Book Review: The Mommy Brain

mommy brainWhen I asked you all for book suggestions at the beginning of the year, Catherine requested that we read/review The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter by Katherine Ellison.  It’s a fascinating read.  The author, a highly successful professional woman, bristled at the implication that becoming a mother had dumbed her down.  As she delved into the research on motherhood and intelligence, Ellison found that science tells a very different story than the stereotypical “my kids have drained all my brain cells” mentality expressed by so many mothers.

Ellison gathers an impressive array of studies to support her thesis that motherhood improves our perception, efficiency, resilience, motivation, and “emotional intelligence.”  It’s the last phrase that I find especially interesting, especially since she had claims early in the book that “more mothers of young children than ever before [are] involved in mentally demanding work…” (ch 2).  (As you can imagine, my hackles always rise whenever a working mom brushes off the “simple” act of raising a child as mentally undemanding.)  Too often, women (and for that matter, men) are deemed successful only if they rise to prominence in an “intellectually demanding” field.  So I appreciate Ellison’s endeavors to point out that motherhood trains us to have strong empathy, nonverbal communication (her fancy way of explaining a mother’s intuition), and optimism (the “spin control” she says we need to cope with all the little frustrations of parenting young children, reminding us that it will all be worth it someday).  These are life skills, she argues, which make us happier and more successful in every endeavor (and better employees in the workforce, of which she assumes we all want to be a part).  Those of us who have learned to discern the baby’s cry or who have a pretty good idea of what that look in the preschooler’s eye means are flexing the emotional IQ muscles we honed in the all-day-every-day business of childraising.  I appreciate this defense of the precious expertise of motherhood, and it’s supported by a good chunk of research to send to a frustrated first-time sahm who is worrying that her brain is turning to mush just because she’s not earning any money.

Unfortunately for the cause of full-time motherhood, Ellison is more cagey on the question of why, if all this time with little ones is so great for our brains, we should chuck them in daycare and head back out to the workplace.  She’s very concerned about our earning potential (in later chapters, she bemoans the mommy track and pushes for universal preschool to free us up to work), but comes short of really examining what lifestyle can give us the most emotional potential.  She praises women who are juggling work and home life, mentions bored sahms who have thrown themselves into charitable volunteer work, and cheerfully concludes that multitasking forces us to be more efficient, which must be a good thing, right?  Efficiency has its place, but where is there room in efficiency for taking your moody kindergartner out for a walk so that you can get at the heart of what’s been making her so crabby all weekend?  Where is there room for listening to your grade schooler ramble on in excruciating detail about a cool technological innovation he read about that morning?  Where is the time to sit and read the same three board books over and over and over to the toddler who is in the midst of a language explosion and is actively incorporating every word of Gossie and Gertie into her rapidly-increasing vocabulary?  Where is the time to sit the preschooler down on the potty chair and sing her song after song until she finally has success?  Even Ellison admits in her final pages that multitasking needs to be done in moderation, and she wouldn’t advocate spending every waking minute on your smartphone.

The latter chapters earned a few more eye rolls from me.  There’s a one-sided chapter on moms in politics, in which every liberal woman politician in the past 150 years seems to get a mention, and there’s the obligatory dig at President George W. Bush.  Motherhood needn’t be a politically divisive issue, but Ellison has to grind her ax, despite the topic being disjointed from the rest of the book.  There’s a section on how we need to ask for help, because motherhood doesn’t have to be as draining as it’s portrayed (this help, in the author’s mind, comes in the form of paid childcare, or the affable coworkers who agree to shoulder some of your responsibilities while you work from home because obviously single people don’t have as much of a life as a mother who is Having It All!).  Ellison doesn’t mention a lot of ideas for help for stay-at-home moms because we’re not her target audience; she doesn’t seem to remember consistently that we exist, except when we’re bored, financially crippled, or depressed.  Kudos to her for caring that working moms can be run ragged, but her proposed solutions fall short.

I don’t want to be unfair to Ellison; her book is not meant to be a philosophy of family culture or full-time motherhood.  She does touch on many of the questions I raise here, she just doesn’t find a satisfactory answer.  It’s as if she accumulated all of the research and statistics she could find on working moms and just got lost in the details by the end.  While I take issue with her assumption that “physical work” like cooking dinner and washing clothes isn’t as challenging as “cerebral work” like second-guessing our doctor’s advice with the help of google (yes, really), Ellison does a good job of pointing out that intelligence has many facets, and motherhood enhances and utilizes many of them differently than the workforce.  She has certainly done her homework when it comes to the scientifically measurable effects of motherhood on a woman’s brain and psyche.  The Mommy Brain is worth the read for those who enjoy behavioral studies and for those who are asking what motherhood has done to our brains.  But I’d point you in other directions if you’re seeking more of a philosophy of motherhood.


Has anyone else read The Mommy Brain?  I’d love to have further discussion in the comments!  And are there any other books on motherhood any of you want us to review?  It might take me another two or three months, but I’m up for the challenge!


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