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The Mommy Brain
How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter

The Mommy Brain Blog

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Something my mother once told me that has stuck in my mind throughout the years is how she felt right after the first of her four children was born. A nurse found her crying in her hospital bed in Minneapolis. "Why are you crying? This is such a happy time," the nurse said. "I'm just thinking," my mother answered, "how soon it will all be over!"
Apart from what this says about the weirdly glass-half-empty perspective that my mother and I share, I do think it also says something about the general nature of having children. On the one hand, we mothers are told, ad nauseum, that this is the best time of our lives and we'd better gosh darn enjoy it, a mantra that usually pops into my head when I'm doing something like scraping chewing gum off the carpet. On the other hand, there's something about having kids that can make you more gloriously conscious, in an almost Buddhist way, of passing time and the inevitability of death. Almost as if creating life puts you that much closer to the finish line, while reminding you the race has a limit. (The birth of the child is the death of the parent, as Hegel has said.) In "The Mommy Brain," I focused for the most part on what the current scientific research says about motherhood's potential to make us smarter. But in the end, some of the best parts of this story are abstract, unmeasurable. Many moms I interviewed told me, quite subjectively, that parenting had made them better at deadlines. But some went on to add they felt themselves getting better about that mother of all deadlines, the last one. They've told me that having kids has made them that much more determined to leave a legacy -- they realize, now, they'll be remembered, and want to be remembered well. As a later life mom, who has already lost two great friends to cancer, I think about this kind of stuff a lot, perhaps too much. But I also appreciate in a truly upbeat sense that having kids is a great opportunity to rearrange your goals with the fact that we're all ephemeral in mind. With luck, it becomes a practice that lasts a long lifetime.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The kids-stress continuum

Ok, here's another question I've been asked a lot, though not as much as the Katie Couric one.
Does having more kids make you more and more brainy?
Mostly this question has been asked in a jocular way -- except, I suspect, when it was asked, fairly recently, by a TV news interviewer from Utah. Even so, it worries me. I spend a lot of time writing about the environment, and the last thing I'd want to do is encourage people having more babies for the sake of their brainpower. Nor do I think that's a logical argument. (When I raised it with one scientist, he reminded me of the famous Groucho Marx line, "Lady, I like my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every once in awhile.") Playing bridge is reportedly good for your brain, but certainly not if you do it all day. And one of the strongest arguments in The Mommy Brain is that the smarts you get from having kids really depends on your level of engagement and focus. It seems obvious that staying engaged and focused -- even if you're avoiding going overboard with the child-centric stuff, becomes harder the more you have to split your time and attention. But maybe this is controversial. I'm sure you'll let me know.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Pleased to meetcha

Ever since "The Mommy Brain" was published just one month ago, the one question I've been asked the most has been, "What was it like to meet Katie Couric?"

I'm going to answer it here so that if anyone else asks, I can just give them the URL. I have written two previous books, neither of which has gotten anywhere near the response of "The Mommy Brain." This has been mostly wonderful (I'll be filling in some caveats in a later post) and included a high point of getting flown to New York to be on the Today Show. On the plane, I wore my glasses and a somewhat mangy sweater I may have drooled on as I napped. After I awoke, I got into a conversation with a young architect sitting beside me. He asked me why I was going to New York. "Oh, I'm going to be on the Today Show," I said. "There will be a car waiting for me." It looked to me like he moved just a little bit away from me at that point, as if whatever I had might be catching.

The next morning, after being made up for about an hour, I walked out to the set and sat next to Jill, the bright and lively New Jersey mom the show was featuring as an illustration of how motherhood makes you smarter. (You can watch the feature on the website.) Ms. Couric came out to meet us before the cameras started rolling and said, "Hi, I know who you are, but just want to make sure. You're Jill, right?" (Jill said she was.) "And you're Kathy, right?" "Right," I said. "And you're Katie?" "I would have thought you knew that by now," she answered, a bit brusquely. Great, I thought. Now I'm really off on the right foot.

Aside from that, however, things went pretty well, and she seemed friendly, even offering to fetch coffee or tea, which wasn't what I'd expected from the recent New York Times story that talked about how the clicking of her stiletto heels down the hallway made colleagues douse their lights. Best of all, she asked about the rats. The rat studies I cite are a controversial part of "The Mommy Brain," but, I'm convinced, a key part. In one of the most interesting studies I describe, Virginia neuroscientists Craig Kinsley and Kelly Lambert have found that when rats become mothers, their learning and memory capacity appears to increase -- one sign that the survival instinct is kicking in, making them sharper just when boosted brainpower is an evolutionary necessity. Humans share the same brain architecture and are swayed by the same neurochemicals as rats, but there's some understandable resistance to carrying the comparison past that point, perhaps particularly on the East Coast, where rats are more often pests than pets. Still, we're beholden to rats for much of what we know about our own physiology. For one thing, scientists simply can't do the same kinds of tests with humans as they do with rodents, such as having them chase around mazes for Froot Loops, or timing them as they swim to a platform in a tank, or, sad as it is, dissecting their brains. Besides, trying to measure increments of basic smarts in humans is inevitably complicated in that so many other variables -- our childhoods, temperaments, and maybe what we had for breakfast -- cloud the picture.

But what was Katie wearing? you may want to know. You can see it in the video! I was much too nervous to notice anything other than the glasses she held in her hand, as if she had truly been reading the book. The only other thing I can say is that my mom called after it was over to ask why they hadn't flown my family in and given me a spa day, as they did with Jill. ("Mom, isn't it enough that I was on the show?" I asked.) I was truly fine about that. I got several hours on the plane to read without having to jump up and get someone a glass of water. And when I got home, the house was actually clean. For about a minute. And just last weekend, I got into a conversation with a stranger who recognized me from all the publicity and said he had been inspired to buy a plane ticket to visit his grandchildren for a "mental tuneup." So far, so good.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

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