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Some people are bad with faces, other people with names. I’m bad with everything: names and faces, birthdays, doctor’s appointments, my wallet when I’m on the way to the grocery store, the funny parts of stories I’ve told hundreds of times, important historical facts that I went to school for years to learn, whole plotlines and all the character names from novels I read last week, whether I’ve already shampooed when I’m standing in the shower. On one of my first trips to visit my prospective in-laws, I forgot all forms of underwear. On a family trip to Maine that was meant to include a short interlude over the border in Canada, I somehow lost not only my passport but also my driver’s license, requiring a number of calls to the DC DMV and the State Department just to get us home.
At a certain point last year, my memory seemed so bad that I went into a hypochondriac panic about it: What if this were an early symptom of a tumor, or some kind of so far undetected brain damage? Not really wanting to know the answer, I asked my doctor what was wrong with me. My doctor — an austere Polish man with no bedside manner — gave me a stern look and said, “You’re not brain damaged. You’re just a young mother.”
The idea of “mommy brain” or “momnesia” or “pregnancy brain” or even “porridge brain” or “placenta brain” is incredibly pervasive. The online version of What To Expect When You’re Expecting has a section that begins, “Didn’t realize that feeling like a ditz was part of being pregnant? Here’s why you’ve suddenly become an airhead, and what you can do about pregnancy brain.” The Twitter hashtag “mommybrain” is a litany of memory fails:
Mommy brain shows up on Someecard user-generated slogans:
And it appears in some incredible stock art renderings, including one with a giant pregnant belly littered with stickie notes.
Seeing all this feels very much like hearing from my doctor that I wasn’t brain damaged but “just a mother”: validating, sure, but uncomfortable. Would you tell a man who complained of severe memory loss that he was “just a young father,” or explain that a certain condition would make him “feel like a ditz”? Pregnant women and mothers are routinely discriminated against in the workplace, in direct contrast with fathers, who are awarded the “fatherhood bonus” when they procreate: hired more often and paid better after they have children. The notion that mother’s brains somehow get squishier, that they’re “airheads” who can’t find their keys on the way out the door, clearly isn’t helping.
Would you tell a man who complained of severe memory loss that he was “just a young father,” or explain that a certain condition would make him “feel like a ditz”?
Meanwhile, in memes and on mommy blogs, women are often the ones cementing the exact stereotypes that prevent other women from getting hired or promoted: that mothers are scattered, foggy, incompetent. And yet it’s understandable — because I myself feel scattered, foggy, and incompetent a good three-quarters of the time — why this ugly term is so compelling.
Science has long had a contradictory picture on how memory changes for women during and after pregnancy. First, there’s the fact that the majority of women, as many as 80 percent, report experiencing some cognitive impairment, mostly memory-related, during pregnancy. Then there are the actual studies performed on pregnant women and new mothers, which are ambiguous. Some show memory impairments, especially toward the end of pregnancy, when (psychologists theorize) the brain undergoes a process of neural “reprogramming” as it prepares to nurture the new baby. One 2012 study demonstrated a cumulative effect on memory: pregnant women had worse memories the more pregnancies they’d had, and the effect continued three months postpartum. Other studies, however, show no change or very minor changes. Finally, there are tests on pregnant and mother rats, which, at least for the mama rats, show positive changes. Mother rats navigate mazes better (a test of spatial memory) and forage better. One 2008 study pitted three rats — one who had delivered multiple babies, one who had delivered only one, and one non-mother — against each other, chasing a cricket through a maze. The multiple mothers caught the cricket 60 percent of the time; first-time mothers caught it 33 percent. Non-mothers only caught it 7 percent.
The question for researchers has been how to explain these discrepancies. First, given that rat brains are extremely similar to human and that we go through analogous hormonal changes during and after pregnancy, why don’t human studies show us becoming memory champions like the rats? And second, how to explain the gap between how poorly mothers feel like they do on memory tests — and the ambiguous actual results?
University of Toronto psychology post-doc Katherine Tombeau Cost’s dissertation looked at spatial memory in both humans and rats, using an array of different mechanisms including underwater mazes and card-matching games. The mother rats did well, showing the expected improvement over non-mother rats. The humans showed no significant change — possibly, Cost thought, because the foraging tasks that are so crucial for rat mothers just aren’t as important for human mothers. Interestingly, though, although the human mothers didn’t show any impairment in spatial memory, they rated themselves very poorly. “I do think that women feel impaired,” Cost said. “And I don’t think we capture it in the laboratory.”
Women are often the ones cementing the stereotypes: that mothers are scattered, foggy, incompetent. And yet it’s understandable — because I myself feel scattered, foggy, and incompetent a good three-quarters of the time.
The problem may be all the other parts of motherhood that have little to do with what’s going on inside of your brain — and may not show up in traditional experimental conditions. A study by researchers at the University of British Columbia in 2011 performed a battery of memory tests on pregnant women. In all of the tests done in the lab, the women’s memories were no worse than non-pregnant women. In the tests the women took at home, however, their memories were worse. “It appears that pregnant women demonstrate memory deficits in everyday life where they are faced with competing demands, but not in the distraction-free laboratory where their attentional resources may be less challenged,” the researchers concluded.
Cost had to exclude one subject from her research because she brought her child to the lab, but she also noticed some interesting results: The mother who brought her child performed especially poorly on the memory tasks, to the point of not finishing one of them. This aligns nicely with certain, ahem, anecdotal reports of working mothers who manage well from 9 to 5, in the relatively controlled, laboratory-like atmosphere of the office — but then return home to the chaos of their families, and statistically more than their share of the domestic work, and suddenly can’t remember their own middle names. “Maybe there’s impairment in daily life because daily life has got a lot of things going on,” Cost said.
The term “mommy brain” only dates back to the 1960s, Cost said — the very moment white middle-class mothers entered the workplace in large numbers.
Other standard components of modern parenting are also likely to affect cognitive function: Stress affects memory — and this may be a particular issue in America, where relatively few women get substantial maternity leave. (Although the concept of cognitive impairment during pregnancy is older, the term “mommy brain” only dates back to the 1960s, Cost said — the very moment white middle-class mothers entered the workplace in large numbers.) Sleep deprivation can affect memory. Postpartum mental and physical health issues can also have an impact.
One — rather nonscientific — suggestion that “mommy brain” is at least partially a social construct is the emergence of the “daddybrain” hashtag on Twitter. Some of these are apparently posted by women mocking their husbands for being clueless at parenting:
But others seem to be posted by dads, experiencing very similar brainfarts to the women in the #mommybrain feed. There are far fewer of these — on an exponential level: No surprise there, women talk about their inadequacies with far greater frequency than men. And yet they suggest that the struggle is universal:
Like “daddy brain,” “mommy brain” can sound harmless, an easy excuse for minor slip-ups. But the concept in itself rebounds in some subtle ways. “Stereotype threat” is a concept in social psychology describing the risk or tendency of people to succumb to negative stereotypes about their own group: black students performing poorly on the SATs or young girls pretending to be bad at math. A 2010 study showed that non-depressed pregnant women primed with negative messages about “mommy brain” performed worse on cognitive tests and had worse self-reports.
As I’ve found, it can also become a focal point for whatever free-floating anxieties you might have — even if (as is certainly true for me) you’ve had symptoms of “mommy brain” since you were a toddler. “If you read a whole bunch of articles that say you’re going to be scatterbrained and get stupid and then you can’t find your keys — well, maybe you’ve been the kind of person who hasn’t been able to find your keys for years,” said Cost. “But you say, ‘It must be that baby brain!’”
Cost’s main takeaway from her research, she said, is that the ambivalent results of memory testing in humans should actually be cause for celebration, given how much more thinly spread mothers tend to be. “You might feel impaired,” she said. “But we’re doing it all, and we’re doing it as well as when we were doing less.” We haven’t reached rat levels of memory excellence, in other words–or at least not as far as science can yet demonstrate. But at least we are surviving, with reasonable levels of success, and that in itself is a triumph of the #mommybrain.