According to a persistent myth, having babies makes women soft
in the head, driving out everything important and replacing it with
trivia related to feeding schedules and getting junior to soccer. A
study by Israeli scientists has even showed that brand-new mothers
score significantly lower than non-pregnant childless women on a
standard IQ test.

But, says Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning investigative journalist, those scientists were measuring
the wrong thing. In her new book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter,
she draws on cutting-edge neuroscience to show that raising children
can make mothers smarter about things more vital than verbal and
mathematical mind games.

Ms Ellison has two sons, 6-year-old Joshua and 9-year-old Joey. Her husband, Jack Epstein, is a deputy foreign editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.
They met in Nicaragua in 1982 when they were working as freelances
researching the US-backed Contra revolt. After more than a dozen years
living in Mexico and Brazil, they now live in a woodsy suburb outside
of San Francisco.

In an interview with MercatorNet’s deputy editor Carolyn Moynihan, she explained why motherhood makes women smarter.

MercatorNet: Do
you think many women will be surprised by the message of your book, or
does it confirm what mothers have always secretly known?

Ellison:
That’s a great question, because I expect many women will be surprised
to find that something they have long suspected is actually true! You
can find all sorts of references to “mommy brain” in modern literature,
always depicting a woman whose head is so full of grocery lists and
soccer schedules, or just pregnancy hormones, that she can’t focus on
anything important. But in fact, there are all sorts of ways in which
that woman’s mind is being enriched. I think what will most resonate
with moms are the passages about multitasking, time management and
emotional intelligence, which they know they’re practicing every day
and getting better at.

What may come as more of a surprise is
the cutting-edge research I describe about the concrete changes taking
place in mothers’ brains in this important transition – an epoch of
development that has been compared in its magnitude to puberty and
menopause. This includes new research on the effects of oxytocin, a
hormone important in labor and breastfeeding but also a
neurotransmitter that affects behavior and memory.

MercatorNet:
You achieved a lot, including a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, before
becoming a mother. How could you possibly learn more by having kids?
Did you feel smarter when you began raising your children?

Ellison:
Of course I had a lot to learn! Children give you a crash course in
human nature, which is important in leading a happy life and can also
be of particular importance in a career. I definitely feel I’m smarter
about people, which is a very important way of being smart.

I
had my kids late, starting at 38, and up until then I’d lived a life
without being connected to a community because I worked in isolated
foreign bureaus and was always traveling. Children, by centering your
life around a school, oblige you to deal with all sorts of people you
might otherwise never have known. They’re always bringing new things
into your life, so while there may be long stretches of tedium and
stress, you also get obligatory novelty, challenge, and sometimes even
fun.

MercatorNet: Are mothers up against prejudice in the media, amongst employers, and even amongst other women?

Ellison:
Yes. In the United States, the so-called gender gap in wages has almost
narrowed to zero, but there remains a large gap between mothers and
other workers. This is partly due to moms taking time off, but partly,
it appears, because employers discriminate. Also, I cite research in
the book in which a group of volunteers was shown images of a woman
doing various types of work, in some scenes with a pillow to make her
look pregnant and in some scenes not. The “pregnant” woman is judged
less competent and worthy of a raise.

MercatorNet: What exactly is research showing us about the maternal brain?

Ellison:
That is actually the whole topic of my 250-plus page book! But just to
give a few highlights: We know from animal studies that learning and
memory skills are increased postpartum and that these advantages appear
to be permanent. We also know that mothers (both animals and humans) in
responding to their babies activate the “reward circuitry” of the
brain. This is a key factor in keeping us pursuing food and sex, which
helps explain the intense bond with their child that so many mothers
feel (fathers, in preliminary studies, do not show this). There is also
some fascinating new research showing that oxytocin can help new
mothers combat stress and may also affect memory, possibly helping to
enhance it.

MercatorNet: Do these "smarts" give mothers an advantage in the workplace?

Ellison:
I spoke to many managers in professional fields who told me they
recognized specific maternal advantages. Many fields, particularly
academic studies, are much more collaborative these days; negotiation
and empathy skills come into their own in these settings. As a
particular example, the fire chief of San Francisco, the first woman
and mother fire chief of a major US city, says she thinks many skills
learned as a mom and a firefighter are interchangeable, including
flexibility, empathy, ability to deal with chaos, and time management.
I also spoke to a major hotel hiring official who said mothers are more
responsible on the job — contrary to reports that we “opt-out” to
nurture our kids. The great majority of moms today need to work to help
provide for our kids.

MercatorNet: You say in your book that fathers, adoptive parents and altruists share in many "mommy brain" benefits. Could you explain how?

Ellison:
You don’t need to be a mom to have a “mommy brain”. I spoke to many
fathers, adoptive parents and altruists who told me of the specific
ways caring for children had enriched their brains and in many cases
helped both their personal and work lives. Fathers undergo some similar
hormonal changes as mothers (though to a much lesser degree). But
principally, the day-in, day-out practice in training and nurturing a
little mind can build one’s emotional intelligence. As for altruists,
there is an increasing amount of research showing that caring for
children or others brings a range of benefits in physical and mental
health.

MercatorNet: Is motherhood today a particularly brain-intensive job?

Ellison:
There’s no doubt that it is. The world has grown much more complex just
in the last couple of generations. Merely being a consumer is more
brain-intensive than ever, and mothers are usually the main consumers
for their families. If you want to do a good job of protecting and
caring for your family, you have to be schooled these days in reports
about the supposedly rising rates of childhood obesity, asthma,
allergies, autism. You have to know about the potential dangers of
trans-fats, mercury in vaccines, mercury in fish, genetically modified
organisms. Not all moms are willing or able to take on much of this
task, but there’s a lot of social pressure to do so, which cuts across
classes. I spoke to a drug store clerk who had taught herself to surf
the internet, for instance, to seek help for her overweight daughter.

Further afield
Katherine Ellison homepage

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet