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This is your brain on motherhood

Does motherhood make us smarter? Journalist Katherine Ellison explores this tantalizing possibility in her well-intentioned but problematic new book.

The Mommy Brain:
How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter

By Katherine Ellison
Basic Books, April 2005

When I was a kid, the running joke in our household was that my mom -- who is a remarkably intelligent and competent woman -- could never finish a sentence. Conversations with her tended to deteriorate into a sort of guessing game; she’d begin a cogent thought but trail off somewhere in mid-stream, and whoever she was talking to would try to fill in the blanks. A typical exchange might go something like this:

Mom: “If we’re going to have salad for dinner tonight, I need to buy…”


Me: “Lettuce?”

“Hmmm… No, no, I remembered to pick that up yesterday…”

“Tomatoes? Peppers? Onions? Cucumbers?”

“Nope, got all that… now, what was I thinking?”

“Salad dressing?”

“That’s it! I guess I’d better put it on my…”


“Shopping list?”

“Thank you. And remind me to tell your brother to…”


I never heard my mother reverting to this pattern of speech in social situations, so I have to assume there was something so mentally distracting about her domestic role -- which included the usual cooking and housework, wrangling four bright but temperamental children, and attending to the needs of various pets, plants, and (of course) my dad -- that it drove the words right out of her head. We all took it in stride; back then, before The Feminine Mystique and everything that followed, housewives like my mother were admired for their cleverness and creativity, but they weren’t expected to be terribly smart. Today, my mother’s minor cognitive lapses would be diagnosed as a raging case of “mommy brain” -- a phenomenon that, like sleep deprivation and stretch marks, is commonly regarded as one of the inevitable consequences of motherhood.

But does becoming a mother actually dumb us down? Not according to Katherine Ellison, author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes You Smarter. Mothering makes us more efficient, resilient and resourceful thinkers, she argues, because hormonal and neurological changes during pregnancy and lactation etch a new high-speed network of neural pathways in our brains. If this sounds a little like science fiction, it is. In the long run, the human and animal research Ellison uses to make her case is at best, inconclusive— and at worst, wildly speculative.

Ellison’s objective is an honorable one: she hopes to dispel, once and for all, the tiresome notion that having a baby is the equivalent of having a lobotomy. As the author points out, several recent studies of unconscious stereotypes confirm that pregnant workers and homemakers are seen as less competent than other working women. Ellison’s research is exhaustive and her writing is above reproach, but in the end her argument remains less than convincing. The problem she keeps bumping up against -- and Ellison acknowledges this throughout the book -- is that most experts agree it’s impossible, and even irresponsible, to draw broad conclusions about patterns of human behavior or cognition based on the suggestive findings of a few small-scale brain studies or research using goats, rats, mice, voles, monkeys or other of our furry friends.

For example, when Ellison cites laboratory experiments showing that mother rats have better memories and are less fearful than their virgin sisters, she admits it’s something of a stretch to apply these findings to human mothers. Yet she repeatedly refers to these studies as if they were particularly salient to understanding why motherhood might supercharge our brains. In another chapter, Ellison cites research linking high concentrations of the hormone oxytocin— which is abundant during child birth and lactation— with improved mood, increased sociability, feelings of tenderness and permanent brain changes (in mice), but notes that since oxytocin doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier in our own species, it’s nearly impossible for scientists to study the net effects of what Ellison describes as the “cuddle” hormone on human response.

I confess I have a soft spot for this book, because when Ellison isn’t talking up rat science she makes some very thoughtful observations about motherhood as an opportunity for personal growth and development. In a chapter titled “Honey, the Kids Shrunk My Brain,” she writes: “Unlike marriages, friendships, or professional collaborations, rearing children comes with a profound obligation to keep working at challenges that might otherwise be abandoned -- challenges, moreover, that constantly change and become more complex over time.” In other words, motherhood changes us because we can't quit, so we're forced to change and grow to keep up with its demands. That sounds about right (and one might assume the same things about fatherhood). And anything that forces us try something new adds another wrinkle to the ol' gray matter. But I’m not very comfortable with the idea that motherhood, in and of itself, is the express route to optimizing cognitive and emotional intelligence. Ellison hits the nail on the head when she remarks: “Motherhood is far too complex and variable a condition for anyone to argue that mothers, as a rule, are smarter that women who have not given birth… most advantages gained from the experience depend not only your circumstances but on your attitude.” And I’m betting circumstances are a much stronger predictor of how much smarter one feels after becoming a mother than “attitude.”

It’s also discouraging that a great deal of the brain research Ellison finds so compelling was designed to support the hypothesis that there are significant, biologically-determined differences between men’s and women’s native intelligence. If you happen to believe males and females have evolved separately to specialize in either competitive (masculine) or caring (feminine) behaviors, or that present-day social structures and cultural norms based on male dominance are simply a sophisticated expression of natural selection, then perhaps this aspect of The Mommy Brain will not trouble you. Ellison’s twist --that motherhood gives us “baby boosted brains”-- is yet another version of the persistent folklore that difference is good for women and guys are kinda dumb when it comes to people skills, but she does try to balance gender stereotypes by slipping in constant reminders that men can boost their brains by caring for others, too.

But why does motherhood have to make us better? Can’t we just concede that it makes our lives more complicated, and leave it at that? I can’t fault Ellison for wanting to give mothers a reason to feel more confident about their mental and maternal abilities, or for her desire to contradict the modern-day myth that babies eat your brain. Behind all the quasi-scientific rationales she drags into the picture, the core premise of The Mommy Brain -- that becoming a mother may change us, but it doesn’t diminish us -- has a lot going for it.

Indeed, the very fact Ellison feels she has to dredge up some kind of scientific proof that mothers can hold their own in the cognitive functioning department is symptomatic of how fantastically screwed up our cultural appraisal of mothers and motherhood really is. Of course mothers think. We think all the time. Throw a rock in any direction and you’ll hit a mother who’s thinking about something. Perhaps the problem Ellison is trying to tease out lies not the commonly-held belief that women start shedding IQ points the moment they enter the lofty institution of motherhood, but that most people believe the things mothers think about are not very important. If that’s the case, then no amount of earnest discussion about motherhood enhancing our cognitive power at the cellular level is going to get us out of this rut.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
May 2005

Related reading:

Katherine Ellison responds to MMO's review of "The Mommy Brain"

Katherine Ellison's blog, www.themommybrain.com

Doing Difference
From The Motherhood Papers by Judith Stadtman Tucker

In MMO Books:

Life Lessons
Is motherhood the secret to successful leadership?

A review of Ann Crittenden's
If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything

What are you reading? Let us know. Send your recommendations to editor@mothersmovement.org
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