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How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter

The Mommy Brain Blog

Monday, April 24, 2006


I took my kids on a retreat to celebrate Shabbat with one of my son’s Hebrew school classmates. We’d only recently joined the synagogue, and I didn’t know anyone who’d be going: I thought of it as a chance for all of us to make some new friends. At the introductions, before dinner, my ten-year-old began with “My mom is 48 years old,” giving everyone a good laugh. Later that evening, there was a time in the service when the Rabbi asked if anyone had a family member or friend experiencing an illness. The same son nearly jumped out of his chair, raising his hand, as I cringed. “My mom is recovering from cancer,” he told the group.
This is not the way I would normally have presented myself. I would have much preferred, as with this site, to hold out my accomplishments, like a bouquet or a shield, before getting to subjects like mortality. We probably made more friends this way, though.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

growing pains

I had my thyroid removed two months ago, and just yesterday my older son pointed out that one of the advantages of it has been that while I was hoarse and hypothyroid, I stopped yelling at him and his brother. I had to admit this was true -- I'm a born hothead, given the appropriate equipment and energy -- and more importantly that the change has made no difference whatsoever in my sons' behavior. This got us into an even more interesting (since I was off the hotseat) conversation about how the fact that my son's teacher yells at him (according to him) seems to be a factor in his apparently increasing dislike of school in general. "Next time she does that, why don't you just say, "I don't respond well to yelling"?" I asked him. He grinned. My parenting path is paved with awful, embarrassing mistakes, but I'm determined to make use of every one of them.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

brain food-- again

This is from MORE magazine, and James Ellison, I'm proud to report, is my brother!

Memory in a Bottle?
Which supplements could help you, and which ones you might as well forget about.
By Hilary Macht Felgran

Despite manufacturers' claims, experts generally agree that there isn't enough evidence to prove that any of the over-the-counter memory supplements on the market actually work. "People with deficiencies in essential nutrients may benefit from replacing them. But often these supplements contain many ingredients, and possibly ineffective amounts of any specific one," says James Ellison, MD, clinical director of geriatric psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Still, experts haven't ruled out the possibility that a number of the following popular supplements may turn out to offer some benefits. Just make sure to consult your doctor before giving any of them a try.

Ginkgo Biloba
One recent placebo-controlled trial found that people who took the herb performed no better on tests of mental functioning than those who took a placebo. Because the study only lasted six weeks, one could argue it takes longer to achieve benefits; however, manufacturers often promise positive results in one month.

Vitamin E
Several studies have found that people with low blood levels of this antioxidant were more likely than those with higher levels to score poorly on a variety of tests of cognition. Whether taking supplemental vitamin E can actually enhance your memory is still unclear.

Phosphatidylserine (PS)
A fatty substance found in nerve cell membranes, PS is theorized to help improve memory, learning, vocabulary skills, concentration, mood, and alertness. Some studies have shown beneficial effects, especially among adults over age 65 with severe memory loss, dementia, or early Alzheimer's.

Focus Factor
It's one of the most heavily promoted brain formulas around, said to enhance memory, concentration, and focus. It contains a mix of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants you'd find in ordinary multivitamins, plus a proprietary blend that includes dimethylaminoethanol (DMAE), omega-3 oil, choline, and PS. The maker says the product can replace your multivitamin -- though at a much higher cost (about $70 for a one-month supply). According to Ellison, no properly designed study on humans supports Focus Factor or DMAE (its main active ingredient), for the improvement of intellectual functioning.

Bio Factor, Brain Pep, and Mindpro
Focus Factor's main competitors, these products are also touted for their supposed abilities to enhance a variety of brain functions. Almost all differentiate themselves from Focus Factor by containing herbs such as ginkgo biloba, St. John's Wort, gotu kola, and ginseng. They also tend to be a lot less expensive. But again, Ellison notes that these and other similar products may not contain enough of the active ingredient(s) to have any effect.

Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2004.

Friday, April 07, 2006

mindful mothering (as opposed to losing it entirely)

I'm up early this morning on my way to an anxiety-provoking medical appointment an hour's drive away, which involves being away from the family for the next two days. Perhaps more detail later, but it's nothing life-threatening. Still, my nerves have unfortunately coursed through the house, with one of my sons waking early too. I'm in the bathroom for the briefest of moments as he asks, "Is the food ready yet?"
"Does it look like I'm cooking?" I call back, in as sweet a tone I can muster, through gritted teeth.
The Husband is still in bed, half-asleep, and I think back to a couple days ago when I happened to pick up a copy of Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn and realize he'd written a whole, if brief, section, on mindfulness and parenting. My bathroom epiphany was that as the mother of small children there has been and no doubt will be no other time in my life when I am at once so dependent and depended-on as now, when I am as fully taxed by other people's needs, added to my own. In the process I feel more alive in some ways than I ever have before and am also screwing up many more times than I'd like. One of my sons has an issue for instance that in recent years has made its way into the diagnostic manual and involves him being frequently extra-annoying. I can tell myself every which way but Sunday that he purposely tries to make me nuts because he thrives on the emotional electricity, and sometimes that alone keeps me calm and sometimes I do or say things I cringe about for days afterwards. The other day I actually said, "Sometimes I wish I had a normal kid."
"Nobody's normal, Mom," he said.
Guilt and a strange bright pride competed then within me. I had, in better times, told him just this. And to all appearances, he'd understood it. He was now using it to stand his ground. Against me. It was in the way of all of the most motherly extremes of moments, a good one.