Home » Guest Post: Meet Janine Kovac, a Cognitive Scientist and Happy Mom of Three

Guest Post: Meet Janine Kovac, a Cognitive Scientist and Happy Mom of Three

By Janine Kovac

After completing my degree in cognitive science at UC Berkeley, I was pregnant with what my husband and I thought was our second child. Then, surprise! We were having twins. I had never given much thought to how a twin pregnancy could be different from what I’d already experienced. Then, halfway through our first ultrasound, the sonographer excused herself and returned a few minutes later with another sonographer to verify her findings. Usually babies (twins or not) develop in their own gestational sacs. However in my case, my boys were sharing both a placenta and an amniotic sac. It was a 1 in 25,000 kind of pregnancy.

Sharing the same space meant there was nothing to keep the umbilical cords from tangling, braiding, and knotting together. And if one twin died in utero, there would be no way to save the healthy twin—we would lose them both. A crimped cord that cuts circulation to point of asphyxiation was not inevitable, but it was unpredictable and unpreventable. The odds of survival without complications in this kind of pregnancy hover at about 50%.

After carefully outlining the risks and the protocols our doctor said to me, “There is nothing you can do to prevent the babies from dying. Don’t let it stress you out. You can’t do anything about it.” And then he sent me home.

That’s when I turned to Raising Happiness and the Greater Good Science Center.

I had become acquainted with the work of GGSC in the fall of 2008 when I was still a student at Berkeley. As the parent of a little toddler girl, I was trying to make sense of the parenting literature out there. Well, should I sleep train or not? How early should I teach her to read? And: if all these people were experts, how come they didn’t all agree?

I took a novel approach to answer my questions—I analyzed the metaphors that parenting experts used to describe morality, emotional development, and human nature. This analysis became the topic of my thesis, A Linguistic Analysis of Parenting, for which I received the 2009 Robert J. Glushko Prize for Distinguished Undergraduate Research in Cognitive Science.

My research brought me to Christine Carter and Raising Happiness (specifically, a presentation in San Francisco at the Exploratorium). Christine gestured in circles and talked about positive feedback loops. She used phrases such as, “happiness begets happiness” and talked about problems as “catalysts.” Her talk was a Eureka! moment for me. Many of the parenting books I had read never broke out of the “achievement trap.” Yes, they advocated fostering growth-mindset concepts such as empathy and compassion, but they did so for fixed-mindset reasons: to raise smarter kids who would then get into better schools and grab better jobs. Not Christine. She justified the value of a growth-mindset with growth-mindset reasons. Why should parents strive for a fulfilled life for their children? It’s so they’ll feel fulfilled! This was a first.

Christine’s choice of words regarding nurturance, altruism, social connections, and gratitude helped me build the geeky computational models that I needed for my academic paper. What’s more—these same models became the tools I needed to build a “happiness” road map for all stressful situations that were about to come my way.

Which was a great thing, since my high-risk pregnancy was just the beginning of my challenges as the mother of twins. I went into labor before I hit the six-month mark in my pregnancy and my babies were born via emergency cesarean section. The boys spent next three months in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit where they had IVs, breathing tubes, feeding tubes, x-rays, blood transfusions, and surgery to fix their heart murmurs.

I’m so pleased that Christine has asked me to share my experience and my testimonial—how cognitive science helped me bridge the gap between what I read from the Greater Good Center and how I actually applied it to my life.

In the next few blog posts I’ll discuss some of the techniques that helped me cope as a mom: the practical application of putting on my oxygen mask, expressing gratitude, managing flow, and cultivating a growth mindset—everything Christine writes about—but with a twist of cutting-edge cognitive science.