Does becoming a parent make you a better leader? Research suggests that the answer is yes. Both mothers and fathers undergo measurable changes to their brains as they take on the task of caring for a new, tiny human being, experiments show. These changes appear to enhance our social connectedness, and especially our empathy ability (or EQ)--the exact qualities that can turn you into a highly effective leader.

Research on brain changes during parenthood is in its early stages, and experts say more studies are needed. But here's some of what we know so far about how parenthood affects your brain.

New mothers

Neuroscientists have long known that human brains go through huge changes as we reach puberty, a process called synaptic pruning, in which adolescents of both genders lose some of their gray matter. This may sound like a bad thing, but it isn't--it's the brain streamlining itself for adult life. Think of the pre-puberty brain as a giant toolbox, filled with so many different items that it's too large and heavy to efficiently to carry around. A seasoned carpenter will likely leave the toolbox in the truck, evaluate the job to be done and then select a smaller set of tools most likely to be useful for the tasks ahead. That's synaptic pruning.

The research into pregnancy and motherhood shows that pregnant women and new mothers go through a process of synaptic pruning that's even greater than that which occurs at puberty. And while some parts of new mothers' brains lose gray matter, perhaps explaining the forgetfulness or "mommy brain" some new mother complain of, other areas of the brain see gray matter increase. That especially includes the sections devoted to theory of mind--the area of the brain that helps us understand what another person might be thinking. That understanding is needed for empathy, an essential quality for leaders. Becoming a mom will likely to raise your empathy quotient, or EQ and it can make you a better leader. When researchers re-scanned mothers' brains two years after they gave birth, they found these changes still in place, suggesting that they may be permanent.

New fathers

Fathers don't undergo the same process of synaptic pruning that mothers do, but they too see significant brain changes. Studies show hormonal changes, including a lessening of testosterone and cortisol, or the "stress hormone." Estradiol (a form of estrogen, which is also present in men) and prolactin increase, making men more nurturing.

And, although new fathers don't see a reduction of gray matter overall as new mothers do, their brains also go through some restructuring as well. A 2014 study showed that gray matter in parts of new fathers' brains that respond to threats and stress were lessened, while parts involved in empathy and attachment saw gray matter increase. These changes were directly related to parenting activities, researchers reported. But again, the brain areas that make a man an empathetic father can also make him an empathetic boss. Unlike new mothers, for new fathers these changes do not appear to be permanent, and may begin to fade after the first few months of parenthood. 

Perhaps most interesting, new mothers, new fathers--and new babies too--experience spikes in oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called "the love hormone," but it too is associated with understanding and empathy, yet another way that being a parent can make you a better leader.

There's a growing audience of readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we wind up in a conversation. Many are entrepreneurs and business leaders. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) They tell me parenthood profoundly changed how they look at the world, and how they deal with people at home and at work. 

When you've just had a child is a tough time to focus on your job and leadership responsibilities. Many new parents want to spend the first weeks or months of their children's lives focused entirely on being parents--and that makes lots of sense. But it's good to know that when you do return to the job, being a parent might make you better at it.