Mom Brain is Real – But It’s Not What You Think
My brain has seen me through a lot. Twenty years of schooling, including three years of law school. Ten years of practising law. I’ve learned to juggle schedules, manage competing deadlines, and developed a knack for memorizing and critical thinking.
But that’s not the whole story. Since having kids, I often blank on simple words (“Go get your…..thing that holds all your stuff!”). I’ve forgotten my sweater, my coffee, and my sunglasses – and that’s just in the past week. I avoid calling people by name, because there’s only a 30% chance it’s going to be the right one. I often get halfway through a sentence and completely lose my train of thought.
As moms, we’re no stranger to these types of lapses in memory. We chalk them up to “pregnancy brain”, “baby brain”, or “mom brain”. We laugh them off, and develop strategies to cope.
But characterizing “mom brain” as a negative does us a disservice. Becoming a parent does have an impact on our cognitive function – researchers have demonstrated this – but it’s not all negative.
Let’s talk science for a minute. There are physiological changes that occur in women’s brains when they’re pregnant, and these changes remain for at least two years after giving birth (source). Interestingly, it’s not just pregnancy that causes these changes – it seems that the act of parenting itself causes changes in brain function for both mothers and fathers (source).
As a mom, none of this surprises me. What surprises me is that our conversations about mom brain focus solely on the negative, while ignoring the positive. Mom brain is lapses in memory. But it’s also so much more.
Mom brain is being thrown into an unfamiliar world of diapers, feeding, soothing, and deciphering the needs and wants of somebody who’s unable communicate with you – and quickly becoming the subject matter expert in your new role.
Mom brain is finding a way to function on a few hours of broken sleep for months – or years – at a time.
Mom brain is adapting to a categorical shift in your priorities, and continuing to manage everything on your very full plate.
Mom brain is keeping track of likes and dislikes, schedules and appointments. It’s managing the family calendar, and anticipating and dealing with any scheduling conflicts. It’s arranging childcare and coordinating carpools and playdates. It’s knowing that registration for soccer is Tuesday morning, swimming is Thursday morning, and if you haven’t registered for summer camp by April you’re out of luck. It’s remembering that you need to buy a birthday present for Saturday, return the library books by Thursday, and that tomorrow is pink shirt day. It’s noticing that your youngest is outgrowing his pants, that your oldest needs new rain boots, and knowing what size to buy for each. It’s researching, worrying, and figuring out how to deal with your latest parenting challenge. It’s recognizing that the playroom needs to be decluttered, noticing that the car seat needs to be adjusted, dealing with outgrown clothes. It’s planning the birthday parties, and knowing which toys are both coveted and developmentally appropriate. It’s making sure that permission slips are returned, homework is done, and there isn’t a banana rotting in the bottom of your child’s backpack. It’s reminding, encouraging, and reminding again. It’s keeping your finger on the emotional pulse of each child – knowing their worries and struggles, recognizing who needs a little extra support, and understanding how best to support them.
Mom brain is doing all of these things while one child confides in you about their latest problem, another sings “Let It Go” at the top of their lungs, and the third yells at you for help from the potty.
Mom brain can’t be turned off – it’s going a million miles an hour every hour of every day. And just like we can’t expect ourselves to run a marathon every day without stopping to rest, it’s unrealistic to think that we can be the knower of all the things, for every member of our family, all day, every day, without forgetting something.
So yes, sometimes we will forget the word “backpack”. Sometimes our thoughts will trail off mid-sentence, or we’ll forget why we walked into a room. Occasionally we may put our car keys in the freezer.
But we’re doing so much more. Our brains have adapted to handle the relentless demands being placed on us every day. We’ve learned to triage – to prioritize what’s important, recognizing that our capacity is finite. We’ve become incredibly efficient. We’ve mastered the ability to function in an environment full of noise and distractions, where the ability to sustain an uninterrupted thought feels like a long-forgotten luxury.
And we’ve developed coping skills to combat the occasional brain fog and inevitable lapses in memory. We write everything down. We set multiple reminders. We live and die by our routines, our to-do lists, and our calendars. We know that our brains are being asked to process, remember, and recall more than is possible, and we implement systems to assist.
We need to stop selling ourselves short. Mom brain is not about what we forget – it’s about everything we remember. Let’s stop seeing mom brain as a shortfall, and start recognizing it for the superpower it is.