Mothers, the Day After

Dee Ann Finken, a writer for The Oregonian reviews book on mommy brain development.

Here is an excerpt:

“Those demanding calisthenics facing mothers — and fathers as well — are the elements Katherine Ellison considers in The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. Employing the skills for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting nearly 20 years ago, Ellison provides an avalanche of research detailing how the endless juggling, time constraints and demands for great insight and wisdom that accompany engaged parenting make us smarter. Chapter after chapter, Ellison weaves together the latest from scientists all over the world to show that just as pushing oneself to go another mile will strengthen one’s heart, the exercises we engage in as mothers can strengthen our mental muscle and, in turn, foster greater perception, efficiency, resiliency, motivation and emotional intelligence. “


  1. Janice Lynch Schuster says

    In some ways, I am smarter than the average mortal, or at least the mortal I was before motherhood became me. My smarts stem from sheer survival: It’s me or them. When the kids were babies, staying smarter than them was easy, like making bottles before I went to bed and putting latches on both sides of every door in the house (keep them in, keep them out and keep my sanity). In fact, it may have been the years of reciting nursery rhymes and singing that classic tune about PBJ (“Peanut, peanut butter, and jelly, and jelly”) that morphed my dendrites into a synaptic superpower.

    Now that my older kids range from 11 to 15, my smarts come from staying one step ahead of them, primarily one byte ahead of their computer mischief. They zoomed seemingly overnight from having just e-mail accounts to sending approximately 10 gajillion instant messages per day. I blocked their ability to do so by setting parental controls. They parried by running a system restore, forcing the computer back to a day when the block was not in effect. I volleyed, and removed their administrative privileges. They returned by resetting the clocks on the computers, so that whenever their online allotment expired, they would roll the clocks back. I checked by shutting down the network. And so on. In fact, were it not for motherhood, I would never have described myself as a system administrator. But here I am, big brain and flying fingers.

    My kids point to ways in which I am smarter than they had ever dreamed. For instance, I can take any piece of meat and make it taste like chicken — on good days, I can even make everything taste like a chicken nugget. I know, even in my sleep, the location of every tennis shoe, flip-flop, soccer cleat and shin guard in this house. I know who has a paper due — and who’s lied about having finished it. I know who has eaten the last of my diet ice cream, and who (really) jumped off the deck onto the trampoline just to see how high he could bounce. And I have been known to play a strategic game of four square with the relentless drive of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a NASCAR race.

    I have survived years of living with absolutely no privacy, of hiding snacks and goodies in increasingly absurd places throughout my home, of cooking a turkey on Monday and making it last until Friday. I can get a 3-year-old to potty-train himself, and a 15- year-old to admit that he is not ready to drive. If that’s not the mark of a smart woman, I don’t know what is.

    I asked my mother if she thought motherhood had made her smarter, and she agreed that of course it had. But then, she said, all her kids moved out, and she just let the old brain atrophy.

    I’m really looking forward to that.

  2. Julie Deardorff says

    If there’s one take-home message, it’s to look at life’s little challenges–whether it’s a temper tantrum or jelly smeared inside the DVD player–as learning opportunities. “Rather than think of your brain as stressed, imagine it stimulated,” she writes.

  3. Anne Glusker says

    One of Ellison’s great strengths is that she doesn’t shrink from acknowledging that many employers aren’t going to care how “baby-boosted” a woman’s brain is: They’re still not going to want to accommodate the flexible, truncated or office-unfriendly hours that many people — women and, increasingly, men — want after they become parents.

    Now that there seems to be a dawning cultural awareness of the intractability of the clash between work and life, office and family, public achievement and private nurture, we are seeing a new crop of books that try to analyze the situation or suggest possible solutions. Most recently, Judith Warner, in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, traces the problem, at least in part, to the perfectionist impulses of high-achieving women, whereas other, more policy-oriented thinks call for greater flextime at work and better child care at home. Like Ann Crittenden in last year’s If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, Ellison is looking to persuade corporations, individual bosses, spouses and mothers themselves that motherhood need not be a hindrance but rather an asset. As many have pointed out, this great conundrum — how to balance, juggle, jigger, rejigger, sequence or cram motherhood and work into one life — is the great unfinished business of feminism.

  4. Suzanne Cassidy says

    I love being at home during the day with my child. I am deeply grateful that my work is the kind of work I can do at home. I had very good friends at work, but my daughter is much more fun than anyone I ever, ever encountered in the workplace. Nevertheless, I have to be honest about this. I’m not sure I’m as sharp as I used to be when I was around adults all day long. How could I be?

    I live for most of the day in a toddler’s world, which is a magical world, but not always an intellectually demanding one. Moreover, parenting a young child places different demands on one’s mental energies. I now have to know such crucial information as: the number of grams of protein in a child’s serving of chicken nuggets; the average length, on minutes, of the `Elmo’s World` segment on `Sesame Street` (this is how much time I generally have to put on makeup and pack the diaper bag); the lyrics to `Baby Beluga,` a song by Raffi, and scores of other, previously unknown-to-me children’s songs; the cost-per-diaper savings of a megapack of diapers; the meaning of the acronym BRAT (as in the BRAT diet); the number of ounces of milk a toddler should consume in a day; and so on, and so on.

    Having acquired all of this knowledge since I became a mother, my brain simply had to relinquish other pieces of information. I had no need to retain the names of up-and-coming indie film-makers, for instance — we’re not going to the cinema much these days anyway. I had to shed what little I understood about the meaning of post- modernism — it’s just not a subject that comes up at play group. And, as for world events, let’s just say that even George W. Bush knows the names of more foreign leaders than I do now.

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