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Mommybrain—Blessing or Bane?

Categories: pregnancy


iStockphoto.comDistracted. Forgetful. Absentminded. Scattered. Careless. Long before you start losing your waistline and right around the time you start losing your lunch, one of the symptoms of pregnancy can feel a lot like losing your mind. Chalk it up to hormones or fatigue or simply the all-consuming all-baby-all-the-time fixation on all things gestational (which I’m inclined to blame on biological instinct), but it’s no doubt that the new kid in town—your baby—is taking up a fair amount of mental real estate, space that was previously devoted to things like making important meetings, meeting important deadlines, and remembering to brush your teeth before leaving the house.

Mommybrain, pregnancy brain, placenta brain…it goes by many names, but the message is the same: women with children aren’t running on a full tank of brain juice. If you react to that claim the way I do—with fist-shaking indignance—let us all take a moment to untangle our panties from the terrible twist they’ve gotten themselves into and consider this: Is mommybrain necessarily a bad thing?

Several years ago an acquaintance was interviewed for a t.v. spot about how becoming a mother has changed her, and of the hours of footage shot for the piece, the main clip that made the final cut was of her talking about how hard it was to maintain the expected level of career proficiency under the duress of mommybrain. She talked about how difficult it was to focus on anything besides the baby, and then the footage cut away to a doctor who said that on average a woman’s brain actually shrinks by 8 percent over those forty weeks of pregnancy. (According to her research, it returns to its normal size within six months of giving birth.) The overall point of the piece was that pregnancy and motherhood change women’s brains at a chemical level; the overall message was that uncovering the truth about mommybrain is a good thing, as it means more people will realize and acknowledge this change and therefore be more lenient when we mothers and mothers-to-be aren’t performing up to snuff.

A few weeks after that spot aired, I was telling another mom friend of mine about it, and her reaction was at the opposite end of what the t.v. spot had intended. A high-powered career woman and mother of a toddler herself, she was angry that there were working mothers out there perpetuating the stereotype that having a baby makes us second-rate employees by virtue of our second-rate brains. “I work hard at my job,” I remember her saying, “and I would never use my child as an excuse to do less than I have always done.” She felt that the whole concept of mommybrain was not only false but that it was damaging to mothers as a whole, and most especially to mothers in the workforce, who are already often seen as liabilities by employers and coworkers.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I’ve definitely noticed some absentmindedness and a shift in mental priorities—it’s hard to give my full attention to a boring old staff meeting when a little person is kicking the backside of my bellybutton!—but I don’t think being pregnant has compromised my job performance, and it certainly hasn’t affected my general competence as a thinking person. And yet…when I do forget to reply to an email or I overlook a typo in a bit of marketing copy, I’ll admit that “placenta brain” is a convenient excuse, especially if there’s science to back it up. Sure, there are people who will roll their eyes and grumble at me, but I find that there are many more generous and forgiving souls willing to allow that if I’m not operating at 100 percent capacity, at least there’s a darn good reason for it.

So, what do you think? Does perpetuating the stereotype that women’s brains are less sharp during pregnancy give us the leeway we need at a time when, it’s true, we’re more likely to be distracted? Or does it undermine how hard we’re working to keep everything together in the midst of a major life change? Is mommybrain a valid excuse or a setback for mothers everywhere?

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13 comments so far...

  • I wouldnt jump to using it as an excuse at work , but, I had it big time. I forgot to lock my car door all the time, left my flat iron plugged in for 38 weeks, little stuff like that. You can be damn sure I didnt forget a cheeseburger for lunch! ha..
    I dont think it’s a good move to ask for leeway. You will probably get it anyway, but I dont think its a good idea to play into it.

    Christina  |  September 17th, 2008 at 5:28 pm

  • There’s a part of me that gets all indignant and “How dare you insinuate I’m a sub-par worker due to the state of my uterus!” - but…yeah. I cannot ignore that I’ve been a bit of a flake these past several weeks, and there IS a good reason for it. After all, I’d rather my boss know I’ve been forgetting to attach documents to emails because I’m pregnant, and not because I’m usually that careless (because I’m not! I swear! Blame the fetus! He has a terrible work ethic!).

    jive turkey  |  September 18th, 2008 at 6:27 am

  • There is a valid explanation for the “absent-mindedness” of pregnancy. It’s called hormones. Once I had given birth and returned to work, I didn’t find that I suffered from anything such as “mommybrain.” I find the very existence of such a term insulting, to be quite honest.

    Robyn  |  September 18th, 2008 at 9:23 am

  • I don’t think it’s a matter of our brains being less sharp. I think it’s a life change and we begin to question the dedication we have to our careers at this point. Men don’t begin this questioning until after the baby is born, and they usually come to the quick decision that they need to focus MORE on their careers so they can provide more financial security to the household.
    But women have had a traditional nurturing role, and we all need to decide whether we are going to continue in our dedication to our career and add our child to our list of dedications, or are we going to put the career on a leave of absence and focus on our children. This is not an easy question and it requires that many aspects be examined. We are continually reminded of our upcoming decision, either by puking in the toilet, or our football-sized ankles, or the kicking in our bellies, or just the fact that we are suddenly seeing our OB more than our spouses. It’s obvious to us that our lives are dramatically changing, and that change will affect our careers in a permanent manner.
    What does this have to do with mommy brains? Our brains *are* chemically changing, and that change is making us aware of this decision. I personally think that we are *distracted* when we are pregnant. That distraction can be minimal or overwhelming.
    I know I had almost no distractions with my pregnancies, but my husband and I had already worked out a (flexible!) plan, so our decisions were already made. This allowed me to continue to focus on my work instead of trying to decide whether or not I was going to continue with my career, quit, cut to part time, etc.

    Rachel  |  September 18th, 2008 at 10:06 am

  • Rachel–Thanks for expanding on the point that although hormones are definitely a factor, there’s also the whole reexamining-your-life thing that understandably moves to the forefront of a pregnant woman’s mind. While I wouldn’t say I’m too guilty of general absentmindedness, I’m absolutely distracted–as manifested in a greater interest in checking babynaming websites than checking my work email!

    workingonmotherhood  |  September 18th, 2008 at 10:44 am

  • Hi…I loved your blog about pregnancy brain. I am pregnant with my first and completely experiencing all the symptoms. I actually just wrote a blog about it here

    At least we can laugh about it!

    Paula  |  September 18th, 2008 at 10:45 am

  • I think that there are probably several factors contributing to pregnancy and/or mommy brain (which I totally have - and my daughter is 1.5 years old).
    1. We’re working off less sleep than we became accustomed to. Arguably, my mommy brain shouldn’t be blamed on this since my daughter is 1.5 years old, yet…her sleep habits aren’t regular.
    2. Your brain is filled with thoughts that weren’t there before, that are likely thoughts on a more important subject - your unborn child or your child.
    3. There’s so much more to remember now - like getting yourself PLUS ONE out the door that unplugging things, remembering lunch, etc. just doesn’t always happen.

    I am totally a proponent of pregnancy and/or mommy brain, I’m not insulted by it, but I also don’t use it as an excuse - at least, not more than jokingly!

    Audrey  |  September 18th, 2008 at 11:02 am

  • I had major mommybrain with both my kids, but the first was worst. :) I actually got to the point that I was dreaming I`d forget the baby once he was born, I was so forgetful. And, unlike some of the commentors, I`ve found that it does persist to some point after the baby arrives.

    Does it affect my work (I`m a freelance writer)? No. But there`s another reason I think we should be happy about mommybrain . . . it means we`re focused on our kids. And that would be a good thing, right? After all, we are the ones who will be nurturing and protecting this little person, so it`s a good idea to be thinking about them, even if to the exclusion of everything else!

    Genesis  |  September 18th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  • That’s a really good point, Genesis. We’re supposed to be focused on our kids; if we weren’t, we’d be in real trouble.

    workingonmotherhood  |  September 18th, 2008 at 12:58 pm

  • For me it was what Audrey said about being so preoccupied with worries/thoughts that was causing my mommy brain. What I hated was when some guy said I had the case of the mommybrain when I couldn’t remember something in a meeting…

    Nataly  |  September 19th, 2008 at 6:10 am

  • Yeah, I think it’s one of those things that’s okay so long as we’re saying it about ourselves, but the minute someone else puts that label on us…watch out!

    workingonmotherhood  |  September 19th, 2008 at 11:07 am

  • It was during my first pregnancy that I could no longer remember lists upon lists in my head…I had to start writing them down.

    It was likely due to hormones, and also to the distraction of the dude kicking my cervix ;)

    Angella  |  September 19th, 2008 at 6:10 pm

  • (Standard ‘I am not a parent’ disclaimer!)

    Wouldn’t it make sense, though, biologically, for a woman to have ‘mommybrain’? (Although, that term makes me cringe much like ‘push present’ does) That when women were first having children, they would need to be completely focused on the survival of that child because the dangers were so great? That, in fact, if they were able to focus on other things, the future of the human race might be more in jeopardy?

    I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad about mommybrain at all. Except maybe for the twee term itself!

    Ky Eliza  |  September 23rd, 2008 at 9:09 pm