difficulty writing this blog), women are better at noticing people-related stimuli. Indeed, I discovered that many studies confirm the fact that women are just plain better at perceiving emotions than men. Women have an even more enhanced ability to respond to their own child’s needs. A 2015 article in The Atlantic entitled “What Happens to a Woman’s Brain When She Becomes a Mother” chronicles a number of scientific studies that show that “women appear to have evolved to have a ‘brain-hormone-behavior constellation’ that’s automatically primed for mothering.” Scientists recorded bolder brain response — in the amygdala, thalamus, and elsewhere — among mothers as they looked at photos of their own babies versus photos of control babies. The result of these brain connections? Greater maternal responsiveness to a mother’s own child. Although studies show that men may develop sensitivity to their child’s needs through deeply engaging in parenting behaviors, the brain chemistry that allows women to naturally be attuned to their children’s needs simply is not present in men.
Women’s brain chemistry also makes them more adept at acting on emotional information than men. A study on compassion in men and women showed that while men and women both feel compassion, women’s brain connections help them to more easily act on those compassionate impulses. In other words, women can more easily take their perceptions of feelings and translate them into actions designed to help. What an important nurturing skill.
Of course children also desperately need their fathers. Anyone who has studied the effects absentee fathers knows that children without fathers suffer a myriad of harmful consequences. But mothers’ special sensitivity gives them a very important role as well. Their brains have the tools to assess children’s needs and to work quickly to meet them. So the same distractedness that made it difficult to finish this paper also helped me to stop some sibling bullying, help my daughter find some needed change, and make sure that my children got to bed on time. When it comes to understanding and meeting their own children’s needs, women may indeed “know best” and recognizing this can help in the nurturing and growth of children in society at large.