Distracted. 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?