Barbara Kingsolver and the Mom IQ fallacy

Utah State University (“Back to School” by Jeremy Winborg)

I attended an academic conference several weeks ago at Utah State University, where I collected so many great esoteric buzzwords that I feel ready to compete in a buzzword bingo tournament.*

I later learned that another attendee at the conference had written a post about it for a blog I follow. In her biographical sketch she included this line: “After raising five brilliant children, she took her brain out of cold storage….” Intended to be tongue-in-cheek, the line nevertheless raised some hackles, manifested in the comments.

It also reminded me of a book passage I tucked away a few years ago, and am now happy to dust off. It comes from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior (more great quotes from which you can find in an earlier post). As glad as I am about all the things she got absolutely right in that book, I can’t help but hope that she got one thing quite wrong.

Here it is, in the voice of the main character, Dellarobia Turnbow:

“People automatically estimate a mom’s IQ at around her children’s ages, maybe dividing by the number of kids, rounding up to the nearest pajama size.”


Some pajama shots of my kids, beginning with Ninja

Short of conducting a whole lot of interviews with people willing to bare their souls to me, I’m not sure how to tell whether there are people who actually look at a mom and discount her intelligence in this way. But it’s likely that Kingsolver is right about the feeling that a mom can have about how others perceive her while she’s in the midst of an enterprise that can be very hard on the self-confidence.

While my conference co-attendee claims she was joking about having put her brain in cold storage, there’s no denying that there are factors contributing to the stereotype. There’s controversy over whether pregnancy hormones actually affect memory, but no controversy whatsoever about the contribution that mothering makes to a serious lack of sleep. And there’s nothing like sleep deprivation to make one feel muddle-headed.

Liebling wearing El Guapo’s shoes

I can see, too, that either a mom or someone judging a mom might fall prey to the Mom IQ fallacy if she holds a very narrow definition of what constitutes intelligence. If she’s used to demonstrating her smarts in some arena that does not in the least resemble the tasks of motherhood, well, you can see how there might be some misunderstanding.

Limonada in pajamas and crown

I don’t think the answer is to urge moms to punctuate their days with crossword puzzles or online classes, unless that’s something they want to do. Much more promising would be for moms and everyone else to expand their understanding of intelligence. As we do that, we’re likely to increase our appreciation for the brain power involved in solving so many common mom problems.

Loquita and her mohawk

If you’re a mom and have felt your intelligence discounted by others, know that I, for one, realize how hard you’re working, and how much mental effort goes into it. I also know that while talking about putting your brain in cold storage isn’t accurate, some mental activities may spend time on a shelf. When the time comes, they can be reactivated, should you be interested in doing that. What’s more, though the brain work you do as a mom may be undervalued, it’s not under-valuable. [Steps away to call her mom to thank her for all she did and all she does.]

Liebling and Fiddler help with the laundry


*I won’t get into details, as I may write a post on them in the future, but really, there were some honeys. Not just your garden-variety exegesis and hermeneutics, either. Perhaps my favorite: theologoumena, plural of theologoumenon, “a theological assertion or statement not derived from divine revelation.”

[Images: Jeremy Winborg, El Guapo]

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