The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

Baby brain and the working mum

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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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