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Image: 'The Mommy Brain'
Basic Books
TODAY
updated 3/3/2009 1:13:14 PM ET 2009-03-03T18:13:14

Juggling carpools, soccer games and homework can drive you crazy. But what if being a mother actually makes you smarter? That’s exactly what new research into this little explored topic has shown, says Katherine Ellison, the author of the new book "The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter." She was invited on “Today” to discuss her book, just in time for Mother’s Day. Read an excerpt.

Smarter Than We Think
smart\smart\ adj  1: making one smart: causing a sharp stinging 2: marked by often sharp, forceful activity or vigorous strength (a ~ pull of the starter cord) 3: BRISK, SPIRITED 4 a: mentally alert: BRIGHT.
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

A few weeks after my first son was born, I had a troubling dream. It was September 1995, and I was on leave from my job as a foreign correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. In my nightmare, space aliens had landed in Brazil's capital, Brasilia, but I stayed home, unable to decide whether the story was worth pursuing. The dream was the perfect showcase for my fear that I'd traded in my brain for my new baby.

It was just that fear that had kept me, and so many of my peers, from having babies at all, right up until we'd almost lost the chance to choose. The problem was that I'd come to depend upon my brain for so many good things, including my livelihood, my self-esteem, and my freedom to marry for love. And I knew that becoming a mother made me subject to a modern affliction called Mommy Brain — which, like a "senior moment" is a cheery synonym for abrupt mental decline. The phrase summons the image of a ditsy pregnant woman who weeps at Kleenex commercials, or of a frazzled mom with nothing in her head but carpool schedules and grocery lists. ("If you've left the crayons to melt in the car / And forgotten just where the car keys are / There's a perfectly good way to explain: / You see, you've come down with "Mommy Brain," reads a poem by one self-alleged victim.)

Along with varicose veins and thickened waistlines, diminished cerebral capacity would appear to be a risk inherent in women's reproductive fate. That's certainly how many nonparents perceive pregnant women and new mothers. When researchers showed audiences videotapes of a woman in various workplace situations — the same woman, the same work, but in some scenes wearing a prosthesis so that she'd appear pregnant — the "pregnant" woman was rated less competent and less qualified for promotion. We mothers also perpetuate this bias. "Mommy Brain!" is our frequent alibi when we say something dumb. "Part of your brain exits with the placenta!" one friend advised me early on.

The pessimistic chorus wasn't always this loud. The phrase "Mommy Brain," which is of relatively recent vintage, followed the historic flood of women into the workplace beginning in the 1960s. This change brought new scrutiny from others — and a new self-consciousness for mothers. Today nearly three-fourths of mothers with children aged one or older are at work outside the home, frequently in jobs requiring mental sharpness, making many of us more vigilant than ever before about fluctuations in our mental acuity. And not only do our jobs require more brain power; rearing children today amidst information overload and furious debates over nearly every aspect of parenting takes more smarts than ever.

Now, few moms would deny that children challenge our mental resources. The hormonal roller-coaster, sleep deprivation, biased bosses, brainless chores, and too much Raffi are just part of the toll. Because men, despite some notable recent progress, still aren't equitably sharing these burdens, we're left with a mostly female predicament. But what makes it all harder is a residue of feminism. The same fierce rhetoric that gave women the courage to brave an unwelcoming job market created a harrowing "Mommy Brain" image for today's mothers, myself included, who were then coming of age.

In 1963, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan compared women who devote themselves to the home to "walking corpses." Such women, she wrote, "have become dependent, passive, childlike; they have given up their adult frame of reference to live at the lower human level of food and things. The work they do does not require adult capabilities; it is endless, monotonous, unrewarding." A few years later, movie goers and novel readers would meet the vivid embodiment of Friedan's brain-dead momma in Tina, the dithering, pill-popping heroine of a best seller aptly titled "Diary of a Mad Housewife."

The doom-saying didn't end with the last century. It remains a private and surprisingly frequent public refrain today. "Anyone who tells you that having a child doesn't completely and irrevocably ruin your life is lying," muses the character Julie Applebaum, who, in "Nursery Crimes," the 2001 novel written by the retired public defender Ayelet Waldman, gives up a career as a public defender to stay home with her new daughter. "Everything changes. Your relationship is destroyed. Your looks are shot. Your productivity is devastated. And you get stupid. Dense. Thick. Pregnancy and lactation make you dumb. That's a proven scientific fact."

It's far from "scientific fact," as we shall see. But this sort of stuff is discouraging to read if you happen to be a mother. So is the following self-deprecating comment made by Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen as she reflects in 2004 on her own reproductive transition: "It was as though my ovaries had taken possession of my brain. Less than a year later an infant had taken possession of everything else. My brain no longer worked terribly well, especially when I added to that baby another less than two years later, and a third fairly soon after that."

During those same years, it's worth noting, Quindlen won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in the New York Times and wrote several successful novels and advice books. No small accomplishments for this mother of three. Yet for some reason, Quindlen feels obliged to assure readers that motherhood has dulled her intellect.

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Maybe she's just bowing to peer pressure. Polls in recent decades have tracked a marked decline in many parents' satisfaction with the job of rearing children, a trend owing greatly to the perceived price we pay. Complaining about what our children have done to our finances, moods, hips, and brains has become a fashionable pastime at parties as well as the theme of several recent books. Senility is something you inherit from your kids, we joke. But the new parental angst is serious, and no doubt part of the reason so many women have delayed childbearing right up to the brink of menopause.

I got in just under the wire. By the time I gave birth, at what my obstetrician politely called my "advanced maternal age," I'd waited so long that it was already hard to say whether "Mommy Brain" or early onset of senility was more to blame for my occasional mental lapses. Joey was born when I was thirty-eight years old, Joshua three years later. I knew I was taking the risk of never having children by waiting so long. But I feared that brain damage might cost me the job I'd wanted ever since I was a child.

I was raised in the suburbs, the youngest of four children; my parents were a physician and his stay-at-home wife, a college beauty queen who had dropped out of school to marry. We called my mother "the geisha" when we weren't calling her "the martyr." The family legend was that her fate, and ours, depended upon my father's brilliance. Yet, as I realized only much later, the very perpetration of this legend proved my mother's smarts. She worked under the radar to accomplish her goals, networking at a furious pace to establish her family in the community and further her children's prospects. She waited until I had left for college before earning her own degree; and for ten years thereafter, she taught elementary school children afflicted with learning disabilities.

Although my mother's personal example implied that women's chief priority is to serve their families, she not only took pride in her two daughters' achievements but also encouraged our career plans. We took this for granted, assuming that, unlike her, we were too smart to waste our time cooking and cleaning. All my siblings became medical doctors, but I left the fold early on. At sixteen, I traveled to Nicaragua, then ruled by Anastasio Somoza, as an Amigos de las Americas medical volunteer. I was shocked to learn of my government's support for a dictator who was stealing humanitarian aid and stifling dissent. If more Americans knew, I thought, the support would have to end.

I returned home determined to become a foreign correspondent, and five years later I was hired at the San Jose Mercury News. Soon, I was reporting from Central America, a job that produced one major collateral benefit: In 1982, in a government press room in Managua, I met the man I would eventually marry. Jack was a freelance writer traveling through Nicaragua, and we courted for the next eight years before marrying and settling in Rio, when the Miami Herald hired me as their correspondent. Three years later, I was pregnant with Joey.

As I watched my body morph, I prepared for more permanent changes. For most of my life, I'd enjoyed the control and freedom that come with an observer's point of view. Motherhood, I suspected, would cost me a lot. And I was right. But it was then still impossible to imagine what I would gain.

We stayed in Rio for the next four years. In 1999, we moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area, one year after the birth of Joey's brother, Joshua. Jack quit freelancing in return for a steady job, and I quit the Herald to write a book about environmental conservation. In the process, we switched from our previous Brazilian model of nanny-supported child care to the contemporary U.S. suburban style, which meant that I would try to do everything at once.

This at last was true Mommy Brain terrain, a land of 24/7 distractions, silly music, and such bleakly repetitive duties as wiping pee from the toilet seat. My psychiatrist sister, Jean, whose children by that time were in college, understood my distress when she called one night as I was simultaneously trying to cook dinner and break up a fight over a Pokemon card, an AT&T computer technician on call-waiting. "Don't worry," she said, responding to the shrill pitch of my greeting. "The damage isn't permanent."

But by then, I'd already come to a startling conclusion. I didn't feel particularly damaged, after all. True, I was complaining a lot more. But I was also accomplishing more. Though I often felt frazzled, I was more motivated, excited by all I was learning at work and at home. My children not only had inspired my future-oriented interest in the environment but also had provided me with the "excuse" to insist on a more flexible work life; this, in turn, allowed me more creativity. The children were also giving me constant lessons in human nature: theirs and my own.

Although I'd had newspaper deadlines before, never had I faced the unparalleled urgency of a baby who needed to breastfeed, or a preschool teacher at close of day, both of which taught me a new kind of focus. Within two years of our move to California, despite constant interruptions, I had finished my book, gone on a speaking tour, launched a freelance career, helped my kids adjust to a new community, supervised repairs to our home, found a great circle of friends, and tracked down a qualified expert to help a babysitter afflicted with early-stage leprosy. I had many more reasons for worry, yet, to my surprise, I felt calmer. And I kept running into other mothers who felt the same way.

Could I have entered this phase of more professional fulfillment and lasting relationships if I had not had children? Was it all just a function of the purported wisdom that comes with age? I don't think so. Instead, I was beginning to believe there was more to the Mommy Brain than I had ever imagined. Maybe it wasn't all bad news. And so, in time filched from freelancing, housework, and child care, I began to probe beyond the cliché.

Excerpted from the book "The Mommy Brain," by Katherine Ellison; Copyright (c) 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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