September 22, 2005


The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter. By Katherine Ellison. Basic Books. $25.

     So determined is Katherine Ellison to prove that motherhood makes women smarter, not less smart or less capable or more focused on child-oriented things than adult-oriented things, that she ends up twisting the word “smarter” until it is nearly unrecognizable.  This is arguably a good thing – our society tends to define “smart” too narrowly and is only belatedly realizing that there are many ways of being smart and many different things to be smart about.  But Ellison is unwilling to concede (if it would even be a concession) that motherhood makes women smart in ways that are different from traditional “smartness.”  Smart is smart, and moms have more of it, and that’s the end of it, so there.

     Thus, the book is a vast oversimplification, but it is fascinating and often entertaining to read.  Ellison, an investigative journalist who has won a Pulitzer Prize, has a take-no-prisoners attitude toward anyone who would suggest that she is somehow less smart as the mother of two young boys than she was before she had kids.  Good for her.  This book itself shows that she can write, argue and push her points as intensely as anyone.  It’s just that the points she makes – even when they are excellent ones – aren’t quite the ones she claims to be making.

     Ellison argues, and cites scientific evidence to show, that mothers’ brains are literally re-mapped to change their level of perception; that maternal hormones make women more competitive in their drive to protect their children; that mothers instinctively mirror their children’s expressions and show other evidence of increased emotional sensitivity.  These are species survival characteristics that bond women and their children more closely together; they are real and important; but they have nothing to do with being “smart.”  Science aside, many mothers are themselves the first to argue that having kids erodes their brains; that they can’t focus on adult things anymore and don’t even have much interest in the outside world; that their attention spans seem to have shrunk to match those of their babies.  These are also species survival characteristics; they too are real and important; and they too have nothing of significance to do with the notion of being “smart.”

     All these feelings – the ones on which Ellison focuses and the ones many (but not all) mothers experience on their own – point toward the necessary biological drive to protect and nurture a helpless new human being, to the exclusion of external events that are not immediately relevant and do not show signs of soon becoming important to mother and/or child.  A highly driven career woman who is determined not to be held back by childbirth or any other life circumstances, such as Ellison, will experience increased child-centered awareness and necessary child-rearing multitasking as characteristics to be embraced and eventually used outside the home in a resumed career.  Someone less highly motivated by workplace success, or just differently motivated in defining what matters to her, will experience similar feelings but will use them to draw inward with her child, forming a protective moat between the child-mother unit and the potentially threatening world outside.  These are fascinating phenomena that deserve more study.  They can, when harnessed by women who retain the drive to succeed in business after childbirth, remake the very structure of corporate life by bringing to it some of the enhanced perceptions and altered sense of reality that women experience when they become mothers.  This may be helpful in some environments, disadvantageous in others.  But none of this has anything to do with being smarter.  Ultimately, what Ellison shows is that women’s perceptual apparatus changes with childbirth and that the changes can be beneficial outside the family unit.  That’s true; it’s useful to know; but it does not require Ellison’s intensity of argument or her determined focus on the word “smart.”

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