Baby Brain? Nope. Super Brain!

Baby Brain? Nope. Super Brain!

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I'm a huge fan of the One Bad Mother podcast. Hosts Theresa and Biz are big advocates of taking the judgment out of parenting and instead trying to be supportive of each other. They always make a point of saying "You're doing a great job" to each other and encourage their listeners to extend that message to other parents. When you see a mom dealing with a child's temper tantrum at Target, for example, tell her she's doing a great job. Parenting — and life in general — is difficult enough without dealing with the judgments of the so-called "mommy wars." When we're kind and patient and supportive with each other, things work out better for everyone. 

In an early episode (it was episode 14 if you're interested) of the podcast, Biz and Theresa talk with author Anne Kreamer about what happens to the brain after pregnancy. They discuss how they don't really like any of the terms commonly used to describe the brain shifts that take place with a baby on board. They don't like Mommy Brain, Pregnancy Brain or Baby Brain, all of which have a derogatory edge. They decide to come up with a new way to describe the hormonal, emotional, and chemical shifts. The term they come up with has a much nicer ring: Super Brain. 

"Pregnancy and childbirth actually cause your brain to shrink in size," Kreamer says on the show before noting that it can take up to six months after birth for the brain to go back to its original size.

Theresa points out how absurd it is that "as you're gaining responsibilities and adding more things to your life that you need to be responsible for and take care of and understand, your brain is actually shrinking."

Kreamer goes on to explain that from an evolutionary standpoint, it was never meant to be a mother's role to deal with the demands of a job after childbirth; it was her role to deal with the demands of her child. A child's survival depended on the mother's ability to care for him or her. In our modern world, or course, there is the expectation of parents to return to work as quickly as possible after childbirth and to juggle the roles of the job along with the responsibility of raising a child. 

"It's like going back to work with both hands and your legs tied behind your back," says Kreamer.

The biological responses of parenting are not limited to mothers. Kreamer points out that in men, there is a spike in the nurturing hormone prolactin and a plummet in testosterone. Add in the effects of sleep deprivation (mothers lose an average equivalent of four months of work in lost hours of sleep when they are nursing, Kreamer says) and the result is this: "If 4 million babies on average are born in the States every year, that means that there are 8 million parents at any time in the workplace completely emotionally gaga."

Parenthood changes the brain biologically. These changes start taking place during pregnancy. It's become a big cultural joke to make fun of the way women have a tendency to get emotional or spacey or foggy during pregnancy, but I've found that it's less hilarious when actually living through it. It is a fact that I am not thinking as clearly as a pregnant woman as I did before I was pregnant. One of the very first things I did early in my pregnancy was accidentally shred a check that was sent to me. Since them I've had a series of follies ranging from misplacing my keys to not being able to remember why I walked into a room to straight-up being unable to focus on some of the tasks I used to perform well. Every day when my husband gets home from work, our kitchen is half cleaned. It's like the part of my brain that remembers to finish cleaning the kitchen once I start has just shut down. My whole life has become a series of half-finished errands and projects. I get myself to the store, but then I forget why I'm there. I sit down at my computer to write, but then my brain goes blank. 

One theory I have about this is that parenthood in general and first-time parenthood in particular is so overwhelming that there's absolutely no way I could prepare for it if I was still as focused on all these other aspects of my life. This is the time when we need to be making decisions about the things we need for our baby, the life we'll provide for our baby, the way we'll set up our baby's room, and more. As hard as I try to focus my attention elsewhere (and I realize I'm overstating everything here and of course I have been able to write essays and blog posts and perform tasks and it's not as if my brain has completely stopped working), my focus just isn't there right now.  It is more difficult than ever to pay attention to the topics being discussed at social events or the events going on in the world. 

My brain is being used for such a super-sized task that I agree the only correct way to refer to it right now is Super Brain. I have a Super Brain because, in spite of how distracted and crazy I sometimes feel, I'm still getting some things done. And though the responsibilities we're facing now are nothing compared to what we'll face in a few months, it's true that we are taking on a lot right now. Getting prepared to have a baby has to be one of the most emotionally (not to mention financially) overwhelming things a person can do. We are incredibly excited but we are also like: Whoa. This is a lot.  

I'm giving myself some credit because it IS a lot. The financial cost is a LOT, as any parent can attest. The emotional cost is a lot. We're going to have a whole new person living with us — not just any person, but someone who we want to have the BEST life possible. This baby is going to be our family for the rest of our lives. That is huge. That is monumental. If I get a little overwhelmed thinking about it to the point where I forget about some of my other life responsibilities, I think it's okay. I think it will all balance out somehow.

Whatever you do, don't ask if I have Mommy Brain or Pregnancy Brain or Baby Brian. I have Super Brain, plain and simple. (On an unrelated but possibly slightly related note, I also have a bum knee every since last week's fall. Between my shrinking brain and swollen knee, I'm doing all right for myself.)

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