Did your brain sort of go offline when you had a baby?
When I was pregnant with my eldest I was a lawyer. One of my colleagues informed me that a really bad case of “pregnant woman brain fog,” which she clearly thought I had, meant you were carrying a boy. In her analysis, having a boy made you stupid: “they steal your brain, since males are dumber than females generally, so they need to sap the mother.”
(Meanwhile my secretary was telling me that if “you” — she used a generic “you” but she clearly meant “me” — looked ugly during pregnancy, you were definitely having a girl because, “girls steal your beauty.” I was obviously having a hermaphrodite!)
My childbirth students and the new moms I work with often complain about “brain fog.” It doesn’t happen to everyone and it doesn’t happen the same way for everyone, but it’s common enough that I giggled, reading this piece by Elizabeth Beller, about brain fog, which, for her, continues through breastfeeding, so that for months her mind works like this:
Blank blank blank blank blank blank.
Blank blank blank.
Blank blank blank blank.
Breastpump. Full Boobs.
SIDS! SIDS! SIDS! SIDS!
Blank blank blank blank blank blank blank.
Air. Sleep. Sleep. Please, for the love of GOD, sleep.
Christ these poor people with small children caught in earthquakes, floods, tornados!! The world is terrifying!!! How can I protect my children?!?
Blank Blank Blank blank blank blank blank blank. Blank blank blank.
Blank blank blank blank.
STARVING!! FRENCH FRIES! POUND CAKE! CHEESEBURGER! ANOTHER CHEESEBURGER! Pound cake. A beer.
I totally laughed out loud at this description, but it also brings up something serious.
I’m not an expert on the chemical nature of these brain changes during and after pregnancy; obviously progesterone and oxytocin play a role in how we think and feel, and of course the sleep disruption typical of pregnancy and new motherhood plays a role in how clearly we think. But I am hesitant to just chalk this up to “pregnancy” or “breastfeeding” biochemistry. And I don’t like looking only at what you’re not able to concentrate on, rather than on what you’re doing instead.
Being pregnant and, later, becoming a mother, is an identity transformation, a creative project. Creative projects use up a lot of brain power. Perhaps that sounds mushy and new-agey to you, so I’ll put it this way:
You’ve just added a new citizen to the world and your body is required to grow him, and then to keep him alive. If you don’t figure out how to get him cared for, he will die.
Assuming he does grow up, he may become Ghandi, or Hitler, or a random guy selling shaved ice in Tomkins Square Park, or someone with an awesome sense of humor or someone who has really bad taste in shoes, or whatever.
In addition to whatever else you do with your life, your mind, and soul, and decades of your time and patience and attention are now required to help shape that person into Ghandi or Hitler or a random guy selling shaved ice in Tomkins Square Park or whatever; in some ways, how you spend these years will be a major factor in which of these paths he follows. This is true regardless of your parenting style — the fact is, your relationship with him affects his development.
You created him out of your own cells.
And he’s going to turn out to be one of the five most important people you ever know, one of the people who changes you most in all your life.
But for now he cannot do anything for himself, and cannot survive without you.
You will be the most influential person in his life, for decades at least.
You cannot get out of this relationship.
Oh, also, by the way, you’re flooded with hormones and not sleeping normally and, unless you’re super-rich, you’re probably spending weeks/months/years wiping his butt and cleaning up his vomit and considering emailing photos of both to your pediatrician to check that they’re normal, and also doing work that our entire culture considers menial, and doing it without pay or benefits, and only sometimes finding that unbearable.
Now, tell us, who are you?
Is it a surprise that, for a while, as you’re getting used to all this, some of your brain power is diverted from your other activities and to your new project? Really, it’s only if we ignore what it is to become a mother that we could be even slightly surprised by it.
Let’s stop thinking about it as a fog that impairs concentration, and note that what a pregnant woman or new mother is doing involves a huge amount of concentration and brain activity 24/7 — some of it conscious and the rest of it simmering back there, the creative project of learning to be a mother. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s nothing.
I’m thinking about this today because I just read that Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, has announced that she’s pregnant with her first child and plans, this fall, to take “a few weeks of maternity leave” and she’ll continue to “work throughout it” (obviously she means “work for Yahoo”). I don’t know her. Most likely she is in that tiny fraction of a percent of American women who can afford to not wipe butts if she doesn’t want to.
Many women who are great, wonderful, earnest and devoted mothers find it reassuring and calming to reincorporate their work-life as soon as possible after their children are born. There is nothing wrong with that — it can be done with patience and support and appropriate balance. But, as the world dissects Marissa Mayer and her maternity leave plans, it’s important to remember what maternity leave is — beyond the physical recovery from childbirth, there’s the creative transition to parenthood, which is not something that can be farmed out to nannies and nurses.
I’m not saying that’s simple or easy to navigate — certainly if you’re a CEO or owner, you can’t fully “leave,” just like a mother of a second or third child can’t simply stop paying attention to her firstborn. But I wish we’d stop thinking of maternity leave as a vacation — which you might choose not to take, just as lots of Americans choose not to take vacations (or weekends!). And instead, that we think of the first word in that phrase — “maternity” — and focus what the mother is doing, for itself, and not *only* inasmuch as it takes away from her other things.
My kids aren’t babies anymore. Looking back, I remember having an awfully hard time concentrating on some non-child issues I had to deal with when I was pregnant. That “fuzzy” feeling extended into the new-parent period. It was most intense while I wasn’t sleeping and was breastfeeding round-the-clock, but in truth, it has lasted years.
Years! During which my ability to attend to the non-motherhood details of life was reduced, somewhat, compared to what I was like before I became a mother.
Finally, I asked myself, why I was comparing myself to what I was like before I became a mother? Meanwhile, now I was a mother — I would be, forever.
And it was time to stop acting like that was a freaking impairment.
Today, my eldest is home sick. Just having him in the house means my attention is a little diverted from writing this post. Not just because he is complaining every five minutes, but because I am thinking about him, and not just this.
Is that “mom brain”? I am, after all, charged with his care. Wouldn’t anyone — mom or otherwise — find that attending to something new takes away some of the resources you have for your other things?
Lets stop thinking mothers ought to be just like childless women.