Mother’s Little Helper May Be Motherhood Itself

Mothers are better able to handle stress than females who have never experienced motherhood, according to a new study. “Indeed, several studies report that new mothers are better able to learn to navigate in their environment, a behavior that would more often than not have positive consequences for survival of the offspring,” said Lisa Y. Maeng of the Department of Psychology and Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University and lead author of the study. “We have also noted enhanced learning as a consequence of motherhood. In this case, the act of maternal behavior itself prevents a learning deficit that occurs in virgins after exposure to a stressful life event.”

Research has also shown that females who have taken on mothering roles, without actually giving birth, deemed “maternal virgins,” also exhibit similar behaviors. In order to determine if the mothering behavior created the protective factor, or if it was only a result of actually giving birth, Maeng and her colleagues conducted a stress experiment on female rats who were “maternal virgins” and rats who were biological mothers and found a significant difference in responses. “Exposure to the stressor suppressed learning in virgins but not in females that had been mothers at some time in their lives,” said Maeng. “These data suggest that maternal experience induces a protective mechanism in mothers, which promotes associative learning long after the offspring have left their care.”

Maeng also noted that mothers and depressed women share some similar brain characteristics. “For example, the prefrontal cortex is preferentially activated in depressed women and in mothers by infant cues. The region is also critically engaged during the stressor to reduce learning in virgin females.” Maeng added, “If the mechanisms within those regions are shared, one might imagine therapies that could target these regions and thereby protect women from the negative consequences of stressful life experience on their thoughts and behaviors.”

Maeng, L. Y., & Shors, T. J. (2011, December 19). Once a Mother, Always a Mother: Maternal Experience Protects Females From the Negative Effects of Stress on Learning. Behavioral Neuroscience. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026707

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • HilaryChambers


    December 30th, 2011 at 1:17 AM

    It doesn’t surprise me that mothers are better at handling stress. I don’t know a mother that isn’t stressed in some manner so we’ve had plenty of practice! They take on the lion’s share of home and family and also often work outside the home too.

  • chantelle lynne

    chantelle lynne

    December 30th, 2011 at 2:52 AM

    When you become a mom, you have to learn to either handle stress or succumb to it. Along the way you’ll have days where you can do one and days when you can do the other. No mother is immune to stress and life’s ups and downs. However, knowing you’ve got through it before and logically then can do so again, is comforting.

  • Dane


    December 30th, 2011 at 11:19 AM

    Moms have to be so many things to so many people- they have to juggle huge amounts of stress at home and at work. It certainly does teach you about the importance of multitasking.

  • syriana


    December 31st, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    Then how do you explain post partum blues that so many moms experience?

  • celia bruce

    celia bruce

    January 2nd, 2012 at 5:18 AM

    What we need is the dads to help alleviate that stress when they get home! My husband thinks because he worked an eight hour day he’s done enough. I stay at home and I put in an eightTEEN hour day. There’s barely one hour in that I can call my own. With four children, it’s impossible. But it would be nice if he would at least offer to do something to help organize them or dinner or whatever. I can dream eh.

  • Racquel Barrett

    Racquel Barrett

    January 2nd, 2012 at 5:26 AM

    @celia bruce: Not one hour to call your own? Are you sure about that? You’re the mom, celia. Being a martyr doesn’t do you or your children any favors. If you really can’t get an hour to yourself every day, call in reinforcements. Ask friends to take the kids where they need to go or to watch them for an hour while you get some me time. It’s crucial to your wellbeing that you do and you’ll be a better mom for it.

  • Fran Walker

    Fran Walker

    January 2nd, 2012 at 6:50 AM

    Over the years in my profession I have seen a whole lot of women come and go, women with kids and those who have never had them. And while both of them have stress and pressure in their lives, the women with children seem a whole lot more capable of handling it then the women without kids. There is something about managing both a career and a steady home life that gives women a better ability to multitask and to handle multiple projects at once. I think that they know that they do not necessarily have to try to be superwoman but they can deal a little better with the ups and downs of life than I have witnessed women without children havig the ability to do.

  • Brett


    January 2nd, 2012 at 1:14 PM

    Mothers can handle stress,can multitask,and can handle and coordinate different things so well that observing it would just leave you awestruck.Its not for nothing that the term ‘supermom’ has come to the fore.

  • Clara R

    Clara R

    January 3rd, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    There’s something about motherhood that infuses something completely new in a woman. There’s so much love, compassion, the feelings of a caretaker, and other things that come with motherhood.

    It definitely comes useful not only for taking care of children but in other aspects of life as well.

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