Some modern portrayals can lament the pitfalls of motherhood, starting with diaper blowouts and winding up with adult children who never return your phone calls. But, in fact, studies support what moms around the world already know — being a mom can be pretty great, both from a psychological and a health perspective.
From a lower risk of cancer to a sense of meaning and purpose in life, here are four ways that being a mom is awesome. [5 Ways Motherhood Has Changed Over Time]
Meaning and connection
Research on whether children bring bliss has run the gamut from studies suggesting parents are happier to those claiming child-free people smile more. Other studies have found it really doesn't make a difference whether you have kids or not. Overall, fathers get a boost relative to child-free men, whereas women report more daily hassles, according to S. Katherine Nelson, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of California Riverside.
But it's not all bad news for moms.
"Although women [with children] didn't report being happier than women without children, they did report that they felt and thought about the meaning of life a lot more," Nelson told Live Science, referring to one 2011 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology.
New moms may also experience a dramatic sense of interconnectedness and fulfillment, according to a 2014 study in the journal Psychology. Though babies become the emotional focus for a woman's sense of happiness in the weeks and months after birth, moms also report a close feeling of bonding to their extended families.
Accentuate the positive
Breast-feeding is associated with a surge of oxytocin and higher levels of prolactin, both of which promote bonding and can contribute to the "blissed out" feeling many women experience while nursing. These feel-good hormones help women feel more attuned to positive emotions and less focused on any anger, according to a 2014 study in the journal Scientific Reports.
Women who breast-feed are quicker to recognize positive facial expressions and slower to clue in to negative or threatening ones, the study found.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding may have other, longer-term side benefits. Moms who breast-feed show a lower risk of breast cancer, with a 4.3 percent drop for each year of breast-feeding, according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Perinatology. Women who have children also tend to have lower rates of ovarian cancer.
Though researchers aren't exactly sure why nursing affords cancer protection, one possibility is that being pregnant and breast-feeding both suppress ovulation. Having fewer periods over a lifetime may reduce how many hormonal surges women are exposed to. This, in turn, may reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, researchers say.
Other research has tentatively tied the duration of breast-feeding to lower stroke risk and better heart health. And parents, especially mothers, tend to live longer than their childless counterparts, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Health.
Women don't just hold their children in their hearts; they may also carry them in their brains. Fetal cells can migrate into a woman's bloodstream and into her brain when she is pregnant, and women retain at least a few cells from their unborn children for a lifetime, according to a 2012 study in the journal PLOS ONE. Though that may sound more creepy than awesome, consider this: Some scientists believe these fetal cells may protect women's brains.
Women with Alzheimer's disease, for instance, were less likely to have fetal cells in their brains. Another 2012 study, in the journal Circulation Research, found that in rats, these fetal cells could home in on damaged heart cells and repair the tissue. Fetal cells are in some ways like stem cells in their ability to reproduce and differentiate into different cell types.
Tired of the late-night feedings and toddler tantrums? Take heart, as things will get better … once you're older. Though parents' marital happiness initially takes a nosedive when a new baby enters the picture, that unhappiness melts away as kids get older, according to a 2011 study in the journal Population and Development Review. It could be that moms and dads are idealizing parenthood, but either way, every additional kid made parents happier once the parents were over age 40.
And after the kids have flown the coop, many moms may view their adult daughters as their BFFs. Husbands get replaced on a woman's speed-dial by adult daughters as women get older, according to a 2012 study in the journal Scientific Reports. An analysis of 3.2 billion text messages found that older women call another woman about a generation younger — probably a daughter — more often than any other person.