On Balance

Published on March 6th, 2017 | by Danya Ruttenberg


Reclaiming Mommy Brain: The Unsung Cognitive Benefits of Raising Children

Much has been made of the famous “mommy brain,”  wherein maternal cerebral tissue turn to mush as we engage in the sometimes exhausting, sometimes repetitive labor of childcare.  Whether that’s because of sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, or just the way that the work of caring for the next generation narrows our range of vision, it’s certainly true that, for a lot of us, days that may once have involved leisurely abstract thinking become weighted with the exceedingly concrete: Baby.  Diapers.  Wipes.  Milk.  Spare clothes.  Burp cloth.  Pacifier, spare pacifier.  Keys, wallet. Dishes, dinner, dishes. Sleep (maybe).

I experienced this mental shift like a ton of bricks when my first kid was born. As a writer, I remember being so glad that the project on deadline resting in my lap next to my newborn required editing, rather than generating brand new ideas. I couln’t quite summon any novel thoughts, but I at least had enough marbles to know when a sentence wasn’t working. Even if I had to start and stop reading about a thousand times before I got to that realization. And though my son—and, now, his siblings—have grown older, the concreteness of the tasks that determine my days haven’t essentially yet changed much.  Did I forget snacks?  Did I bring a t-shirt for the pool?  Is the homework in the backpack?  Did I make sure that we packed our special plush family members, Monkey and Penguin, for the trip?

Monkey by Bill Rogers / Creative Commons License

This way of engaging the world gets a bad rap.  Abstract thinking is lionized in our culture, but “mommy brain” and the specificity and detail that often goes with it has more to offer us than we often give it credit for.

There’s a famous dilemma, created by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, intended to reveal where a person is in their moral development: The wife of a man called Heinz is dying, and there is a specific drug that could save her.  The pharmacist in town charges an exorbitant amount for this drug, and Heinz does not have the money to purchase it.  Should, Kohlberg asks, Heinz break into the pharmacy to steal the drug for his wife?  The scenario is framed in stark terms: should a person steal, or not? Even for this urgent reason? The person being asked the question—the theoretical Heinz—is not allowed to question the parameters being given. There’s a problem, and the answer must be found in a a yes or a no, in black or white.

Philosopher Sara Ruddick describes this as an exercise in abstraction. It’s about simplifying something complicated so that we can draw out general principles and apply them in an emotionally complex imagined reality.  Is it ever ethical to steal?

Parents do not live in the world of the abstract.  We live in a universe of snacks, Tylenol, spare underwear in case there’s an accident, and the small, daily impacts that a bad dream or a growth spurt can have on a child’s mood or needs.  Overarching theories can sometimes be useful; we certainly buy lots of parenting books that espouse them and share quotes of such on social media. Yet every parenting philosophy meets its match now and again with the actual kid standing before us.

As Ruddick puts it: “Concreteness requires inventing alternatives even when there seem to be none….” That is, are we sure that the only options out there are to steal or not to steal?  A mother might ask Kohlberg: Are there other people in the community who could help out?  Are we sure that this drug is so powerful?  Why is it, even, that a pharmaceutical company would be able to hold that kind of monopoly over people’s lives?  “To think concretely,” Ruddick writes, “is to refuse to ‘get it,’ to accept abstraction’s terms.”  Those of us parenting in the trenches get real. We don’t have to play by those rules. We don’t have to choose to get it.

If my kid needed something, you bet your life I’d investigate the terms on which a limit was placed—we’d find some way to deal with fact that Penguin got left behind, and I would break, create, invent, or realign any rules of reality that I possibly could if keeping my kids healthy and safe was at stake.  Of course, sometimes the reality of poverty, oppression, unjust systems or incurable disease trumps parents’ most determined efforts.  But that doesn’t mean that parents in those situations are passively accepting the limits they encounter, that they’re not doing everything in their power to refuse to “get it,” that they’re not searching desperately for a out-of-the-box solution to the most impossible situations.

Hey Paul Studios / Creative Commons License

Raising a child is all about improvising solutions based on what’s at hand, about shifting around the limits imposed by reality until what’s available looks a little more like what ought to be. This is the work of the “mommy brain”—it’s an attention to concreteness that doesn’t allow theory to determine the limits of what’s possible. Our mommy brains (and our daddy brains too) can train us in thinking in a different way—a way that involves expanding our possibilities of what might be plausible for our families—and, perhaps, for everybody else’s family, too.

This cognitive style can help us to push past the status quo at work or in the public sphere, to refuse to “get” unjust laws or dysfunctional systems. It is, perhaps, easy to think that poverty is a result of laziness or that success is a zero-sum game, but another to see the chain of needs in people’s daily lives and to see inequalities in resource access. Concrete thinking can also enable us to respond to problems in front of us in a more expansive way; Ruddick argues that, in fact, this is one of the reasons that engaging in childcare helps one develop tools that are crucial in the work of peacemaking.  For, perhaps most of all, a commitment to seeing that which is right in front of us helps us to grow in empathy, to see the particularities of the person in front of us, and to understand when the needs of today’s child may be different from that of yesterday’s.

As our capacity for empathy grows, so too does our capacity for love, care, and connection—transcendent values that are lived out in the world of the concrete and the particular.  There’s nothing mushy about that.

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About the Author

Danya Ruttenberg is author of Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting.  She was named by Newsweek as one of ten “rabbis to watch” and by the Forward as one of the top 50 women rabbis in America.

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