|This is your brain on the New York Times
By Nicholas Stix
The May 8 New York Times ran an op-ed by Katherine Ellison, "This Is [sic] Your Brain on Motherhood," in which Ellison argued that being a mother makes you smarter. But so, she added, does being a father.
So, why the title? Why not, "This is Your Brain on Parenthood"? Because Ellison is a feminist. Demanding that she be logical could get a fellow arrested for sexual harassment and verbal assault. Back in college, 25 years ago, my best girlfriend was a feminist. When I referred to "women's values" -- after all, my friend and her sisters-in-arms called it the "women's movement" -- she reproved me, "They aren't 'women's' values, they're 'human' values." So, why is the movement called "feminism," rather than "humanism"?
"ANYONE shopping for a Mother's Day card today," wrote Ellison, "might reasonably linger in the Sympathy section. We can't seem to stop mourning the state of modern motherhood. 'Madness' is our new metaphor. 'Desperate Housewives' are our new cultural icons. And a mother's brain, as commonly envisioned, is impaired by a supposed full-scale assault on sanity and smarts.
"So strong is this last stereotype that when a satirical Web site posted a 'study' saying that parents lose an average of 20 I.Q. points on the birth of their first child, MSNBC broadcast it as if it were true. The danger of this perception is clearest for working mothers, who besides bearing children spend more time with them, or doing things for them, than fathers, according to a recent Department of Labor survey…. [An idiotic paragraph follows, ridiculing people who think it peculiar that a visibly pregnant woman would seek to land an executive position running a city agency.]
"But what if just the opposite is true? What if parenting really isn't a zero-sum, children-take-all game? What if raising children is actually mentally enriching for mothers - and fathers?
"This is, in fact, what some leading brain scientists, like Michael Merzenich at the University of California, San Francisco, now believe. Becoming a parent, they say, can power up the mind with uniquely motivated learning. Having a baby is 'a revolution for the brain,' Dr. Merzenich says.
"Commonly envisioned"? By whom? I don't know any people like that. But I used to.
Feminists have long seen children as an awful obstacle, indeed, the chief hindrance to women realizing their destiny as corporate lawyers. Children keep women down, and as one feminist wrote a few years ago, talking to her baby was the least interesting part of her day. (I can't recall her exact words, but her interest in interacting with her child was on a par with watching paint dry.) How was it that a leading academic abortion advocate always referred to the unborn child in an expectant mother's womb? Ah, yes. "Trespasser."
And so, Ellison is having it both ways. She is playing feminist enlightener, arguing against pervasive stereotypes, in order to "refute" them, but the stereotypes come variously from feminism itself, or from her ("the torrent of negativity about motherhood"). (If the "torrent of negativity" refers to "desperate housewives," then that is merely yet another feminist-invented stereotype, via Hollywood.)
As for the perception that having children makes mothers -- or is it parents? -- dumb, that sounds like a belief limited to the feminists at places like MSNBC. I would not assume, however, that the average person is as benighted as the average TV news editor.
As for Ellison's lament about working mothers, if parenting makes you smarter, she should be celebrating. Regarding the specifics of her "scientific" meditations on working mothers, the reasons mothers tend to spend more time with their kids than their children's fathers do are simple:
1. In intact families, the husband on average works many more hours out of the home than the wife does;
In case you are wondering why, in an essay glorifying the cognitive value of motherhood, Ellison is complaining about mothers spending more time with their children than fathers do, the complaint is part of the feminist package of talking points, and Ellison has to trot it out to establish her political bona fides, even if it provides no support for her thesis.
Getting back to intelligence, Ellison maintains that neuroscientists found that mother lab rats became smarter at time management, in terms of performing tasks and getting back to their baby rats, and sees the mother rats as proving that working mothers get smarter at time management.
What Ellison did was assume that working mothers became smarter through being mothers, and then gave the example of the lab rats as "proof" of her assumption's correctness. It's circular thinking with a pseudo-scientific gloss. (Which brings us to two more feminist talking points: 1. A full-time working woman is just as good a mother as a full-time homemaker -- remember them?; and 2. A divorced or never-married working mom is just as adept at raising children as an intact married couple.)
But since Ellison has qualified her statement by saying that what is true of women is also true of men, she should have found (or made up) a case of neuroscientists who took baby rats away from their mother, and experimented on them with their father, and then said that that was proof of how working fathers get smarter in time management. After all, she did say that cognitively, what is true of mothers is also true of fathers.
Ellison then changes tack yet again.
"With our economy newly weighted with people-to-people jobs, and with many professions, including the sciences, becoming more multidisciplinary and collaborative, the people skills we've come to think of as 'emotional intelligence' are increasingly prized by many wise employers. An ability to tailor your message to your audience, for instance - a skill that engaged parents practice constantly - can mean the difference between failure and success, at home and at work, as Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, may now realize."
The foregoing has nothing at all to do with intelligence -- or with science, for that matter. "People-to-people jobs" is a euphemism for "low-paying service sector jobs," which by the way, have been the rule in the U.S. for more than a generation ("newly weighted"?!). The sciences haven't become "more collaborative"; they were always collaborative. And "emotional intelligence" isn't intelligence at all, but a pseudo-scientific political invention created in order to "prove" that people who aren't all that bright really are bright. "Tailoring your message to your audience" is a euphemism for, at best, political opportunism, and at worst, demagoguery. Lawrence Summers got into trouble for honestly using his powerful intellect. Ellison is implying that Summers should have lied. Thus, according to her reasoning, motherhood/parenthood makes you smarter, but then you have to employ your new-found smarts by being a lying demagogue.
Translated into simple English, Ellison was just saying in a pedantic way, 'Women are not only smarter than men, but morally superior … and Larry Summers sucks!'
As part of current feminist talking points, every feminist must also insult Lawrence Summers at every opportunity, in order to prove her political bona fides. And the reference to "collaborative" work is feminist code for "more feminine," since as any feminist will tell you, females are "more relational."
Then Ellison argues that the government should provide women with more money for childcare: "to be sure, our society needs to do much more - starting with more affordable, high-quality child care and paid parental leaves - to catch up with other industrialized nations and support mothers and fathers in using their newly acquired smarts to best advantage."
But if being a mother makes you smarter, logically, government should cut all money for childcare, so women can spend more time with their kids, and thereby get smarter and smarter. If Ellison's thesis is correct, then getting more and better child care will leave mothers at the dumber level they were at, without the intelligence they would have gained from taking care of their children.
Since Ellison has already contended that fathers are neglecting their kids, we can safely ignore the last "and fathers" add-on.
Are you dizzy from all of Katherine Ellison's contradictions? I know I am.
And aside from the contradictions, her habit of saying that something is specifically true of mothers, and in the next breath saying that it is also true of fathers, means that there are equivocations within her contradictions. Logically speaking, her essay says nothing.
Here's what is really going on with Ellison.
1. Ellison wrote a book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter; the Times is helping her sell it. ("Us?" Who is "us," Kimosabe?)
If Ellison's teaser essay is any indication, her book is like Malcolm Gladwell's current bestseller, Blink. According to Steve Sailer, Blink sets up an attractively simple thesis (our snap judgments are generally right), only to contradict the thesis in other parts of the book (our snap judgments regarding race, if we are white, are usually wrong), without ever bringing the two positions together, and targets an audience that wouldn't dare point out the racial implications of Gladwell's thesis, or that he is contradicting himself.
2. Feminism's contradictions. Back in the 1970s, feminism routinely condemned motherhood. But in recent years, yuppy feminists have discovered that children can be status symbols, just like expensive cars and summer homes (or for most of them, time-shares) in the Hamptons. Having or adopting a child shows the world that you can "have it all," even if you rarely see the tyke. After all, what are illegal aliens for? Ellison is writing on the joys of motherhood for women who either have no children, or who neglect their children, but wish to get credit for their illegal nannies' labors.
(My wife used to be just such an illegal nanny, as had been dozens upon dozens of the (formerly illegal) immigrant women we both knew. Back in 1997 or '98, when I pitched a story to the New York Daily News on the abuse such illegal nannies routinely endure from their female bosses, lefty op-ed editor Bob Laird told me, "I don't think that's true." Hearing that, my wife immediately started shouting, surely loud enough for Laird to hear, "He has one!"
Come to think of it, I wonder how many yuppy moms are cheating on those Department of Labor questionnaires, by counting as time they spend with their kids, time when the children are with their illegal immigrant nanny.)
Even feminists who could never imagine having or adopting a child have come around to publicly supporting working motherhood for professional colleagues (even though it isn't fair to those who worked so single-mindedly to get where they are, damnit!). That means that women who work less will get the same perks as those who devote themselves solely to their work. If the mommy track makes the workplace a feminist space, where all women can gain more perks and power at the expense of white heterosexual males, it indirectly gives the childless women more power.
But while feminists are now contradicting their earlier anti-family animus, feminists never examine their contradictions, they just heap them ever higher. And should anyone point out the contradictions, they'll teach 'em! Just ask Larry Summers!
3. With apologies to Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne, "It's the New York Times, Jake." The Times has undertaken a campaign of late, showcasing faddish "intellectuals" who argue that institutions considered by many of their readers to be mentally inferior are actually sources of hidden mental stimulation. Recently, the paper showcased writer Steven Johnson, who was flogging his new pop philosophy book, Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is [sic] Actually Making Us Smarter, with a teaser essay from his book, entitled "Watching TV Makes You Smarter." In accordance with the Times' anti-intellectualism, one must get one's mental stimulation via inferior means. Heaven forbid, one should get smarter through say, reading Plato or doing math problems.
Next thing you know, someone will write a book entitled, Reading the New York Times Makes You Smarter!
Nicholas Stix can be reached at
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
This week's poll
© 1996-2018, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.