The Mother Load

Washington Post | Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Mommy Brain
How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter

By Katherine Ellison | Basic. 279 pp. $25

Knocked Up
Confessions of a Hip Mother-To-Be

By Rebecca Eckler | Villard. 374 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Because motherhood is one of those phenomena that occur smack on top of the political/personal fault line, books about it tend to divide into two main genres: those with a policy bent and those that trace the arc of an individual’s experience.

Those in the former category are good for us to read — our green vegetables, in mother-speak — exposing as they often do the hypocrisy of a society that calls for family values yet has an execrable system of early-childhood care and no government-mandated paid maternity leave. But it’s the memoir that affords the pure pleasure (the Hershey’s kiss, one might say) of reflected experience, of a narrative in which the reader (probably a mother, too) gets to see herself, or some version thereof, reflected in a mirror. Recent examples have brought us the experiences of a mother of a developmentally disabled child (Beth Kephart’s A Slant of Sun), a late-life mother of twins (Judith Newman’s You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman), a mother of a Down syndrome child (Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam); but to my mind, the mother of all books in this genre is Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, which 11 years after publication still seems wise, funny and — praise be! — never cloying.

By contrast, Canadian newspaper columnist Rebecca Eckler’s Knocked Up makes a Hershey’s kiss seem like health food. The story of the 30-year-old Eckler’s “accidental” pregnancy — her engagement party turned out to be a “conception party” — is told in a breathy party-girl argot that seems oh-so-10-years-ago. She isn’t just afraid — she has “super freakin’ crazy fear.” And to assuage her various fears, anxieties and worries, she needs “a pack of cigarettes . . . and a gallon of wine to go with my pack of cigarettes.” Dripping with self-involvement and frivolity, peppered with cosmopolitans and sushi, this book shares only one thing with Lamott’s: its diary-like format. Eckler’s annoying trope of turning the people in her life into no-name characters (the Sexy Young Intern, the Cute Single Man, the fiancé) has been done and done again: Candace Bushnell’s New York Observer “Sex in the City” column had its Mr. Big; Amanda Hesser had her Mr. Latte.

But there’s something sweet in Eckler’s ability to skewer and mock not only those around her but also herself, something touching about her innocent (doomed?) determination to remain “herself” while becoming a mother. Slowly, she begins to make concessions: Although she continues to go out drinking with the girls, she orders cranberry juice. As her pregnancy advances, she finds herself turning down an assignment, much to her dismay. She packs up and moves to her fiancé’s city (a several-hour, cross-country plane ride from her native Toronto). By the book’s end, she doesn’t appear to have caved — either to convention (she and the fiancé remain unmarried, possibly for good)) or to solemnity (she’s still obsessing solipsistically, now about the size of her postpartum posterior). And chances are that a good many young, cosmo-swilling women ambivalently teetering on the edge of the “pushmi-pullyu” of contemporary motherhood will eat this book up.

Katherine Ellison’s The Mommy Brain belongs firmly in the sociological branch of motherhood literature, and its constituency will be decidedly different from Eckler’s. Ellison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written about the environment and reported from Central America, makes it clear that her own experience as a mother was the starting point for the neuroscientific research that led to this book. She tackles the annoying cliché — almost a given of contemporary motherhood — that having progeny reduces brainpower in the female of our species. (How many times have you heard it? “I can’t remember a thing” . . . “I don’t know where I put my brain.”) She assiduously interviews neuroscientists, paws through countless studies of rat behavior and explains the working of the so-called motherhood hormone, oxytocin, which reduces stress and seems to play an important role in the formation of mother-child attachment.

Like a good cheerleader, Ellison expounds upon her theory of how the experience of conceiving and rearing a child creates neural enhancements in mothers in five areas: perception, efficiency, resiliency, motivation and emotional intelligence. Some of her theses make intuitive sense (you don’t need to read about the dissection of rats’ cortical areas to know about the greater efficiency of mothers; just ask yourself how many of the working mothers you know actually use their lunch hour to eat lunch); and the scientific research behind some of her other assertions is persuasive (particularly in the sections on perception and resiliency). One of Ellison’s great strengths is that she doesn’t shrink from acknowledging that many employers aren’t going to care how “baby-boosted” a woman’s brain is: They’re still not going to want to accommodate the flexible, truncated or office-unfriendly hours that many people — women and, increasingly, men — want after they become parents.

Now that there seems to be a dawning cultural awareness of the intractability of the clash between work and life, office and family, public achievement and private nurture, we are seeing a new crop of books that try to analyze the situation or suggest possible solutions. Most recently, Judith Warner, in Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, traces the problem, at least in part, to the perfectionist impulses of high-achieving women, whereas other, more policy-oriented thinks call for greater flextime at work and better child care at home. Like Ann Crittenden in last year’s If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, Ellison is looking to persuade corporations, individual bosses, spouses and mothers themselves that motherhood need not be a hindrance but rather an asset. As many have pointed out, this great conundrum — how to balance, juggle, jigger, rejigger, sequence or cram motherhood and work into one life — is the great unfinished business of feminism.