Mommy brain. I bristle every time I hear the phrase. First, its cutesiness reads as immediately condescending, an instant linguistic dismissal. Then there’s the notion that giving birth somehow renders women less equipped to do mental heavy-lifting—a dangerous assumption to which I hesitate to add fuel, especially at a time when discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace is finally coming to light.
Yet seven months after the birth of my daughter, I can’t deny it: In addition to the residual toll childbirth and early motherhood has taken on my body, my brain is also experiencing its own set of aftershocks. With a new little human angling her way into all of my waking (and resting) thoughts, focus is out the window. My aptitude for generating ideas and creative thinking seems dulled. Conjuring words, both in person and on the page, takes more time and effort, which, considering that’s what I do for a living, is especially unnerving. I’ve heard the argument made that, as a freelancer, I’m lucky—since I didn’t have an office to report back to after 6 or 12 weeks of maternity leave (which might have required me to shake out my mental cobwebs more quickly), I could let my brain recover at its own pace. But a freelancer’s greatest commodity is a swift and ready supply of ideas—if those aren’t flowing, neither are the gigs. There’s nothing cute about the creeping fear that your brain doesn’t function like it used to, and the uncertainty of if and when it will finally come back online.
Besides being foggy, I’m also forgetful: I lose ideas mid-thought, details escape me, and I’ve become delinquent at communication (I may be alone in my gratitude for Gmail’s new virtual nudges about neglected emails.) When I recently performed a lunchtime poll of a few mom friends on the topic, Katy, a woodworker and choreographer in Colorado, was especially amused: “Dude, that was the topic of our last conversation!” It had already slipped my mind. Katy doesn’t judge—she has had memory issues too, and hers started early, in the first trimester carrying her now 15-month-old daughter. “I’ll be searching for an answer and my mind will literally go blank,” she says. “All I see is a grey wall.” Another friend, Michelle, an Ohio-based professor of pediatrics and mother of two young boys, is also plagued by memory loss. “I have to write everything down to keep things straight,” she said.
It goes without saying that the extreme sleep deprivation of early parenthood is a major factor in this brain drain. But I’ve gone through sleepless periods before—they never made me feel like I was functioning at a lower level. In fact, pre-baby, those stretches of sleeplessness were oftentimes my most productive. So, what’s the deal?
“When 88 percent of women are complaining of maternal memory deficits, there’s probably something going on there—it’s important that we validate their feelings,” says Jodi Pawluski, Ph.D, a research associate at France’s University of Rennes, whose work is devoted to maternal mental illness. Though more longitudinal studies on mom-brain are necessary (that there’s no proper scientific name for the condition is further proof of that), what research does exist indicates a neurobiological change in the brain both during and after pregnancy, including shifts in verbal memory. Pawluski explains that there’s actually an increase—that’s right: a surplus, not a deficit—in neuronal production, or plasticity, in post-pregnancy brains. “Plasticity is the ability to change,” she says. “Of course, our brains are changing—forming new connections, changing physiology, etc—in response to experiences, diet, exercise, but arguably not at the same rate, or as much, as during adolescence and the transition to parenting—and possibly menopause.”
In women who give birth, some of this plasticity is due to a biological switch that flips on to facilitate caretaking behaviors more quickly. But Pawluski points out that anyone in a parental role (fathers, adoptive parents, etc) can experience the full impact of this change. Which may explain my partner’s similarly porous memory.
My very unscientific assessment of the actual sensation of living with an “evolving” brain? Weird and unsettling. In recent years, matrescence, a term first coined in the ‘70s, has resurfaced to describe the evolution of the new parent brain. “It’s like adolescence, except that then you’re given permission to have mood swings, and there’s room for messiness,” says psychiatrist Catherine Birndorf, PhD. She’s the co-founder of New York’s Motherhood Center, a treatment hub for new and expectant moms, and the co-author, with Alexandra Sacks, PhD, (who spoke of matrescence in a widely-viewed TED talk) of What No One Tells You, a forthcoming book Birndorf describes as What to Expect for pre- and postpartum emotions. “We just don’t give ourselves, nor has society allowed for, much room for the profound transition of motherhood,” Birndorf says. Or, considering the parental leave policies in this country, much time. No one is surprised when I report the postnatal physical symptoms I’m still dealing with—the hemorrhoids that won’t quit; the thinning and receding hairline; the sore breasts. There’s even the twinge of carpal tunnel in my right hand that the PT I consulted called “mom thumb”—the result of repetitive baby-related tasks (and, more than likely, excessive phone usage). But no one told me my brain would need a recovery period just as much as my body.
Like everything pregnancy and parenting related, everyone’s experience is different. Some parents may experience no brain fog at all—which may explain the Marissa Mayers of the world, back in their C-suite offices within days of childbirth. For others, the fog takes years to lift. One study estimated it took mothers an average of two years to regain their post-natal memory deficits. My own fog has started to recede just in the past few weeks. But my friend Natalie, an L.A.-based stylist and perfumer, reports that she fully emerged at year three: “I feel like my capacities have been restored, and in some ways, my cerebral processing actually feels faster and I trust myself and the decisions I make more.”
The passage of time in these newborn months is bizarre: It moves fast, it stalls (that fussy hour before bedtime, hoo boy), it’s constantly interrupted. I’m finally learning, seven months out, to relish the hours spent away from my daughter and planted in front of the computer as the daily period in which I try—sometimes successfully, sometimes less so—to hone in, to get the machine up and running, so to speak.
While I get frustrated at my brain’s sluggish pace, I also have to acknowledge how much it’s accomplished lately: learning to swaddle, soothe, feed, diaper and sleep train, while also acquiring a general spidey sense about my daughter’s various needs and ailments. Not to mention negotiating a whole new set of emotions as I adapt to this strange new identity: mother. Add to that work obligations, relationship and friendship tending, and (occasionally) basic personal hygiene, and the haze seems slightly more understandable from a functional, and not just biological, perspective. What I actually may miss most about my pre-partum mind is not the singularly focused thinking, but the not-thinking. Those moments when my partner and I used to say to each other, “Let’s turn our brains off for a while”…and I actually could.