If I’ve had the conversation once, I’ve had it a thousand times. “Where did my brain go? I never used to do stuff like this before I had kids.” Other sympathetic mothers nearby empathetically nod.
Maybe it starts with forgetting where you parked the car in the parking lot. Or, perhaps you lose your keys and search the entire house, only to find them in the ignition. It might happen when you pack up all the children’s things for a trip to the pool, only to arrive and realize your wallet is still on the counter at home.
What starts as pregnancy brain often becomes the feared “mommy brain”. Veteran moms warn that this is a permanent condition. Is it?
Perhaps it’s easiest to start by reviewing how much women’s bodies change when they become pregnant. For one, hormone levels surge — from 15 to 40 times more progesterone and estrogen can be found in your brain during pregnancy, according to this WebMD article which quotes Dr. Louann Brizendine of the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic at the University of California at San Francisco. Although the brain actually shrinks during pregnancy, soon-to-be-moms don’t actually lose brain cells. Metabolism changes during this time, and the brain restructures. In fact, the brain does not regain its “normal” size until six months after a woman has given birth.
The perfect storm
After you give birth, your world is suddenly turned upside down (in mostly a good way, of course). Any new mom who tells you they sleep well is lying. Maybe an hour here and there, but not quality sleep — for many moms, this lasts for years. I remember driving and thinking, “This can’t be a good idea.” I never knew tired before the newborn period.
What is one of the primary impacts of lack of sleep? The National Institute of Health lists “impaired memory” as one of the primary consequences of not getting enough sleep. Sound familiar? USA Today ran a story adding stress and distraction as other reasons for memory loss. Who isn’t stressed when a new baby is at the house? Check. I came in the bathroom to…what was I here for? Check. The trifecta of new mom-dom: sleeplessness, stress and distraction. Luckily, the intensity wanes over time, but it’s more than enough to account for neglecting to pay that pesky cable bill on time.
Another hallmark of being a mom is doing at least two things at a time. The more children you have, the more different directions are you pulled in. Yet, as this NPR story revealed, we really can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. This makes me think of the struggle of new moms when they go back to work. Many decry the fact that they feel that they are neither being a good employee nor a good mom. Of course, some people are better multitaskers than others, but the myth of “being able to do it all” — and being able to do it all well — is often just that: a myth.
The good news
A study released in 2010 suggests that motherhood actually stimulates brain growth. Scientists surmised that changing hormones might account for an increase in gray matter, which ordinarily doesn’t occur unless someone experiences significant learning, a brain injury, an illness or a marked change of environment. Even more interesting was that the mothers in the study who evaluated their babies in glowing terms demonstrated more marked brain growth than the mothers who did not. Funny to think that all that oohing and aahing is brain food!
Katherine Ellison, a Pulitzer-prizewinning reporter and the author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter suggests that the experience of parenting makes us smart by keeping us on our toes. In her book, Ellison uses studies to discuss how efficiency, motivation, coping mechanisms and emotional intelligence are boosted by becoming a parent. I have the book on hold at the library — just need to make sure I don’t forget to pick it up fro the library…
Have you ever found yourself worrying that there was really something wrong with your brain? I was relieved to see that in the WebMD article, Dr. Brizendine likened situations such as losing your keys, putting everything in the crockpot but forgetting to turn it on and not remembering where your car is in the parking lot as simply a sign of sleep deprivation. It sounds as if there are very few cases (such as, forgetting how to get to the store in the first place) that are cause for concern.
Are you currently experiencing any of the annoying and/or embarrassing symptoms of mommy brain? If so, have you tried to do anything about it?
Written by: Nicole Basham