On Brain Fog, Marissa Mayer and Maternity Leave

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:

Feed Baby!

Blank blank blank blank blank blank.

Blank. Blank.


Blank blank blank.


Blank blank blank blank.

Breastpump. Full Boobs.



Blank blank blank blank blank blank blank.

Blank. Blank.

Walk. Stroller.

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.





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. 

By fucking!  

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. 

Happiness in 6 words or less

I’m enjoying this exercise (discussed here at mom101) where folks boil down something strange that makes them happy into six words or less.  

I’m a pretty wordy gal, but after thinking it over, my answer is “deviled eggs.”  I could give you about six thousand words on why, but, briefly, I have memories of several vastly different times in my life — in 1990, in 2003, and in 2008 — in several different relationships, where funny, loving, intimate moments coincided with the presence of deviled eggs.  I also kind of like the taste of deviled eggs, but that’s pretty secondary.

What does it for you?

Taking Care Of You

I can’t count the number of times I’ve told clients and students “be gentle with yourself.” 

"Take care of your own needs."

"Put your own oxygen mask on first so that you can take care of everyone else."

"Fill up your cup."

"Make time for friends and cups of tea, chocolate, sex, fresh air, pedicures.  You deserve it."

"You deserve to be happy."

So easy to say, all of these things.  

Not always so easy to do.

Not even easy when your career involves talking about this stuff.  Which is why I love this recent piece called "Self Care Means Taking Care of You!" by my friend Caitlin Fitzgordon, a postpartum doula and childbirth educator in Brooklyn.   Caitlin writes beautifully about her own struggles to balance the normal sacrifices of devoted mothering with a genuine need to prioritize herself.  She says: 

Losing yourself might be considered a normal part of motherhood. Your old self is gone and a new self develops—one hard-wired to take care of a new, delightful, confusing, needy person. Sometimes, though, it goes too far.

It’s true.  In the early weeks/months/years it’s appropriate — and can feel awesome — to totally throw yourself into motherhood, even if that means you look, from the outside, like you’ve lost yourself.  But at some point, you’re not just Becoming A New Mother anymore, you are one, and your normal, human, adult needs come rearing up and need to be fit back in.  Not in place of caring for your child, but alongside.  Finding a place for yourself can be oddly difficult — not just because it’s logistically hard, but because it can feel weird and wrong to even have needs.  Caitlin reflects honestly and candidly about her own excesses, and I admire her courage in saying, essentially, “yeah, no matter how much of this I might tell my own clients, this stuff is hard for me, too.”

Boy do I see my clients struggle with this stuff, and boy do I struggle with this stuff myself, sometimes, too.  It can take different forms — for some moms it’s literally that they don’t make time for themselves, to go out with friends, to get to the gym, to sometimes take naps.  My own kids aren’t babies anymore, so I get a lot more time than new mothers do, but no matter how many times I re-learn this, I still have phases where the balance is really hard.  For me it’s less about what my free time looks like and more about my mindset — I sometimes forget that my own happiness is not only a priority but a necessity. 

A necessity.  Like, how feeding my children is a necessity.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of considering a mother’s happiness only a luxury, something you hope “someday” to make time for, or something kid-dependent (“I should be happy as long as my kids are thriving and my work is getting done”).  Well, I think that a lot of the things we took for granted when we were childless are now luxuries (time, certain kinds of privacy, flexibility, comforts).  But not happiness.  The idea that you’re supposed to “do without” happiness as long as your kids and work are getting handled; the idea that you should be stoic enough enough to handle everything and never need much for yourself is, um, totally freaking misogynist, puritanical and basically effed up.  

And yet, weirdly easy to buy into!

And, once you’ve gotten a little mired in it, and you’ve either started yelling at everyone a lot (Caitlin) or become depressed and withdrawn (me), it’s a total pain in the butt to get out of because of Guilt (“I should be more stoic and need less and do more!”) and Hopelessness (“It’s pointless to take a fifteen minute nap when I’m this tired/ I’ll never have time to get to yoga anyway”).  

It’s so ugly.  

And what’s really tricky is that a lot of the time, the very obligations that leave us feeling trapped are things we also love: Taking care of our kids.  Nurturing our careers.  Connected time with our partners.  Tending to our home.  It’s not that we shouldn’t take these commitments seriously, it’s that we need to keep an eye on whether they’re in a balance that still makes us happy.  And if the answer is no, we need to take that seriously.

There’s not a quick cure or a permanent fix.  But I think sometimes it helps to just insist you go to that spinning class at the gym even though you feel sad and lumpy and you don’t have time.  You go anyway, and you sweat and feel better.  

Or push your sorry ass out the door and have a drink with friends even though you feel it’s all so exhausting and you are also now stinging-with-guilt-because-you-were-kind-of-a-total-martyry-beeyotch-to-your-partner-about-the-fact-that-he-was-going-to-do-what-we-don’t-call-babysitting-but-which-he-was-totally-thinking-of-as-babysitting.  You go anyway, and you get there and laugh and laugh and laugh and feel light, because friendship sloughs the stress off you.  

Or you send your husband out to dinner with your kids when you’re exhausted, even though you work full time and feel guilty that you “should” want to be with them every waking minute.  You do it anyway.  And then your apartment is quiet and you lie in bed and meditate or masturbate or read a book or browse Facebook, or I don’t know, whatever you like to do, and find that you are starting to feel a little better.  

And a little better with the next thing, and better still with the next and then suddenly you find yourself saying, “I’m starting to feel human again,” not because you’ve stopped being serious about your work or about your kids or about your other obligations, but because you’ve started being serious about taking care of yourself.  Too.  Being an adult, being a mother, being a wife, being someone with a career and a life — these things shouldn’t mean you don’t also get to feel human.  

It doesn’t get all solved with one pedicure.   Taking care of yourself is like taking care of your kids!  You do it in tiny bits, little by little, making small incremental progress, reassessing all the time to see whether what felt good last month is still good now.  It may start, though, by insisting: I will not succumb to guilt for needing some human comforts!  And it helps to remember, as Caitlin wisely notes, it’s not something you do once, not something you master and are then done.  It’s something you practice forever. 

What helps you take care of yourself?

Mom Upside Down

I did a handstand today in my yoga class!

Which is pretty ironic because only Friday, I mentioned in a blog post that after more than a dozen years, I’d never managed to succeed at an inversion.  So, first of all, wow, how cool!  There I was, upside down!  

Second of all, do you know what else is cool, in life?  That you can learn to do new things even when you’re old.

I used to do a lot of yoga, and then basically stopped for many years because kidsworklifeblahblahblah.  Having a kid turns your life upside down and I think it’s a multi-year process for the dust to really settle.  Add a second kid, a career, a marriage, a family … adulthood can start to feel like you’re constantly cutting things out to get the emergencies settled — it can feel constraining even though each of the things in your life is something you love.  Sure, I had a list of my favorite “me-time” activities, but though pedicures are lovely, a decade of using them as my “go-to” thing had me sort of bored.  

So, inspired by a friend’s “Now That I’m Turning 40” to-do list, I decided to get back into yoga.  I was lousy at it at first.  I got better really slowly.  The first time my teacher said, “You’re looking good!” I assumed she meant “for a middle aged mom” and not just “good.”  

It’s not always easy to get to class.  I have to use time I should be working, or could be writing, or might be attending to my family.  It’s expensive.  It’s inconvenient to get to.  I could burn twice the calories at the gym.

I kept at it anyway.

And then today I pushed my feet off the wall and stood upside down.  And I felt really good.  Not just good for a middle aged mom; good.

What's Up With Motherhood?

Here are some healthful tid bits for women to savor as they embark on motherhood. Trust yourself. Rely on others. Ask for help. Seek support. Connect with loved ones. Take time for yourself. Expect to feel amazing, awful, and everything in between. Throw perfection out the window!

This is from an interview called What’s Up With Motherhood, at, with Dr. Jessica Zucker, a psychotherapist who specializes in women’s health issues.   

Such important points in an article that talks about the way moms waste energy trying to be as “perfect” as the other mothers.

But what I like most in this quote is:   look at all these things that seem like contrasts:  ”trust yourself” sounds so independent, but it’s right next to “rely on others” and “ask for help.”  That’s because when you’re a mother, you’ve got to be both independent and dependent. Those things don’t cancel each other out — each one is an ingredient in the other.  

It’s one thing to hear “trust yourself” and “rely on others”, but it’s another thing to do it.  So many new moms think “trust yourself” is great advice for people who know what they’re doing, but worry that it doesn’t apply to them.  If you’re a new mom who has no experience and few role models and is bombarded by “expert advice” telling you to do a dozen mutually exclusive things, you can start worrying that your common sense isn’t enough.  Or, perhaps, you’re just too tired to hear what common sense tells you.

And similarly, it can be hard to rely on others and ask for help, even when we “know” it’s good advice.  On the one hand, I think we all understand that the point of having 9 billion people on one planet is that there are going to be some good ones to share your life with.  But on the other hand, I think we all, sometimes, worry that needing people is a sign of weakness, something you shouldn’t admit. I do it, too, as I’ve blogged about.

So but here’s the thing.  You know what helps you trust yourself?  Relying on others.  And you know what helps you rely on others?  Trusting yourself.  

Here’s why:  When you can trust that feeling lonely or empty or confused isn’t a sign that You’re A Shitty Mom, you can open your life to other people and begin to rely on them.  And when you’re around other mothers and you become friends and your lives start to intertwine (I mean having real relationships, not just casual encounters where everyone pretends their lives are perfect) you start to see that what real mothers do, in real life, is not a perfect arrangement of beautiful Kodak moments, but a big soupy mess of decisions that are sometimes very planful and other times haphazard, where their personality, their common sense, their aesthetic sense and their quirks are the tools they rely on.  When you see other women doing this you realize — “trust yourself”  doesn’t mean “have perfect judgment about everything”; it means, “you’re going to be OK; stop agonizing so much.”

No one knows what she’s doing all the time and everyone breaks a sweat raising kids.  That’s because it’s hard.  But community helps, perhaps more than anything, at reminding us that the goal isn’t to be perfect.  I think the goal is to have tools to handle the stuff that’s just not fun, and to be able to enjoy the stuff that really, really is.