Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Mommy Brain Is Good for You

Mommy Brain Is Good for You
Marrit Ingman

I haven’t read Katherine Ellison’s book The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, but I agree with its thesis: that mothering builds certain types of intelligence. Mothers, I am sure, are shortchanged our due as thinkers, even if we may seem—and may even think of ourselves as—forgetful, too easily distracted, unproductive, and mentally soggy.

I, for example, accumulate at least an hour’s worth of Looking for Things That Are Lost daily. Where are the postage stamps? I have to send a letter. Has anybody seen the pastry cutter? Did I leave my shoes in here? Let’s find your lunchbox. Let’s find that snack I packed. I have to return a phone call, but I can’t remember to whom.

“Do you think my brain will ever come back?” I asked my son, whom I call Baldo when I write.

“It’s already back,” he says. My son is three, but he understands.

It was weird how everyone kind of agreed hitherto that motherhood was bad for the brain, because if you think about it, aside from the parts of your brain that get totally bent from sleep loss (you know, people never fully recover from sleep loss) and the parts that you use less of in parenting a very young child (like, you can't remember your address, but you know all the characters in Candy Land), you could build up some pretty buff dendrites figuring shit out when you have a kid.

Of course I can’t remember where the postage stamps are. My brain is already stuffed with more information than it’s ever schlepped around during any other stage of my life. Keeping track of my son’s Epi-Pen Jr. is probably more important than locating my shoes promptly. I have to keep straight the names of a million parents and children. It’s no wonder I called my son’s best friend’s dad Scott for two months. (It turns out that he’s actually Chris.) I have to remember the symptoms of Fifth Disease. I have to remember to schedule hearing and vision tests. I have to remember all the names of Ms. Frizzle’s kids. I have to remember the scattered details of my freelance work. I have to remember my partner’s work schedule. I have to remember to bring toddler underpants with me whenever I leave my house—I certainly never had to do that before I had a child. Meanwhile I try to apply my memory and reasoning to current events, local politics, my mom’s cancer treatment, my single friends’ lives, the cat’s feline leukemia booster and worming schedule, popular culture, PTA meetings, which brands of bread have high-fructose corn syrup, my menstrual cycle. I’m destined to fall short sometimes, but there is virtue in the struggle.

Then there’s the problem-solving skills. You have to get smart if you're ever going to bend a toddler to your will. It’s an old joke by now thanks to I Don’t Know How She Does It—another book about which I have mixed feelings—but I do agree that parents can usefully apply their discipline strategies in the adult public world, resulting in a sort of Jedi Mind Trick. Somebody giving you too much to handle? Get on their level, look them right in the eye, and say, “I’d love to help you. Let’s choose what we’ll do first between these two options.” Somebody freaking out on you? “I hear how upset you are. I know you are smart, and I trust you to find a solution to this problem. Tell me your ideas.” The feminist in me rankles at being assigned the stewardship of other adults’ feelings and behaviors, but the feminist in me is also delighted to have gained an interpersonal advantage from ancient women’s wisdom. It is intoxicating to think that the five or six things I say day after day, ad infinitum, to my small child can actually translate into adult power. If someday I have coworkers who jump on the couch or tease the cat, I will be their queen.

But today I realized the real gain is in abstract logic. I'm still tripping out that today my kid put his Legos "in jail" because they were speeding on the street. And I said, "Did the highway patrol get them?" I was right there with him. I didn't stop and go, "Your Legos can drive somehow, and they found race cars and were speeding in them until they got apprehended and thrown into the Penitentiary for Legos, which totally exists?" Nope. I was immediately able to conceptualize such a reality. I could even visualize the Legos getting booked. It was the blue and yellow squares.

The only real problem I see is that Mommy Brain is sometimes too powerful to be controlled. Every year the paper I write for throws a sensational holiday party at the Legion Hall—a buffet from restaurants all over town, a band outside, karaoke upstairs, a room filled entirely with pie, and interesting people from every facet of creative Austin. It’s the office party of everyone’s dreams. I was so suffused with appreciation for the event that higher logic failed me last year, and I reverted to the kinesthetic vocabulary of my three-year-old. I was standing in my kitten heels beneath one of downtown’s famous spreading oaks when I stepped on something hard and remarkably round. It was an acorn, and when it failed to yield, I reached down with delight to grab it. I promptly placed it into the slash pocket of my editor’s cardigan sweater.

“That’s a present,” I said.

He seemed surprised. No kids.

How many times has my son pressed an acorn or a leaf into my hand? Hiking along a creekfront he’s bounded away from me, after I’ve specifically asked him to stay with me, and turned back sheepishly holding a leaf?

“I wanted to give this to you,” he’ll say. He wanted so badly to give something to me that he forgot the rules. Mommy brain is like that, too.

There is virtue in the way children reason—and in the way we reason in order to communicate with them and share their world. Not only because it is good for children when they are taken seriously and believed (although that is true) but also because it is good for all of us to retain contact with our child selves as we age. We have all been three years old. Sometimes opportunities for three-year-old reasoning present themselves, and we should be able to embrace the parts of ourselves that remain childlike: to feel happiness more fully, to be outraged at something unfair, to feel close to our families and our animals and our communities. Memory is a thief, and the feelings we retain from when we are young are like gifts to us. Childhood can be frightening as it is experienced, but it can also be pleasurably remembered. Even as we might drag around painful recollections from the circumstances of our youths, we can also recall the purest trip of just being a child. We’ve all been kids.

The reason people think mothers are stupid (ourselves included) is because nobody can quantify this kind of intelligence. Nobody cares about it. You can't base an industry on it. People who care about intellectual capital and that stuff should really look into Mommy Brain.

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