Talking with Katherine Ellison
Q: What inspired you to write The Mommy Brain?
A: It began as an effort to console myself, and soon I realized I was learning things that might be interesting to other women as well. I had always been nervous about losing my mind if I had kids, so once I had them I was excited to investigate research showing there might actually be some improvements to my brain.
Q: Do you think there is a bias against mothers in this culture, intellectually and otherwise?
A: Yes. It's obvious. And mothers themselves are often the worst perpetrators of the prejudice. Anna Quindlen recently wrote a column in which she said that when she became a mom, her ovaries took over her brain. She said this during a time when she was working on essays that would later win her a Pulitzer, and writing several successful books! And another research project showed how people who looked a pregnant and a non-pregnant woman doing the same work, they rated the pregnant one as less competent. I think much of the bias from other women dates from the 1960s and 1970s, when feminist writers, rebelling against being consigned to the home, portrayed motherhood as a brain-killing profession. But in fact, it can be an extremely intellectually challenging and stimulating job.
Q: Are you arguing that all mothers get smarter when they have kids?
A: I argue that there are many ways in which they can. As I note in the book, it always depends on a woman's circumstances and outlook, but if you think about it in evolutionary terms, there's no other time in a woman's life when she needs to be quite as smart as when she is looking after young children. Nature takes over and changes her brain at that time on a scale as great or greater as the changes that take place during puberty and menopause.
Q: In what ways do women get smarter as mothers?
A: In the book, I outline the ways, some of which are more distinct early on, and some of which develop over time. They are sensory perceptionssmell, sight, hearing and touchefficiency, resiliency, motivation and social skills, also known as emotional intelligence. The way that mothers get better in all these capacities involves the influence of hormones, the sheer mental stimulation of dealing with the challenges presented by children, and practice in certain behaviors which can change the brain, something known as brain plasticity.
Q: What is the most compelling evidence you've found for motherhood making you smarter?
A: I'm particularly fascinated by the increasing use of brain-scanning as mothers respond to their babies. Scientists are finding that mothersmuch more than fathersreact even to the annoying sound of a baby's cry with parts of the brain that activate during pleasurable activities like eating a good meal or being high on drugs. This powerful mechanism can get a woman hooked on her child, so to speak, and make her that much more motivated to deal with the taxing mental challenges that children present all the time. And assuming she's not under debilitating stress, this can be very good for the brain.
Interestingly, other brain scans on mothers and fathers have found that both have a markedly different brain reaction than non-parents when they hear a baby laugh or cry. The parents react more strongly to the cry and the non-parents to a laugh. You can define smart in many ways, but for me one aspect is responding efficiently at a sign of trouble, especially if it involves your own offspring.
Q: Lately there has been increasing research on motherhood from the mother's perspective. Why is that happening now?
A: This field of study is only now beginning to be taken more seriously. Previously I don't think we put quite so much value on emotional intelligence, which parents arguably get good at, through intensive practice. But in a changing world, including an economy that is much more service-oriented, we are seeing its worth. Also, parents, and particularly mothers, are finally in positions of tenure in academic settings and can call their own shots and research what is most relevant to their own lives.
Q: Near the end of the book, you have a chapter about how a mother's particular kinds of smarts are increasingly being recognized and valued on the job. How is that happening?
A: There is still a "Mommy gap"a wage difference between mothers and women who don't have kidsbut it is closing. Just as in academia, mothers are getting into management positions, and showing what they can do. Some are even showing they value the strengths of other mothers. For instance, among several accomplished women, I interview Joanne Hayes-White, San Francisco's new fire chief, and a mother of three. She is the first woman and the first mother to serve as fire chief in a big city department. She talks about the many strengths mothers bring to their jobs, from skill at caring for others to disciplined time-management. In one study, leading professional women who were also mothers offered strong evidence of such crossover strengths that they use in management. Right now, some of the smartest working mothers and managers are finding ways to maximize mothers' smarts on the job.