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How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter

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Monday, September 26, 2005

soccer & honesty

After that very righteous last post, I have to admit we didn't go to the rally. Joey said he'd rather go to his brother's soccer game, and like John Irving said in today's New York Times, you can't impose your politics on your children (though I don't agree that that was a valid excuse for Irving to take his 13-year-old to meet with Laura Bush!)I plan to make it up this week, by taking the time to sign some email petitions and send a donation to Doctors Without Borders, the most impressive philanthropy I've ever seen. I was so struck by reading about all the parents who did manage to take their kids out to be counted. And without a doubt, there'll be other opportunities.

In the meantime, a bit of specific Mommy Brain news. The book got a wonderful write-up in the National Review (and I got an invitation to speak to the Young Republicans!) and will be the subject of a takeout later this fall in the Boston Globe. The reporter, whose questions were great overall, asked me what kind of research I'd most like to see in the future, concerning the maternal brain. I said: more research on the paternal brain, and what mothers can do to get fathers to do more at home. She laughed, but I'm serious.

Friday, September 23, 2005

a moral education

My ten-year-old son, Joey, has already accompanied me to an anti-war rally, a campaign strategy meeting for Wes Clark, a Move-on voter-registration effort and to Denver, last year, to campaign for Democrats. Would I have gone to any of these things if not for him? I wonder. What I do know is that despite the multiple uncertainties involved in all of these decisions(Was Wes so great a candidate? Do the most radical protesters undermine the message of the majority? Should we really urge the U.S. government to pull out of Iraq right away, or to take less dramatic measures such as seeking more international support?) they feel right. Joey and his brother embody my concern about the future -- and I also feel obliged to show them that we all participate in making that future. These are such frustrating times: to watch the tremendous need in our own country and the even greater need in others, to observe our government's utter negligence in coping with the tremendous threat of climate change. At very least, Joe is getting an education in not sitting back. We've contributed money to Hurricane Katrina victims -- but he's also aware that this government's decisions on how to allocate resources played a big part in the disaster. At very least, I hope I've taught him, and his brother, to continually ask questions -- and to speak up when they disagree.....

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

the bright side of brain surgery

In a secret, lurking way -- ok, secret until now -- I find I'm looking forward to my operation next week. It's not just that I'm hoping for an end to roughly two years of headaches; I'm actually going to get a rest. This anticipation has snuck up on me over the last couple of weeks as I've prepared a bulging manila folder of to-do lists for my soon-to-be-long-suffering husband, while anticipating catching up on TV sitcoms. Doing it has made me realize what a caricature post-90s, control-freak, overscheduling mom I am -- there are swim team and soccer schedules, notes on the extra-curricular Spanish and Hebrew, urgent reminders not to buy the milk with that hormone whose initials I can't just now recall, and to watch for the battery-less earthquake-ready radio we should be soon receiving in the mail as part of our KQED donation, etc., etc. -- but also, again, just how exhausting it can be in our nutty times to be even a basically responsible parent.
Certainly part of the problem is TMI, too much information. My parents didn't worry about whether they had a disaster plan in place for when the Big One strikes (60 percent chance over the next 30 years); they knew nothing at all about that hormone in milk, and didn't feel quite as much pressure, I'm sure, to help give their kids an edge in an increasingly globalized economy. All this, as I argued in The Mommy Brain, is making parenting a more cerebrally demanding job than ever. But of course there's that other thing, in that today's moms are part of our relatively new experiment of trying to combine parenting and careers.
The front page of today's New York Times brings us yet another report of the frustration this has caused, in an article titled, "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood." The story has lots of problems, to my mind, like -- why do these stories always focus on the most privileged women, the ones who certainly will have a greater opportunity to depend on their husbands' earning power? And why didn't the reporters ask any of them if they were worried about planning things that way, when one out of two marriages are ending in divorce? And why does it say "Set Career Path to Motherhood" when what they're talking about is merely taking some years off, with many saying they fully intend to have illustrious careers after the kids are relatively grown?
Yet one of the truths it touches on is one that I and so many of my mom friends talk about all the time: we had no idea that motherhood would be this hard, and part of the reason it's so hard is that once you really start paying attention to your kids, you realize how much they need from you, and how rarely they can get what they need from other people. My kids are 7 and 10, and I've been relying for just a few hours a week on the after-school program at the public school they attend in a relatively priviliged neighbhorhood. Even here, that program has been unreliable: when my 10-year-old walked home one day last week by mistake and didn't check in, they hadn't noticed he was gone until I called them almost two hours later. And oy, could I tell you some babysitter stories. (Like the one who came down with leprosy, or the one who after months of being the model of perfection joined with my two sons drawing explicit pictures of gonads.) (I've since cut way down on sitters.)
Husbands can and do get engaged, but it usually takes a lot of patient training. One of the studies that impressed me the most in my book showed that mothers listening to their babies' cries energized the ancient "reward" centers of their brains while fathers showed virtually no brain activity.
So the elite college women interviewed by the New York Times may simply be reading the landscape correctly and being unusually honest about what they see. Until government and workplaces start to provide the kind of flexibility moms need to be the default caregiver for children, women who don't need their paychecks to survive may tend to give them up during the time they must be hyper-responsible. Otherwise, like me, they may find themselves sneakily looking forward to brain surgery.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

a semi-related brain issue

A funny thing happened while I was researching "The Mommy Brain." About three months into the project, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I had a strange series of headaches and insisted on getting an MRI. Looking at the slides in my car afterwards, I realized I'd looked at enough pictures of brains to know the pingpong-shaped white object on the left side didn't belong there.
The tumor I have is called a meningioma, which is an additional irony, since it's a truly Mommy-brain malady. Meningiomas are similar to fibroid tumors of the uterus, and respond to female reproductive hormones. Sometimes they grow during pregnancy. By the way, a great website for support and information is
Meningioma Mommas.
I do feel tremendously blessed, because my tumor is benign and operable -- I'm having surgery on Sept. 28. On the other hand, a saw is a saw!
I thought a long time before blogging about this because it didn't seem that relevant, but in many ways it is becoming moreso. For one thing, in addition to all the other brain changes involved with being a mother, I am passionately interested in the type of learning that comes through understanding of the fleetingness of life -- and you of course can get that understanding just as easily from having cancer as well as having children. For another, this experience is drawing me even closer to my family, as we've contemplated issues like how much to tell the kids, and how, and how we'll all inevitably be changed-- maybe even for the better. (With my 7-year-old son, I've called the problem "a walnut" -- not sure why, and was sorry belatedly that I've probably ruined his affinity for a truly healthy food. The other day he asked, "Mommy, will you still remember me after the walnut comes out?" In a flash of inspiration, I drew him a picture of a brain divided into sections, with spaces designated for him and his brother and my husband, for extraneous stuff and for work. I put the walnut in the "work" space.)
Besides all this, I want to give this excuse in advance for probably not blogging much in October, when I plan to lie around a lot and not do any dishes or driving.
My goal is to get back to writing and speaking by early November. And I'll try to get some post-op information on this site before then.