The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

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Baby brain and the working mum

Baby brain, according to convention, renders us incapable of remembering our own names – never mind anyone else’s – through pregnancy and into early motherhood. Perhaps it does. But from the point of the working mother, the real concern is not – or not only – minor or temporary memory problems. It’s whether motherhood affects your brain long term, and more especially whether it will affect your ability to do your job. Seven months into the return to work, here is my take: it does, but not necessarily in a bad way.

I wasn’t at my best, work-wise, for much of my pregnancy. I wasn’t at my best anything-wise. I suppose some of that could be down to ‘science’: if a recent study is to be believed, I was over-using the ‘emotional’ side of my brain in order to prepare to bond with my child. But for me, any decrease in productivity could be explained just as well by the fact that pregnancy, physically and mentally, was extremely hard work.

Four months of puking violently doesn’t exactly encourage maximum brain function, especially when for two of those months I was must-sleep-now exhausted, no matter how much sleep I actually got. On top of that, there was the last trimester of waddling, aching, and feeling increasingly scared about the physical ordeal ahead (a marathon, according to our antenatal instructor’s inauspicious analogy). And, for all of it, unbelievable excitement and about equal impatience. Think about it. Eight months spent knowing you will meet the love of your life at the end of them. Enough, surely to distract all but the most automated of workers.

Then there were the first few months of motherhood. Months in which my body more or less recovered and my mind started to appreciate what I had taken on. Months in which I fell in love with my daughter again and again. Months in which I barely dared leave her for fear she wouldn’t be there when I returned. I could no more have gone back to work then than I could have run an actual marathon.

Yes, my memory was shot to pieces, but then so was everything else. If I noticed that my top was inside out before I left the house, it was about all I did manage. I forgot what I was going to say, half-way through saying it. I wandered around cafes oblivious to the fact that I was displaying my nursing bra to the world. When I did realise, I didn’t even have the energy to be embarrassed. Baby brain? Well, yes, if baby brain is the understandable by-product of sleeping no more than three hours at a time and learning by experience how to handle something harder – and more emotionally demanding – than any ‘proper job’ that I, at least, have ever done. My own highly scientific study (AKA asking my friends) suggests that a lot of new mothers feel the same.

Fast forward to when A was eight months old and I had got myself to a point – unimaginable in those intense early days – of being able to leave her. For some time, it was difficult to see beyond the all-pervading, brain-numbing problem of sleep-deprivation. Our plan, when we divvied up the parental leave pre-birth, was that our baby would be sleeping through the night by the time I went back to work. Alas, this reckoned without our utter inability to impose any kind of sleep training in the face of her extreme rage. At eight months, she was waking three times a night.

For weeks, I walked, talked, attended meetings, taught, thought, wrote, as if through a heavy fog. I got used to it – the surprising thing, looking back, is that I still did my job adequately – but it was tough. And my ability to function as a motivated, enthusiastic employee, rather than keep up a spectral impression of one, dramatically improved when my daughter dropped to one wake-up a night. (For the record, that’s still the routine at fourteen months – and that’s the last pregnancy in which I’m going to waste time predicting what my baby will do when.)

But beyond the physical drag of tiredness – and the practical point that I can no longer work all hours to get something finished – there is the emotional change. There is the fact of Little A, and all that means to me. I don’t just mean the difficulty of parting from her each day, although that was hard enough at the start. (The first day I called my partner about a dozen times: “Is she OK?” “Yes, she was fine when you last asked ten minutes ago, and she still is.”) I mean the fact that, at some level, she is always on my mind.

Of course, all this affected my focus. Not only in terms of minor memory lapses. (Like some back-to-work friends, I have them but I’m not sure they are anything new: for years, I’ve relied on smart phone alerts to make up for a complete inability to remember times, dates, and places.) I came back to two significant changes, although luckily only one of them appears to be permanent.

Firstly, I found it a lot harder to lose myself in a project. I was as out of practice sitting down and thinking as I had been at running, when I tried, not very successfully, to get back into that. Disconcerting but – again – hardly surprising given not only the cluster of distractions I’ve just listed, but also the fact that for eight-plus months I hadn’t had the luxury of more than half an hour to concentrate. It was reassuring to hear from at least one other mum in the same line of work (and at least one dad) that this was not just me. And, more reassuring still, it has (mostly) come back.

Secondly, perspective. In a way, it’s stating the obvious. This small person, who wasn’t even a cluster of cells two years ago, now matters more to me than anything else in the world. That changes the way I respond to everything else. Of course it was always going to change the amount I have invested, emotionally speaking, in what goes on at work.

Before anyone screams at me for selling out the sisterhood by being that gender-stereotype-confirming cliché – a woman who drops her game at work now she’s a mother – it’s not that I don’t care. In some ways I care more. It’s a matter of what I care about. I’m not detached from whether I do my job well. Of course I still want to do that. Even if I hadn’t wanted to succeed before – which I did – I would now, to set a good example for my daughter. And given that my day-job involves writing about climate change, it matters to me in a whole new way now I have this stake in the next generation.

But in terms of the set-backs, big and small – in terms of office politics, difficult students, rejected papers – I’ll put my hand up to caring less. Of course, it still bothers me at the time, especially negative feedback, and of course I still try to learn from it. But, now I have a child, there’s a new bottom line to any negative development, any bad or disappointing news. “Is it about her? No? Then it can’t be that bad.” And, work-wise, that could actually be a good thing. Motivation but with a newfound ability to shrug off those knocks and annoyances you can’t avoid? If that’s a long term effect of baby brain, it’s one I’m more than happy to live with.


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“A girl next?”

I don’t often feel inclined to slap people, particularly pregnant women, but the other day I came across a worthy candidate. I found myself sitting next to her at a party, watching a small pack of children – among them my two sons and her own boy – charge about in high spirits. I knew her only a little, so followed the usual talking-to-a-pregnant-person etiquette: congratulations: when was she due; how was her pregnancy etc. Then I made my mistake. Did she know whether she was having a boy or a girl? “Oh yes, it is a girl this time,” she said, smugly. “I am so lucky to be having one of each – that is what everyone wants.”
“Oh?” I replied, “Is it? Actually I am completely happy with two boys.” And I got up and walked away before the twitch in my hand became uncontrollable.

Perhaps, to be charitable, she had forgotten that I have two sons (unlikely, given that I had introduced them to her moments earlier). Most likely she just didn’t think. She could have said: “I am so lucky to be having one of each because it is what I have always wanted”, which would have been fine. Instead, in one loaded sentence she inferred that it is inferior to have two sons. She was also ignorantly implying that I, as the second of two daughters, was a disappointment to my parents.

It was the most tactless comment of its kind I have ever experienced, despite the number of people who felt it appropriate, during my second pregnancy, to tell me that I must be “hoping for a girl this time” (Must I? I guess I missed the antenatal class covering that one) and later, when the Spare was born, to speculate that O. and I would now want a third, to “try for a girl.” I was deeply offended by the implication that I should, or even could, be dissatisfied with my second gorgeous, healthy son.

Until I had the Heir and the Spare it had never even occurred to me that, in modern liberal society, there might be considered an “ideal” gender division among your children. If I thought about it at all it was to count myself lucky that I don’t live in an age or culture where my entire pregnancy would be dominated by the pressure to produce a son. However, conversations with other parents have shown me that my experiences are depressingly common. In fact, I got off lightly compared to some. The near-universal theme is that other people (friends, family, a random stranger encountered in the supermarket) assume parents must want one baby of each gender. One mum even had someone buy her a book on “choosing the sex of your baby” when she was planning a second child, because “of course you want to have one of each.”

Mothers of a boy and a girl have been treated to such delightful comments as “you can relax now because you have one of each” and “now that you have a boy and a girl your family is complete” (because parents of same-sex siblings have incomplete families, right?) I know of more than one mum who had people suggest her third pregnancy must be a mistake as she already had one of each.

Turns out there is a further complication: the absolute best way of doing it, apparently, is to have a son followed by a daughter. A good friend has been told that she has “done it right” not only by having one of each but by having her son first. Another friend was assured how “clever” she was to have had a boy and then a girl.

Often the pressure for gender preference comes from the older generation, for whom tact isn’t always a concern. One grandfather, himself father of two girls, said to his pregnant daughter: “if it’s not a girl I’m not interested, I won’t know what to do”, while conversely another dismissed his third in a line of granddaughters as “another bloody girl”. Again, there is often a much-voiced desire to have a “pigeon pair” of grandchildren, even if the parents themselves have no preference. This weight of expectation can be daunting, worrying and downright harmful – I spoke to one mother who believes that pressure from her partner’s parents contributed to her severe postnatal depression as she felt she had “let them down” by having another daughter.

I would have imagined that, for those who have struggled to conceive or carry a baby to term, gender preference seems an unimaginable luxury. But it turns out that it isn’t always negated, particularly among concerned others. One friend, pregnant through IVF after years of disappointment, had no personal preference but her parents-in-law, despite knowing how hard-got this baby was, still insisted on telling her how much they wanted a grandson (which they didn’t get).

There is a prevailing feeling in my social circles that, if you have to have two the same, then having multiple daughters is somehow preferable (never, however, from people who have exclusively sons of their own). Some comments are downright offensive. I know mums whose second or third sons were greeted by “poor you”, “never mind” and “what a shame”. Another reported an acquaintance saying to her “I’m so glad I’ve only got girls, I’d hate to have boys”. Sons, it would seem, are perceived to be harder work. Well guess what? Parenting is hard work, irrespective of whether you have sons or daughters. Boys and girls? Swings and roundabouts.

Probably because we had no real preferences either way, O. and I never found out our baby’s gender during either of my pregnancies. Many people do, however, and say that if you have a strong preference it is helpful to come to terms with the gender of your child as early as possible. One mum confessed that, upon finding out her unborn child was third boy, she subjected her family to “a weekend of hell with me swearing and cussing that I was going to be surrounded by testosterone and penises…” before becoming reconciled and falling instantly in love with him. Indeed, almost everyone I know who was initially disappointed by the results of a prenatal scan claims to have been completely accepting by the time the child was born.

Unsurprisingly, our own childhoods influence our feelings on this topic – the desire to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones. I am so close to my sister that I was with her during her labour, which has definitely made me look favourably on same-sex sibling bonds. (I did secretly used to want an older brother – firstly so he could be like Julian from The Famous Five and later so I could date his friends – but I would never have swapped my sister for him.) Equally, many people who have bad relationships with their brother or sister prefer a different gender balance than the one they endured themselves, in case of history repeating itself. Additionally, what you want before you have children may change according to what you have first: a second-time parent is influenced by what sibling they want for their firstborn.

I believe that a great deal of gender preference comes down to stereotypes. Over and over I hear women say they want girls for the enduring quality of the mother/daughter bond. But there is no reason that a mother and son cannot be equally good friends. I have a strong relationship with my mother, but I don’t in any way feel bereft because I won’t have an identical one with a daughter of my own. Having a girl doesn’t guarantee a close friendship, any more than having a boy means you won’t be looked after in old age. The Spare’s favourite colour is pink and, age three, he enjoys trying to walk in my high heels. I find this amusing and I certainly don’t tell me he can’t because he is a boy, but I am not secretly hoping it means he will be gay (although if he is that is fine) in order to be my “substitute daughter”.

The pregnant woman at the party angered me with her tactlessness, but ultimately it didn’t really matter because I am absolutely thrilled with my boys. I never felt an overwhelming desire or any pressure from my nearest and dearest to have a daughter in preference to, or as well as, a second son and I certainly don’t feel my family to be “incomplete”. No two children are alike, be they boys or girls, so perhaps it would be helpful to focus on a baby as an individual rather than a gender. Ultimately, whatever the parents’ thoughts may be, it is never appropriate for others to voice anything other than enthusiasm for a baby of either gender.