“Mommy Brain”: The Miracle and the Nuisance
I speak to so many parents about “loving the child they have, knowing the child they have.” Today, I want to take a minute and turn that attention to the mommies. There is so much cultural pressure and expectation of what moms “should” look like, how they “should” behave, what they “should” feel about pregnancy and new motherhood…
It’s too much!
Stop “should-ing” on mothers and motherhood.
And, moms, stop “should-ing” on yourselves. Please.
One of the ways I see this behavior show up in a socially acceptible and even embraced way, is the way we talk about “mommy brain.”. There is an excellent article, which I link to at the end of this, in the New York Times about mommy brain. It includes compelling science and facts about what is actually occurring in the brain during pregnancy and new motherhood. I want to look at the effect of a culturally accepted assumption that a mommy is naturally going to be running at a deficit in terms of mental capacity. It seems diminishing to me when the truth is, of course, so much more broad and expansive.
Many women experience “mommy brain” as a deficiency, the lost ability to remember people’s names or keep their attention undivided while at work. But science reminds us that if we look at the changes without judgment we may find that they confer advantages. And to understand how data about brain changes impact real people’s lives, it’s important to consider the emotional life of the mind.
The writer Elizabeth Stone once wrote that the decision to have a child is “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” Perhaps it’s only fair that parenting necessarily requires some shifting in your mental space as well.
I think it is so important to hold ourselves with the same compassion and understanding that we hope our kids will hold themselves. And, I think, there are many subtle, and not so subtle ways, we speak derisively about pregnancy and motherhood.
Let’s begin this paradigm shift by attempting to reclaim “mommy brain,” as the miracle of nature it actually is. Many cognitive functions are sharpened during this time, and yes, that means some other things are shifted further from focus. Culturally we have a bad habit of focusing on the things that are lost, and forgetting to think about what is found.
As an example. there is a beautiful commercial running currently on the radio about a Tourette’s study. The premise is that, as a parent, we can often see that our child had a diagnosis AND a ton of other things that make him special and unique. But, how can we help our children to see all the qualities of them, if our focus is narrow about ourselves?
It’s the amazing biological manifestation of truly “becoming” a parent. It’s, as psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about, “Primary Maternal Preoccupation.” It’s a deepening of internal focus and a sharpening of intuition and unconscious availability. As Winnicott described the intense psychological demands of taking care of a creature as helpless and dependent as a newborn, which requires new mothers to adapt their emotions and attention to zoom in on the baby.
Meanwhile, the cultural belief in “mommy brain” is so powerful that some studies have shown that pregnant women who walked into an experiment describing themselves as cognitively fuzzy were found in the lab to perform at a much higher level than what they reported. Were the cognitive changes just in their heads, or are our medical formulations missing something? In addition to the unscientific myths about hormonal women being best suited for the home and hearth, what else has propelled this broader misinterpretation about what “mommy brain” is and isn’t?
“Mommy brain” is a very real and lived experience. It can be frustrating for many, especially women who had previously functioned at a very high level. It is also a time of intense “refocus” and possibly, a necessary blurring of some things to make room in the mind for baby.
My hope is that we can appreciate all the nuances of “mommy brain” as a whole experience. Frustrating and pretty remarkable too!
*** All excerpts from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/well/family/reframing-mommy-brain.html