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The Mommy Brain
How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter

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april fool's day is approaching -- are you ready?

As my favorite holiday of the year is almost upon us, I wanted to share an article I wrote for the sadly defunct Tropic Magazine out of Miami nearly 20 years ago -- about me, my mom, and April foolery....


The two occasions each year on which my mother is most vividly herself are Yom Kippur and April Fools' Day.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, she fasts and
weeps, haunts the synagogue, and self-effacingly makes sandwiches for my situationally agnostic father. On April Fools' Day, she reminds my father and, most of all, me, that self- effacement is her choice, and it doesn't mean she isn't smarter than us both.

Bernice Bender never defied her generation's expectations. At 19, she dropped out of college to marry a medical student and bear him four children. She stayed home to raise us, a closely tended brood of three future doctors and one future newspaperwoman, until I, the youngest, was old enough for high school. Only then did she return to school herself, and then spent 10 years coaching children with learning disabilities in one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods.
She is now in her 60s, and her life remains a portrait of cheerful self-sacrifice. Her friends praise her consummate tact and consideration. But few outside our family have witnessed the brilliance of her wicked genius, which appears, like a rare flower, just once a year.

My mother and I have almost always been close, yet in our life choices we are far apart. At 35, I'm married but childless, focused on my job as a foreign correspondent. A few years ago, I moved to Mexico for work, and this year even farther, to Brazil. All the while, I have noticed my mother's April blooms grow more exotic, as if to compensate for all the miles between us.

In the first spring of my absence, for instance, I was shocked to find among my mail a neatly printed bill, on professional letterhead, for $1,200. The sum represented the cost of a couch that one of my mother's friends, an interior decorator, had loaned me three years earlier.

Not only had I taken the couch with me when I moved, I had recently paid a couple of hundred dollars to have it re- upholstered, a little detail I may have mentioned to my mother. Guilt, shame and financial anxiety washed over me as I stared at the invoice, which arrived April 1 -- or so I thought, unwilling, at least at first, to imagine my own husband conspiring with my mother to plant it in my mailbox.

The next April Fools' Day fell in 1990, during a week when I was visiting my parents in California and drafting an article about Fidel Castro for The Atlantic Monthly. It was my first assignment for such a major magazine, and I was full of
apprehension, though I felt sure of my argument. Castro, I maintained, would stay in power for years, despite the then- conventional wisdom that his fall was imminent.
On the critical morning, I strolled in to breakfast, fully conscious of the date and determined to remain on guard. That didn't stop me from screaming, however, at the three-inch, front-page headline in what looked at first exactly like The San Francisco Chronicle: CUBAN REVOLUTION! CASTRO OUT!!!

Another year passed, and with it, my conviction that my mother's natural reserve would keep her from recruiting the aid of total strangers for her tricks. I was vacationing at a rustic hotel in the Pacific resort of Zihuatanejo that April when my editor at The San Jose Mercury News in California reached me with an urgent message. He had spent nearly an hour trying to get through on the hotel's one line, he told me later, but persisted, a man with a mission. He wanted to beg my apology: Through no fault of his, some other editor had put the wrong byline on a long series of articles to which I had devoted several weeks.

At this point, the reasonable reader must be wondering why I did not rage at my mother for crashing in on my professional life, for violating boundaries with impunity, for infantilizing me with my bosses. And in fact, I did rage. I did. But quietly. To myself. To my husband. Never to my mother. I was stopped there by habit, and by awe.

To explain the habit first: The convergence of trickery and affection, which goes along so well with almost never saying anything directly, is an abiding pattern of my family's life. My older brother, a Massachusetts psychiatrist, recently courted a young woman by rigging a tiny explosive beneath her toilet seat. He's the first to concede the tactic was hardly your Hallmark- card kind of expression of affection. Yet neither he nor I nor even the young woman ever doubted its romantic inspiration.
My mother's yearly tricks carry their own fierce and distinctive signals. They are aggressive: She will not be excluded from my life. They are provocative: Do I really think my choices -- my pride, my work, my paycheck -- are beyond her challenge? And they are proud: Look how clever she is; she could have been anything she wanted, if she had only wanted it enough.

Yet just like my brother's small bomb, my mother's pranks express as best she can her desire for an intimate connection -- which surely is love, gritty and complicated as it may be. I see that more clearly the older I grow, and the farther I go away from her. And that is where my awe comes in: awe at my mother's peculiar mastery.
For April Fools' Day, as she well knows, is an opportunity for true art. Its best tricks manage to tweak but not insult, stun but never terrify. At its best, it gives Foolers the chance to show how well they know their prey, while also creating, if only for a moment, a private and supremely sheltered world where all fear is short-lived, and -- thanks, of course, to the Fooler -- everything always turns out OK.

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lost gems

When I was about 16, I worked all summer, baby-sitting, to earn the money to
buy a ruby ring I’d seen in a store window and couldn’t get out of my mind.
The ring had five dark stones that twinkled among tiny golden branches. I
used to fall asleep thinking about it.

But just a couple weeks after I finally owned that ring, I misplaced it,
never to be found again. Today, nearly 40 years later, I still sometimes
think of that ring late at night.

A few months later, my brother came back from Finland with a specialgift
for me: a delicate silver bracelet of such original design that I got
compliments each time I wore it. I wore it while swimming in Lake Tahoe, and
somehow the catch opened up, and it sank down to the lake bottom. I can
still clearly see it flickering as it slipped from my grasp.

For many years afterwards, I had a recurring dream of swimming to the bottom
of a deep lake, and finding there, in one place, all the beautiful things I
couldn’t manage to hang on to: the ring, the bracelet, and various earrings
and necklaces, together with various keys,sunglasses and twenty-dollar
bills. Always in the dream, I’d be flooded with relief, and that rare
satisfaction of a perfect resolution to a story that at first seemed to have
no end.

When you lose things just occasionally, it’s really no big deal. But when
you lose things all the time, you start to worry, secretly, that you have
somehow also lost your self-control, or that maybe you never even had that
in the first place.

At the age of 49, when I was diagnosed with Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity
Disorder, it felt like one of those rare resolutions: the moral of a story
that had seemed to have no end. By understanding and addressing my
condition, I came to understand the corollary of Joni Mitchell’s famous
line, that you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘til it’s gone. I didn’t realize
my greatest lost until I’d found it -- recovering something just as sparkly
as my beautiful, lost ring: something like childish self-confidence.

Today, I take an improv class each Sunday. One of our rules is to applaud
mistakes, which we learn to consider as gifts. Nothing is lost; everything
is transformed. And better late than never.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

need a laugh?

I just got emailed this -- it's wonderful--

A father passing by his son’s bedroom was astonished to see that his bed was nicely made and everything was picked up. Then he saw an envelope, propped up prominently on the pillow that was addressed to ‘Dad…’

With the worst premonition he opened the envelope with trembling hands and read the letter.

Dear Dad:

It is with great regret and sorrow that I’m writing you. I had to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with Mom and you.

I have been finding real passion with Stacy and she is so nice.

But I knew you would not approve of her because of all her piercing, tattoos, tight motorcycle clothes and the fact that she is much older than I am. But it’ s not only the passion…Dad she’s pregnant.

Stacy said that we will be very happy.

She owns a trailer in the woods and has a stack of firewood for the whole winter. We share a dream of having many more children.

Stacy has opened my eyes to the fact that marijuana doesn’t really hurt anyone.
We’ll be growing it for ourselves and trading it with the other people that live nearby for cocaine and ecstasy.

In the meantime we will pray that science will find a cure for AIDS so Stacy can get better. She deserves it.

Don’t worry Dad. I’m 15 and I know how to take care of myself.

Someday I’m sure that we will be back to visit so that you can get to know your grandchildren.

Love,

Your Son John

P.S. Dad, none of the above is true. I’m over at Tommy’s house.

I Just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than a Report card That’s in my center desk drawer.

I love you.

Call me when it’s safe to come home.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Il Cervello Delle Mamme!

The Mommy Brain was published in Italy today! Me piace moltissimo!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Please join the Buzz!

With my new facebook page

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

just in case you haven't read enough of the Tiger Mother backlash...

....I will just point out that, at least in my experience, the approach can be disastrous for some cubs.

I was certainly determined to foster excellence in my two sons, even if they hated me for it. After all, some of their same genetic material had produced three physicians (my siblings) and two well-educated, devoted journalists (their parents). Thus it was that my instinct, on hearing my first son's excellent Apgar scores, was to think: "Harvard, here we come!"

Then life, as it so often does, intervened. Nine years later, my verbally gifted, adorable son was diagnosed with Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, with a side order of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, the latter of which I suspect at least in part arose from my relentless efforts, and his teachers', to get him to do quite a lot of things that were in truth beyond his ability. With our family in constant conflict, and my son so chronically angry that we could barely get him to school each day, I learned the hard way that I needed to back off of the mandatory music lessons and homework tutors, and even to let him fail academically if need be, rather than keep up the pressure.

It has been one of the hardest challenges of my life, this balancing act between efforts aimed at external and internal success.

Yet with more than 5 million US children now diagnosed with ADHD,motherhood for millions of women has become just this sort of test of coping with ambiguity. How much does personal happiness count, compared to someone's net impact on the world? Where is the line between explanation and excuse?And will I have succeeded as a parent if my son ends up never fulfilling his considerable potential -- as long as he stays on the right side of the law?

In my own quest for answers, I sought out mothers I respected who had gone through something similar. One of the wisest of these was Lyda Rose, whose son Todd had dropped out of high school as a senior, with a GPA of .09, and narrowly avoiding juvenile hall, after which he got his teen-aged girlfriend pregnant and sold fences for minimum wage.Today he teaches education neurosciences at – you guessed it! – Harvard.

As a teenager, Rose, who had serious learning challenges, was scolded by teachers and brutally bullied by peers. He didn’t tell his mother about any of the worst of it until years later, but she soon realized on her own that he needed her warmth and acceptance much more than high expectations. “Todd was dying inside, and for awhile, I would never get that,” Lyda told me. “But I finally decided that this kid cannot be attacked everywhere. I have to change at least what happens between him and me.”

She began paying less heed to Todd’s teachers and principal, instead coming up with her own plan to help him survive adolescence. When he brought home his report card with all F’s and one D, Lyda recalls, “I looked at the D, and said, what did you like about this class?”

Another wise mother I've talked to much more recently is psychologist Wendy Mogel, the best-selling author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” who told me that she herself was diagnosed with ADHD, as an adult. While her main message for parents involves encouraging independence and resilience, she advises parents of learning-challenged children not to worry so much about overindulging them. “These kids are battle-weary,” she says. “They get post-traumatic stress disorder of confidence, of their intrinsic pleasure in learning and trying new things.”

Aristotle, who might agree with Amy Chua, wrote that happiness is the realization of "unimpeded excellence." Yet modern science has shown us that happiness may more often rely on healthy human connections. Ultimately, in my home, I had to make sure that at least my son's connection with me remained strong. So today I tread that line between high expectations and nurturing. It's never easy, but I guess that's one reason they call it a job.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

techno-tizzy

My wonderful advisors at my new publisher, Hyperion, suggested I twitter about my pending book about ADHD and mother-son conflicts. et because so much of this book is about my personal and the broader cultural struggle to focus on what's important, I just can't see it. Even though I just read that even the Dalai Lama has been tweeting away!
Anyway, to be honest, I can't even maintain two running commentaries while also doing my best to feed the kids, avoid housework, and commit journalism. SO if anyone reading this wants to continue to check in on my still-only-occasional unpaid reports,they can now be found on the new Facebook page for "Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention." I hope to see you there!