"I often wonder how you can find time for what you do, in addition to the care of the house; and how good Mrs. West could have written such books and collected so many hard works, with all her family cares, is still more a matter of astonishment. Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb."~Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 1816

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mommy on the Brain

I’ve gone to Babyland and returned four years later, like I was off at college, but it was the reverse of college; it was a beautiful forgetting, an existence outside my mind where I have become the mommy animal, allowed my instincts to dictate the survival of my kids, my family, here in suburbia. It is sometimes lovely to forget my adult, pre-kids, self while playing in the sand box, but I have realized lately that I need my former life of mind too. Without it I become more and more selfish with my time and with my body.

I first heard the term “mommy brain” soon after having my first child when a friend remarked that she was surprised I remembered her child’s birthday. Forgetfulness is an oft-cited pregnancy symptom. But according to babycenter.com, the research on mothers’ memory during pregnancy is mixed. Some studies have found evidence of memory deficits among expectant mothers, while pregnant women in other studies performed just as well as non-pregnant women.

Other research suggests that our mommy brains are mischaracterized as forgetful. Actually mothers acquire new brain circuitry during pregnancy to facilitate the increased demands of mothering. In an April 24, 2005 interview with Time, Katherine Ellison author of The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, described research by Craig Kinsley and Kelly Lambert, two Virginia neuroscientists, who found that the brains of pregnant rats showed a proliferation of dendritic spines - the parts of neurons that reach out and form synapses, necessary for new learning.

For writer Leanna James, these extra dendritic spines form an alternate brain. In her essay entitled “Mother-Brain” published in Brain, Child’s “Greatest Hits” from its spring 2000 to spring 2003 issues, James says that from the moment she found out she was pregnant, a

“new brain started to grow, the one I have now. I don’t mean I got a replacement brain – that sounds like a Frankenstein experiment. No, it’s a separate brain I’m talking about, a parallel mind that lives alongside the original… This mind is linked with my breasts, my ears, my mouth, and my belly. I grew as my daughter grew, and began speaking to me the day of her birth. ‘Do this,’ it told me, when the strange, impossibly tiny being howled in the middle of the night, or wouldn’t nurse, or couldn’t breathe.”

Although it is empowering knowing that, as women, we have this vitally necessary nurturing capability, sometimes I want to turn off my mommy synapses and just be me again. I woke up last Sunday in tears, “the Sunday freak out,” as hubby and I call it. Usually he feels it the worst on Sunday evening, anticipating the impending separation from me and the children the next morning and facing some looming deadline at work. But this time I was the one freaking out. The day stretched ahead with no time for me in it. There would be breakfast then church then an activity for the kids then lunch then their nap time (when my pregnant body has to rest too) then snack time then making dinner then getting them ready for bed then my mandated rest time again. We found a solution. We moved church to the afternoon so we could have a leisurely breakfast with both of us chipping in to prepare it. Then we both took the kids to the park and then each of us took one child and ran one errand. Neither of us got me time – I didn’t get to work on my writing and hubby didn’t get to go for his run – but at least we got some chores done.

I am thankful that I have been able to stay home with my young children. I have relished the experience of giving myself completely over to motherhood. But other times, I want to forget that I am a mother. I need space for myself. I look at how my mom stayed at home with three children and was happy doing it. Too, even though she had a long-held expectation for herself of being a stay-at-home mom that propelled her forward for many years, she finally needed her own time. At nearly 50, she went back to finish her college degree when I went off to college. She became a teacher.

My generation of women I think are uniquely torn. We see the value in mothering but we see the value in working too. Growing up I expected that I would be a mother one day but expected that I would work too. I didn’t begin to think through how I would accomplish both goals. I had no clue that weaving the two together would be enormously difficult.

After these four years at home with my children, I’m realizing that I need myself back now, now with my third child about to be born. It’s “the Sunday freak out” of my pregnancy and I am anticipating all the nights of choppy sleep, worry of the infant days, just hoping the new member of the family will somehow survive despite the fact that I refuse to buy a motion-detecting baby monitor that will alert me when he stops breathing. I will put the baby in his crib and hope for the best. I hope my mommy brain kicks in. But I will need my other brain too. Perhaps I will go to the computer to write after nursing the baby at 2 am. Perhaps that will be where I find my me time.


  1. Reading your writing, Laura, I would never think for a moment that you have lost any part of that "thinking" pre-mommy brain. You write eloquently and thoughtfully and with so much discipline!

    The writing really helps, as does reading. I did not do either until my son turned 5 and went off to preschool. (I work from home but I work on essay writing with international students, so it doesn't do a whole lot to advance my own writing skills.) I doubt if my brain is at the same level it once was, but I've cleared the cobwebs a bit.

    You sound like you're doing just fine!

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Cecilia. I don't know that I'm actually in a fog, like my blog subhead says. In writing this post I wanted to give validity to mommy brain.

    I really feel like two people sometimes, mommy me and old me. I have to merge these two personalities:) Little by little I am realizing that mommy me has her own strengths and ways of doing things, which aren't necessarily any less thoughtful as old me's ways and can be just as wonderful, if different.