The Dumb Brilliance of Mom Brain

Having a baby means spring cleaning for your gray matter. But does it enhance creativity in the long run? Research suggests that giving birth causes one of the most dramatic developmental changes in the life of a human brain, that "mom brain" is real and often debilitating, and that birth moms who have their basic needs met during this time not only recover their faculties but emerge from the childbearing years with lifelong enhancements to brain function and bodily health. I hope this is true for me, and I believe it is. I think I'm more efficient, focused, and creative than I was in my 20s. Some of that must naturally come with age. But now, on the other side of caring for a small child, I can look back and see how mom brain--frustrating and frightening as it was--served me and my family and my larger community in mysterious ways.

My daughter is eight years old, and I feel like I am just now beginning to want to reclaim an identity as a person who is more than Somebody's Mom. Pregnancy, early motherhood, and extended breastfeeding consumed me in an awe-inspiring flood of hormones that disintegrated my ego and then gently formed me into the shape of someone else. While pregnancy reminded me of the rapid body changes of puberty, giving birth and caring for a child made me feel like a caterpillar that had sealed itself into its chrysalis--liquefied into a helpless, slimy soup from which I would never return in my previous incarnation.

And the weird thing is, I welcomed it. I wanted to lose myself entirely to motherhood with the same primal urgency that made me crave potato chips and sex and sleep. I didn't have enormous social pressure to stay powerful in my career because I had already made the choice, in my early 20s, to scrap grad school and the pursuit of a full-time, high-pressure career. I had always wanted a family more than anything else in life, but that isn't the only reason I forfeited the rat race. I also wanted a life with space for relaxation, meditation, strong relationships, freedom from toxic stress, hobbies like gardening, and artistic projects.

I had already decided to prioritize the vocations of my own feminine guts and juices above the patriarchal (and patriarchal-feminist) pressures to attain wealth and status first, at the expense of what I desired more than wealth and status: love and family and personal health and creative freedom. I had already done a lot of soul-searching and pair-bonding and self-caring to optimize my mental and physical health. I had already gotten married, bought a house, and feathered a cozy nest.

But nothing can fully prepare a woman for the unpredictable, individualized life-smashing that comes with having a child.

There is a medieval geisha song, supposedly written for an adult male lover, that goes:

you and me
we live inside an egg
me, I am the white
and wrap you round with my body

The feelings of falling into infatuated romantic love and having a baby are not entirely different. To me, these verses remind me of the mysterious, crazy, foggy, deafeningly quiet, timeless-time between going into labor and when I finally began to take my infant out for social visits at about three months of age.

me, I am the white

That line makes me think of the blinding white snow that kept us isolated inside the warm house the winter I gave birth. It makes me think of my pale skin, untanned and drained, against the darker, warmer, hungrier, rapidly fattening body of my newborn. It makes me think of breastmilk--my whole being dissolved into gallons of "white gold," my very bones giving up their strength to it--and it makes me think of my mind and heart, wiped clean of images and words, unable to recall names or places or years or maps or the secondary languages I'd studied with so much energy or the vocabulary words to express myself in native English or why I used to care about the misfortunes of strangers--I'd burn down the whole world for the sake of this wailing, greedy, mindless gremlin sucking out my soul.

me, I am the white makes me think of my sympathies for the anonymous suffering of the world, dormant as a snowy field; and of my passion for fighting political battles, bleached white as a flag of surrender; and of my mind, blank as a fresh sheet of paper--or an eggshell--given as an offering, for the new life I'd borne to color at will.

I was a quiet soup with a singular purpose, to nourish a new life that in turn transformed me.

No more being called a "soft touch" by sweet old ladies who thought I was a little too nice. No more scrambling to rearrange my work schedule and ask others for favors so that I could attend rallies and gather petition signatures. No more saying yes to a heroin junkie living in my basement. No more considering picking up that hitchhiker who resembles Aileen Wuornos. No more stopping to talk to that panhandler who might try to rob or grope or stalk me--again. Nope! My child has gifted me a brand new layer of survival instinct. I'm living for two now.

And somehow, despite backing off from involving myself in other people's problems, I have produced a child who cares deeply about her family, her friends, her school and neighborhood communities, social justice, and stewardship of the natural world--which she shows, often and enthusiastically, in words and deeds. I have come to trust my daughter's own guts and juices, which are a blend of some of mine and some of my ancestors' and some of my husband's and his.

I stand by the lesson I shared in the following post last summer, that:

There is nothing in this world that can substitute, replace, or make up for the loss of, a stable and peaceful childhood. If everyone had one, what a beautiful world we would achieve. What a sin, what a shame, it would be to waste this trying to fit someone else's definition of "having it all."

"Mom brain" reset a lot of my assumptions, habits, and priorities by actually restructuring my brain and changing my DNA forever. And without these dramatic changes, I don't know that I could have learned how to become this good at simply holding space.

Eight years in, here is what I can boast: the family of my dreams, all I've ever wanted and more; my 13th year at one job that doesn't bring me wealth or status but does empower me to live my values; and a new ability to be present for others in a way that doesn't require "showing up" because I am already here. I've made a home here, where I have space in the garage and the basement and the guest room, time to help with immigration paperwork at a moment's notice, a place at the dinner table for a child in need, a reliable schedule of being home when the bus drops off all the kids in the neighborhood, and a homemade frozen casserole to share. Because of this home and this life I have built and defended with healthy boundaries, I have been able to do huge, life-changing favors for other families and friends with minimal effort on my part or disruption to my own life--which makes it a pleasure to be of service when I can.

The hard part of this is still unlearning my childhood Catholic teachings that good deeds only count if they involve a sacrifice that hurts; that penance by self-torment is the way to right wrongs; and that expressions of love and joy for anyone or anything in life besides the One True Religion are gateways to sin and damnation.

Okay, just typing that out feels true to the messages etched deep in my soul and also ridiculous at the same time, and it makes it easier for me to breathe out that childhood shame over loving art, beauty, comfort, healing, and flawed human beings. And it makes me think deeply about what messages I, by living my own hard-won values, am etching deep into my child's soul.

And here is what else I have done since getting pregnant: written a fat, literary historical fantasy, and then researched and almost finished an even-fatter epic historical thriller. Matka Danu Miklagarth is now almost 165,000 words long, and the whole complicated plot and cast of characters are coming together for the final battle. I'm not an unbiased judge of my own fiction, but I feel pretty good about my powers of creativity just a few years after recovering my short-term memory and range of vocabulary.

In fact, I have developed so much faith in the mystical wisdom of mom brains that if you are a mom with your basic needs met (social support, nutrition, mental health, etc.), who has a totally different parenting style than mine; if you have made different choices with your life; if you have done things according to a different timeline; and even if you parent by rules I don't understand; I have mad trust that whoever you are, however you're doing it,

I'll see you on the playground.


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